In this week’s parsha, Pinchas, who zealously killed to defend God’s honor, is not to be prosecuted for his act of murder. While Moses and the other leaders where wringing their hands wondering what they were going to do, Pinchas put an end to the idolatry, killed the couple who had flagrantly brought sexual immorality into the precincts of the Mishkan and ended the plague that had threatened the entire People of Israel.
The Rabbis are quick to note that without the intervention of God, Pinchas would have been guilty of capital murder. Orderly society cannot have zealots running around killing people in their religious fervor. In the Haftara that is read for today when it is NOT the first of the three weeks, Elijah the prophet has the same problem. He was zealous for God and had killed 400 priests of the idol Baal. Queen Jezebel, who worshipped Baal, was not happy and ordered Elijah to be executed. Elijah fled and after some adventures, ended up on Mt Sinai, angry that he had been zealous for God and now everyone wanted to kill him. He too wants the “brit shalom” the same exemption that Pinchas received for his zealotry.
When I was a little boy, our Rabbi had a hard time explaining to our class what Pinchas had done wrong. It was not the pagan sexuality that made my Rabbi uncomfortable; it was trying to explain why Pinchas was not a hero. In the face of all that was happening, only Pinchas took matters into his own hands. Like all the heroes in the movies, Pinchas didn’t wait for permission to do what he did. We children could see him holding his javelin as the two offending people entered the Mishkan and saying to them like Clint Eastwood, “Go ahead, Make my day!”
Today, we live in a world where these kinds of fundamentalist zealots carry bombs and seek to perform acts of mass destruction. Islamic zealots have been known to cut off the hands of thieves, kill women suspected of dishonoring their families and engage in wanton acts of destruction against other infidels and heretics to the faith. Christianity is also full of zealots, who shoot abortion providers to save the lives of unborn children. They defy the law that keeps the Ten Commandments off of the walls of our courtrooms, and those that keep religion out of our public schools. They even protest science textbooks that teach evolution over the Bible’s account of the creation of the world.
These threats from Christian and Muslim zealots, in my opinion, do not pose anywhere near the danger to Judaism as Jewish zealots. I have watched in horror over the last year as Israel has been rocked by scandal after scandal by those who would call themselves the most righteous Jews in the world. Over the years I have spoken out against their version of Judaism that has no place for anyone who is less religious than their community. I have been accused of Orthodox bashing, of not being fair to those who have a more observant lifestyle then I do. Who am I, they ask, to questions the motives of these super observant Jews/ what harm results from their zealotry?
This past year there has been much harm caused by these, self proclaimed “Haredi” Jews. Their actions now threaten the very existence of the State of Israel. Each day brings another outrageous action that undermines Israel’s government and pushes aside basic democratic principles. These Jews have come a long way from throwing stones at those who would drive in their neighborhood on Shabbat. Now they are willing to travel all over Israel, and all over the United States as well, to demand from everyone else, compliance with the way they view the world.
I have more examples of this than I can use in one sermon. Intel, the world’s largest manufacturer of computer chips has a major manufacturing plant in Israel. They have been the foundation of Israel’s computer industry for many years. The Haredim, however, did not like the fact that the plant was open on Shabbat. They massed in the parking lot of the plant and tried to break inside to force the plant to close for Shabbat. They dared the government of Israel to try and stop them.
The city of Jerusalem, to solve its traffic problems, opened a parking lot in the city. The Haredim shut down traffic and the lot for weeks because they thought it should not be open on Shabbat. They created an ugly riot beating up peaceful protesters at Jerusalem’s first Gay Pride parade. They have entered Reform and Masorti congregations in Jerusalem and tried to “kidnap” the Torah scrolls so that women and non-observant men would not handle them. There have been Reform and Conservative synagogues that have been firebombed. So far, the police have no suspects.
In Beersheva, a woman was standing at a bus stop when a Haredi man started staring at her. Pushing himself into her face, he demanded to know what the marks on her arms were from. She backed away, saying it was none of his business, but he kept getting in her face demanding to know what the marks were from. Finally she said they were from the tephillin that she wore for prayer that morning. Spiting obscenities, he began to beat the young woman who was only saved because the bus finally arrived. To this day nobody has been arrested for the assault.
Women praying at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, standing in the women’s section near the stones of the Kotel, put on tallitot and men from the other side of the mechitza began to throw chairs at them. They created such a riot that the police had to remove the women for their own protection.
