Friday, June 28, 2013

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Pinkhas 5773—G”d’s Justice, G”d’s Responsibility

I oppose the death penalty. With all my heart and soul. With every ounce of passion. With all my intellectual and philosophical skills. So, dear Pinkhas, why’d you have to go and screw things up?

Your zealous action saved the lives of many people (as to which people, we may never know. As a bit of a sidebar here, I must point out that Pinkhas’ zealous act left us without an answer to a potential dispute between G”d and Moses. And it left us with a very important unanswered question. Who is responsible  and must give up their lives for the sins of Israel? is it Israel’s leaders, or, as Moses appears to suggest, is it each individual who sinned whose life is forfeit? Go back and look at the end of the last parasha. Chapter 25 vv1-5. Even more troubling about the idea of G”d asking for it to be Israel’s leaders, individually guilty or not, to forfeit their lives for the Israelites’ sexual depravity, is how that sets us up for, you know who, that carpenter guy from Nazareth. It’s not that big a leap from asking leaders to sacrifice for the sins of their people to the sacrifice that is at the heart of the Christian narrative. But I digress.)

Pinkhas kills one Israelite and one Moabite. This is enough, it seems, to assuage G”d’s anger and G”d decides to not kill any more Israelites for their whoring with the women of Moab.This time, at least. What is this? The “Hunger Games?”

I’ve not yet read any of the “Hunger Games” books and only last week watched the movie (though I was familiar with the basic premise.) I was motivated to actually watch the movie because just a few weeks ago I was privileged to hear a 13-year-old weave the story of the Hunger Games into her d’var Torah for Korakh. As a salute to her genius, I invoke the same connection herein. Thanks, Abigail.

As tribute for G”d’s mercy at not destroying the sinful Israelites and forgiving their sinfulness for whoring with the Midianites, G”d accepts the death of Zimri and Cozbi. (Interesting to note that for their sins, Nadav and Avihu were held personally and directly accountable. Was G”d having second thoughts here? Kill off too many priests and there won’t be any left. (Is that part of G”d’s motivation for rewarding Pinkhas by declaring his lineage will forever be muckety-muck priests? Is that a safety net just in case G”d decides to off more priests for the sins of the Israelites that are bound to keep happening?)

So back to the death penalty. Pinkhas’ reward for his actions would seem to indicate that humankind has a role to play in meting out justice through death to forestall G”d having to do the same to possibly more people. Yuck. How abhorrent.

Fortunately for Pinkhas, his administering of capital punishment fit much of the later established criteria. The deed of Zimri and Cozbi was clearly witnessed. While it’s not explicitly clear that Zimri and Cozbi were warned of the consequences of their actions, it is not unreasonable to assume, given what has taken place in the narrative, that they were keenly aware that Israelites and Midianites getting it on was verboten and had unleashed G”d’s wrath upon the people.

Hail Pinkhas, the Hiroshima and Nagasaki nuclear bombs of the Torah. (well, that was perhaps S’dom and Gomorrah?) We’ve all heard the justifications. Dropping the bombs on Japan saved countless American lives that might have died if we had proceeded to invade Japan. That’s a lot of acceptable collateral damage.

Can we truly apply this argument to the state killing a murderer? Yes, the underlying principal is the lex talionis (eye for eye, life for life) but advocates of the death penalty frequently argue that this may be saving lives of future potential victims. (Our government is certainly using that argument in the way it goes after terrorists.)

Moses, it seems, was not opposed to capital punishment, but he did seem a little hesitant to apply the punishment to the leaders of the people rather than to each individual who had sinned.

Surely you do see what madness lies in the path of allowing leaders to be sacrificed for the sins of their people? Think Meir Kahane’s crazy zealots. (I’m sorry, I just will NOT refer him as rabbi.) Think Yigal Amir.

On the other hand (and, being the gadfly I am, you knew that was coming) making leaders responsible for the behavior of their people could have its beneficial side as well. You want absolute power? Then accept absolute responsibility, too.

There is human justice, and there is G”d’s justice. I, for one, would like to keep them wholly separate. Pinkhas, unfortunately, provides a linkage between them. As a result, far too many humans have assumed they were qualified to be zealots, and slay sinners.

