By Eric H. Yoffie
The final nine verses of Parashat Balak, the second parashah in this week's double portion, tell the story of Zimri, who brings a Midianite woman into the Israelite camp for the purpose of having sexual relations with her.
Phinehas, a grandson of Aaron, promptly stabs both Zimri and the woman to death. (Numbers 25:6-8) In the following portion, Parashat Pinchas, we are told that Phinehas is rewarded by God with the gift of the hereditary priesthood. (Numbers 25:10-13)
An extensive midrashic literature has developed around this story. Some commentators justify what Phinehas did. They point out that Zimri was involved not only in a flagrant act of sexual immorality in the public square but probably in some form of cultic orgy as well. Such sinful behavior could undo all that Moses and Aaron had worked to accomplish since the Exodus--to build into the communal lives of these former slaves a commitment to the holy. Furthermore, Phinehas's action was motivated by his passion for God and not by selfishness.
Those who condemn Phinehas as a zealot and a killer point out that he ignored legal process; he did not warn the couple of the consequences of their actions; he made no attempt to separate them; he had not been threatened personally in any way; and although he was a witness to the crime, which would normally disqualify him from taking action, he nonetheless appointed himself judge and executioner.
We will not resolve this conflict, but it is important to ask: What is this story really about? The answer: It is about passion for God, and, as the two strands of midrash suggest, the conflicting feelings we have about such passion.
Judaism has always consisted of an uneasy balance between the contemplative and the ecstatic. On the one hand, we study text, which requires objective intelligence and intellectual power. On the other hand, we not only study, we also pray. And when we pray, we sing before God, we pulsate with emotion, and we are filled with exuberance and ecstasy.
If we have a problem today, it is not with the text: We know how to study the text. Our problem is with the passion. Far too many of us have forgotten how to fill the deficit of ecstasy in our lives. We no longer remember how to feel spiritual fervor and passion for God.
Part of the reason is that we are hopelessly modern. Our world discourages behavior that takes us out of ourselves. But in addition, we fear passion for God because--as we see in this story--it so often turns into zealotry. A zealot is someone who detests doubt, fears complexity, and consecrates violence. The story of Phinehas shows us that there is a thin line between a passion for God and murderous zealotry.
But that is precisely our dilemma because passion for God is something we cannot do without. If our Judaism is overly bookish and is unable to express the deep yearnings of our soul for God, then it is a Judaism that will ultimately whither. If our Judaism lacks true spiritual fervor, then our young people will turn elsewhere.
Thus the problem that our portion poses is the following: Can we be truly passionate for God without becoming a zealot? Can we be resolute for the sake of a Judaism that is less than absolute? Can we be certain in our Jewish commitments but not about everything? Can we have a progressive Jewish vision that encourages an all-encompassing passion for God and Jewish life?
The future of progressive Judaism rests on our ability to say "yes" to these questions.
Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie is the president of the UAHC.