There are tens of thousands of Russian immigrants to Judaism in Israel who are not Jewish enough for these Haredi leaders. For ten years now they have blocked these Russian Jews from affirming their Judaism and from converting to Judaism to remove whatever question there may be about their past. In the Soviet Union, they were Jewish enough to be persecuted and arrested, but in Israel, they are persecuted because they are not Jewish enough.
In this country, these self proclaimed guardians of the faith have taken control of the Young Israel congregations. They are threatening a synagogue in Syracuse, NY with closing the shul, taking their Torahs and taking control of the congregational assets because they dared to elect a woman to be president of the synagogue. The national leadership of Young Israel, in disregard for Jewish law that permits women some role in Jewish life, will now no longer allow women to serve as president, they can not hold services for women only and they cannot read from the megilla. The Talmud may permit this but these zealots say it is forbidden.
In Hewlett, NY, in the Five Towns area, an orthodox congregation invited, as guest speaker, Sarah Hurwits, a Graduate of Avi Weiss’s seminary in Riverdale, NY and the first orthodox holder of the title “Rabbah” (instead of Rabbi). A Haredi Rabbi wrote in the local secular newspaper that this speech was a disgrace to Judaism and to “real” Torah scholars and that the Jewish community would have something new to cry about this Tisha B’Av. The Rabbi of the congregation that invited Rabbah Hurwits, noted that in a time when Israel was being assaulted physically and politically, this was completely out of line. We cry on Tisha B’Av because sinat hinam, baseless hatred between Jews, brought about the destruction of the Temple, and now we see that same hatred will destroy us again.
This week, there were riots again in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Haredi parents wanted to segregate their children from Sephardic Jews who are not as observant as the Asheknazic Jews. The Israel Supreme Court ruled that this kind of discrimination and segregation is not permitted. The parents then took their children out of school lest they be “corrupted” by the Sephardic children. The Supreme Court ordered the children to go back to school. The parents refused and the court ordered the parents to be arrested. Riots broke out to prevent the arrests. The Haredi called the Israeli police stormtroopers and Nazis for obeying the court and the Haredi claimed that they did not follow Israeli law, but only the Law of God and Torah.
My all time Hutzpa Award goes to the Haredim of Spring Valley, NY who took money from the state of New York to provide affordable public transportation for those who lived in Spring Valley who needed to commute to jobs in New York City. These buses were provided to the town using taxpayer money. The town, run by Satmer Hasidim, then ruled that women could only sit in the back of the bus. The women took the city to court and the courts ruled that public buses could not have segregated seating, not for anyone. The latest headline from just last May said, “Hasidim fear a gentile company could take over the line and might run routes on Saturdays, fail to separate men and women riders, and stop giving discounts to yeshiva students. Can you imagine that? A bus line that takes government funds should be run for the sake of all those who use the bus, and not just the Haredi?
What was the reward of Pinchas for his zealotry? Moses and God make him and his children priests for all time. They don’t get to remain zealots, they have to become part of the establishment and learn to live by the rules. What is Elijah’s reward for his zealotry? Elijah, to the end can’t understand what is wrong with being a zealot, so God forces Elijah into retirement and the duty of ending idolatry is left to his successor, Elisha.
The Haredi claim that it was an act of zealotry for Baruch Goldstein to kill unarmed Muslims in prayer at the Cave of Machpayla. They claim it was an act of zealotry when Amir murdered Yizchak Rabin in Tel Aviv. Until these zealots understand that if they can not be a part of the rule of law and order, then they will suffer arrest and marginalization in the Jewish world. Israel needs to stop coddling these Jews, to stop slapping them on the wrist and letting them go home, to stop treating them like children who are just being children, and insist that they be held responsible for their actions. Their Rabbis must be arrested when they incite violence and those who riot should be held accountable for the damage they do. Until there is equal justice for the zealot and the non zealot, these outrageous acts will only get worse.
Israel does not need this kind of distraction when our very existence is in danger. But with the steady stream of Israelis leaving the state because of Haredim complicating their lives and the refusal of Americans to make Aliyah to Israel because the Haredim want proof that they are Jewish, this kind of zealotry will undermine all that we have hoped a Jewish State would be. It is time, once and for all, for all Jews to denounce this kind of zealotry, and for Israel to insist that they obey the rule of law.
May God protect us all, not only from religious harassment by gentiles, but may God protect us from religious harassment by Jewish zealots as well. May we soon know not only peace for Israel, but peace in Israel as well. As we say…. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.