Pinchas and the Complexity of Moral Relativism

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Elie Lerea

The end of Parashat Balak leaves its audience in high suspense. As the scene stands at the end of Balak, Pinchas has zealously killed an “איש ישראל” (Zimri) and Midianite princess (Kozbi), thereby ending the epidemic plaguing Israel. This seems to conclude the Parasha in a place of peace and tranquility for the nation as a whole. But what will Pinchas’ fate be? Will he be treated as savior or murderer? How should the people evaluate his willingness to play the vigilante when Mosheh Rabbeinu, representative of G-d’s law, seemed paralyzed? Indeed, our discomfort is enhanced and validated by the decision to end Parashat Balak just before we find out G-d’s reaction to Pinchas’ actions. This decision leaves us wondering about the moral validity of Pinchas’ decision until next week’s reading (which is, of course, previewed at Shabbat Minchah, and on Monday and Thursday), and waiting for G-d’s response to mark him down one way or the other. Is Pinchas’ zealous decision to kill justified by its anticipated and actual success at preventing further death on the part of the people?

To properly analyze this moral question, we must first make explicit several background conditions. First, we are assuming that Zimri and Kozbi have acted wrongly and deserve punishment. Second, we are assuming that Pinchas acted with the intent of ending the epidemic. Only with these two conditional assumptions can the moral question of Pinchas’ ends justifying his means even get off the ground.

In other words: the killing of innocent people toward no worthwhile end cannot be morally justified. Utilitarians might argue, however, that the murder of innocent people toward an end of saving the lives of a greater number of people is morally justified. Others might claim that the killing of people committing a great sin in public can be justified, even with no further utilitarian end. Pinchas has both of these justifications, and there is thus all the more room to argue in favor of his actions. And yet, one cannot discount the traumatic experience of an immediate public murder, which seems to still play such an important role in the moral calculus at stake.

The opening verses of Parashat Pinchas seem to prove a clear answer to our moral quandary. Reacting to Pinchas’ actions, G-d tells Mosheh, “Pinchas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, hath turned My wrath away from the children of Israel, in that he was very jealous for My sake among them, so that I consumed not the children of Israel in My jealousy. Wherefore say: Behold, I give unto him My covenant of peace. And it shall be unto him, and to his seed after him, the covenant of an everlasting priesthood; because he was jealous for his G-d, and made atonement for the children of Israel” (Numbers 25:11-13). To sum up: Pinchas is justified in his actions, and therefore receives the covenants of peace and priesthood.

The “מי השלוח,” also known as the Izhbitzer, cannot accept so simple an answer to such a morally complex situation. Instead, he reevaluates the circumstances of the case. In doing so, he makes a broad point about human sin while solving, in his own unique way, the misfit between G-d’s uncritical endorsement and Pinchas’ morally complex actions.

In reevaluating the circumstances of Zimri’s actions, the Izhbitzer writes:

׳׳מי שמרחק עצמו מן היצר הרע ושומר עצמו מן העבירה בכל כחו עד שאין ביכלתו לשמור עצמו יותר מזה, ואז, כשיתגבר יצרו עליו ועושה מעשה אז הוא בודאי רצון הש׳׳י, וכענין יהודא ותמר, ואיהי בת זוגו ממש, וזהו הענין היה גם כאן, כי זמרי היה באמת שומר עצמו מכל התאוות הרעות, ועתה עלתה בדעתו שהיא בת זוגו, מאחר שאין בכחו לסלק את עצמו מזה המעשה…׳׳

When someone distances themselves from their evil inclination and protects himself from sinning with all his strength, to the point that he has no ability to guard himself more than this, and then, if the inclination overpowers him to the point that he acts (sexually), it must certainly be the Will of the Blessed G-d, as in the matter of Yehuda and Tamar, and she truly is his actual preordained partner. So too here – Zimri did, in truth, protect himself from any evil lusts, but now he came to think that she (Kozbi) was his preordained partner, since he was unable to remove himself from engaging in the act…

For the Izhbitzer, Zimri genuinely and reasonably believed himself to be acting in accordance with G-d’s will. Meanwhile, regarding Pinchas, the Izhbitzer wrties:

׳׳ופנחס אמר להיפך שעדיין יש בכחו לסלק עצמו מזה… כי גם על פנחס היה מקום לבעה׳׳ד לחלוק שמצוי בו מדה הנראה לעיניים שהוא כעס כמו שבאמת טענו עליו זאת, והיה הדין בזה שודא דדיינא…׳׳

but Pinchas said to the contrary that he (Zimri) had the strength to remove himself from this act… and also regarding Pinchas a litigant might claim that there was found in him a characteristic that appeared to the eye like anger, as in fact the people claimed against him. Therefore, the judgement between them comes down to a judge’s discretionary evaluation

The Chassidic master thus undoes the text’s seeming moral clarity and turns this case into one of ambiguity and chance. Zimri is no longer an obvious sinner – he genuinely believed that Kozbi was his Divinely ordained partner. Moreover, Pinchas was not necessarily acting out of a clear moral goal, but he may have been simply channeling his own anger at what he perceived to be a problematic act. As such, he may be imposing his own sense of the possible on Zimri.

Thinking about the Pinchas story as one of relative morality allows for an exploration of what it might mean when two acts that are fundamentally justified on their own terms come into conflict with each other. This relative tension, the Izhbitzer claims, is not one that is easily solved by any sort of rational, moral argument. Instead, G-d leaves the decision up to a שודא דדיינא. This Halachic concept, roughly translated as “the judge’s evaluation,” comes into play when a monetary legal case finds itself in a place of little to no deciding evidence one way or the other. The Rashbam contends that in such a case, it is up to the judge to trust their somewhat non-rational intuition to determine the legal outcome. With this backdrop applied to the story of Pinchas, the resultant image is no longer one of exclusive moral high ground on the part of Pinchas, but rather one that is filled with ethical tension with no rational justification one way or the other.

Whether or not this tension can actually be felt from the text itself, the Izhbitzer is no doubt playing out an anxiety that is felt by readers. Through his reframing, he is able to tell a story that highlights the complexity of moral conflict and makes the resonant claim that there might not ever be a real way to come to a definitive way of deciding between multiple conflicting values. Instead, the Izhbitzer articulates moral decision making through the lens of שודא דדיינא and leaves room for the possibility of an ethical picture that constantly carries opposing values in the same bag, never discounting the other’s existence and always competing and being rebalanced on a case by case basis.

שבת שלום.

Elie Lerea (SBM 2016) just graduated Cooper Union and is heading to Maaleh Gilboa for the coming year for intensive kollel study.
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