The eponymous parsha begins with Gd rewarding Pinhas for killing Zimri and Kozbi at the end of last week’s portion. We would have known Gd approved from its having stopped the plague; this week, we see Pinhas’ reward, a berit shalom, a covenant of peace, and eternal kehunah, priesthood.
A Mishnah, Sanhedrin 81b, groups the execution of a Jew during the act of sexual relations with a non-Jew with two others as ones for which kana’in poge’in bo, zealots are allowed to kill the person, as zealotry. Should the potential kana’i, the person offended by the act, consult a court, they cannot ratify it as a valid response (even though it is—they cannot give it any kind of official status).
Rashi to Sanhedrin tells us this is an halakhah le-Moshe mi-Sinai, a law handed down at Sinai. In his commentary to Balak, Rashi told of a back and forth between Moshe and Pinhas, where he checked with Moshe he remembered the halakhah correctly, and Moshe hinted he did but didn’t quite answer (perhaps because a court is not allowed to tell the kana’i to go ahead and do it).
The rabbis of my youth found such extralegal activity disconcerting. For years, divrei Torah I heard on this parsha assumed G d wanted Pinhas to learn to balance his zealotry with a priest’s more peaceful actions. Gd “had” to reward him, because he did save the people from a plague, but used a reward that would guide him to a less violent path.
Perhaps, except Pinhas’ rule stayed on the books, available to anyone who considered himself a kana’i, who found another Jew’s fornication offensive enough to respond in that way (I leave aside dina de-malkhuta dina, Jews’ obligation to follow the local legal system). Nor is there any clear definition of a kana’i—according to Rashi, it is a worthy person offended on behalf of Gd. A loose definition, heavily reliant on the self-honesty of the person considering this radical course of action. More, the same Mishnah teaches us that if a kohen were to serve in the Temple knowing he was ritually impure, the kohanim would take care of the problem in-house, as it were (think of the end of Angels and Demons), with the young priests beating him to death.
Many of us recoil from the idea, I think, because we know too well the dangers, the possible abuse, of so-called zealots or entrenched forces in the priesthood Gd forbid misusing such powers, hiding crime in the cloak of zealotry. I wrote a novel, Murderer in the Mikdash (the sequel, The Making of the Messiah, 2048, is recently out), where one highly placed kohen was corrupt (not even murderous). Readers were scandalized.
Without ignoring that side of it, the facts are as they are. The fairly detailed system of law in Judaism, with many sins assigned the death penalty, lashes, fines, and other formal modes of discipline, also recognized situations where individuals had the right to take the law into their own hands, to assess a situation and react—violently—in the moment.
Among the many lessons I think it teaches, two seem worth highlighting here: the best of legal systems will be incomplete (like the best of mathematical systems), will need ways to fill holes that cannot rely on more rules, more systems, more procedures. Sometimes, life requires immediate action that cannot be fully predicted or prescribed.
The second is a corollary of the first. Knowing we live in a world where any of us might be called to react to an emergency, we should be preparing. Granted, we may decide we are not kana’im, are not the kinds of zealots offended enough by slights to Gd’s honor to enact the ultimate sanction. Are we ready to see someone else do it, open to the possibility s/he is indeed a proper kana’i, doing what Gd told Moshe at Sinai was reasonable?
If not, it is a hole in our absorption of Judaism, one more to add to our personal lists of places where we still need work.