Writing a ‘thought for the week’ for Liberal Judaism’s e-bulletin, based on the weekly Torah portion, prompts some questions: what are we doing as Liberal Jews when we read the Torah? Why do we continue to link our lives today to the Torah reading lectionary established by the Sages 1500 years ago?

Perhaps one obvious answer might be: the Torah is our inheritance as much as it is the inheritance of other Jews and other Jewish denominations – and so we look to it, and follow the annual cycle, as we try to make sense of our lives and of our tasks as Liberal Jews today.

Sounds great in theory – but what do we do when we read a portion that includes passages that seem to conflict with everything that Liberal Judaism stands for? Of course, one approach is to ignore those passages. So, this week, when we read Pinchas, which spans Numbers 25:10 to 30:1, I could choose to highlight the story of the daughters of Tz’lophchad, who petitioned Moses to change the law of inheritance, when their father died without having any sons (Numbers 27:1-11), and/or, the account of the ordination of Joshua as Moses’ successor, which follows (27:12-23). Given that I am a feminist, who has challenged Jewish teaching to respond to the needs and experiences of Jewish women, and also that I am celebrating the 25th anniversary of my ordination (9 July 1989), focusing on these narratives seems an excellent option.

However, I think that we might learn a good deal more that is relevant for our engagement as Liberal Jews from the aspects of the portion that are less amenable to Liberal Judaism’s liberal and progressive frame of reference. So, here goes…

Pinchas opens with the Eternal One rewarding ‘Pinchas, the son of Elazar, the son of Aaron the priest’, for ‘turning away’ God’s anger from the Israelites and acting ‘zealously’ on behalf of God (Numbers 25:10-11). What did Pinchas do? At the end of last week’s parashah, Balak, we read (Numbers 25:1-19) that while the Israelites were in Shittim, the people began to consort sexually with ‘the daughters of Moab’ and worship their gods. In response, ‘the anger of the Eternal One was kindled against Israel’ and God told Moses to hang the chieftains of the Israelites and instructed the judges to kill all those who had engaged in pagan rites. Then, while the people were weeping, one Israelite brought a Midianite woman to his brethren in full view of Moses and the congregation. When Pinchas saw this he was so incensed that he followed the man into the bed-chamber with a spear and killed them both. As a result, the text tells us that ‘the plague against the Israelites was halted (25:8).’

So, this is how Pinchas, the grandson of the High Priest, demonstrated his religious zeal: not only by doing God’s work – but by taking the zealous initiative. And Pinchas was rewarded for his actions:  We read in this week’s parashah (Numbers 25: 12-13): ‘Therefore say: Behold, I give to him My Covenant of Peace; / and it shall be to him and his descendants, the Covenant of an everlasting Priesthood; because he was zealous for his God and made atonement for the Israelites.’ God’s ‘Covenant of Peace’? The ‘Covenant of an everlasting perpetual Priesthood’?  Is that a fitting response to Pinchas’ zealous act of slaughter?

Maybe: Perhaps the reward served to contain God’s faithful servant’s zealotry?  After all, when there’s a zealot on the loose, who knows where he might strike next… Or, perhaps, the object was self-restraint: the Eternal One’s way of curbing the ‘wrath of God’?  Maybe the whole point of the elaborate system of worship presided over by the priests was to channel religious zeal and keep it under control? If we read the text from this perspective, God’s reward of Pinchas marks a new departure: Having witnessed how God’s rage acts as an incitement to Pinchas, after a series of Divine outbursts related in tale after tale in the Book of Numbers, perhaps God decided, ‘Enough is enough: My Divine anger is dangerous and must be contained before other zealots follow Pinchas’ example.’ Hence: the ‘Covenant of Peace’; the ‘Covenant of a perpetual Priesthood.’

If we follow this reading of the text, the story of Pinchas becomes a ‘Cautionary Tale’ and a lesson in the need to control religious zeal.

Like all zealots, Pinchas knew he was right. Nowadays, many people are alienated from religion by similar demonstrations of zealotry. Indeed, the list of religious militant outfits in the world today willing to kill in the name of God is very long. But the problem with zealotry is not expressed solely by the extremes that some zealots will go to; it begins with the assertion of an absolute singular rightness. Atheists can be guilty of this too – and so can Liberal Jews.

Liberal Judaism ceases to be ‘liberal’ when it asserts that we alone have the right form of Judaism and other Jews are wrong. By Definition, a ‘liberal’ perspective is one that acknowledges pluralism – a plurality of ways of making sense of the world and of living our lives. Of course, pluralism is a concept that only pluralists understand! Helping us to acknowledge the zealot that is in all of us – including God – this week’s Torah portion offers a way of containing religious zeal safely by channelling its reckless ardour into a regulated system of worship: sacrifice in Temple times – which is how the portion, concludes (Numbers chapters 28-29); study, prayer and good deeds, as taught by the rabbis. In addition, through the example of the petition brought to Moses by the daughters of Tz’lophchad, parashat Pinchas empowers us to change the rules in response to changing needs and circumstances, and so provides a model of religious engagement rooted in responsible action and responsive to the challenges we face today.