As if Pinkhas hadn’t messed things up enough, G”d has to weigh in. (G”d never seems to learn when to refrain from putting in an oar.) G”d tells Moses to tell the people: go and kill the Midianites, for they have tricked you. Wait just a darn minute here. If G”d knew the Israelites had been tricked by the Midianites, why was G”d so angry with the Israelites in the first place? So which is it. G”d? Did the Israelites willingly go a-whoring with the Midianites, or were they tricked into disobeying Your rules by them? Does this not matter in Your system of justice? Where’s Your mercy? Your sympathy?  Was all this an elaborate game to come us with a justification to have the Israelites go after the Midianites? We’ll never know. Pinkhas messed it all up for us. but sure gave You an easy out.

In the Hunger Games, the heroine and her partners had to do a few not so nice things, but, in the end, they were rewarded, albeit reluctantly by the powers that be, for showing the best attributes of human beings, and for daring to challenge a system that took sacrificial death to such a level of depravity. I cannot picture Katniss Everdeen zealously slaying a Zimri and Cozbi under any circumstances.

The Hunger games portrays a society, and in particular, a depraved spectacle, in which the rules are arbitrary and subject to random changes. Reviewers of the book likened this to the culture in which adolescents in junior high and high school must function. I’d like to suggest that it may also be similar to the environment of the Torah, and G”d’s capriciousness. I’ll kill Nadav and Avihu, but let Pinkhas do the dirty work in this other situation. I’ll get angry at the Israelites for whoring with the Midianites, but later tell the Israelites to go and kill the Midianites because they were tricked by them. Is this all that different from how the rules were changed in “Hunger Games?”

Death penalty. That is where I started, right? So how do I get back there? Through another detour. It’s end of the fiscal year pledge time on NPR stations. They always try to play really interesting stuff during these drives. While driving last weekend, I heard a classic NPR story from years ago narrated by a retired Texas prison Warden describing the effect that executing prisoners had upon him. I was in tears by the end.  Then just two days ago, an interview appeared in the wire services with the warden in Texas who has overseen that last 140 of Texas’ 500 executions! To him, it was just a job. No emotional attachment at all. Just watching “a guy go to sleep.” I contrasted this with the other warden’s concern that he was telling prisoners it would be painless when he knew it wasn’t. Which one of these wardens would be Pinkhas?

Do we know what motivated Pinkhas? Was it just zealousness? (Was he perhaps guilty of consorting with the Midianite women and trying to cover his guilt and atone for his deeds? Will we ever know?) Was he a willing executioner? It would appear so. Boy would I like to hear NPR’s interview with him.

Pinkhas did provide a convenient way for G”d to avoid having to wipe out yet more of his chosen people. Maybe G”d was finally understanding the negative implications of that, and not just because of the potential negative PR among the Egyptians and other nations. So perhaps G”d was looking for a way to avoid imposing the death penalty? There’s something onto which I can hang some hope. On the other hand, G”d used a human being as a substitute executioner. I don’t know about you, but I’m willing to stand up to G”d an say no more will we do Your dirty work for you. The rabbis struggled with it so much they practically reversed all Your opinions on the matter of the death penalty. I’m taking it a step further. Your creations will no longer be willing partners in a system of sanctioned murder by the state. You want justice to Your standards that include the murder of Your very own creations, You make it happen. Or You could be smart and take the high road on this one and admit that maybe the rabbis were right. (Wow, I am actually praising the rabbis on this one. Neis gadol.) C’mon G”d. The ball is in Your court.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2013 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other Musings on this Parasha:

Pinkhas 5772 - Not Such a Shining Moment
Pinkhas 5771 - Wake Up and Smell the Coffee
Pinkhas 5770 - Thanking Those Who Didn't Make It
Pinkhas 5769-Why is This Rebuke Different From All Other Rebukes?
Pinkhas 5768 - Still Zealous After all These Years
Pinhas 5766-Let's Give Moshe a Hand
Pinkhas 5765-Kol D'mamah Dakah
Pinchas 5762 -- I Still Get Zealous
Pinchas 5764/5760-It Just Is!

1 comment:

JZo said...

Once again, very thought provoking. Thank you!

I learned that there are only two categories of circumstances under current Jewish Law where it is permissible to kill another human being:

1) A person is under a presumed duty to defend and preserve one's own life and immediate interests; thus you are allowed to defend also your lives of your family members, and the viability of your Jewish community from attack from without, by anyone. You may kill if your life is threatened by another who is an enemy in time of war or an attack against your home or your city or country (of course this didn't exist at the time the laws were compiled as Halakha) as in a "terrorist attack", and

2) it is permissible to kill a fellow Jew if that Jew is about to commit, or is in the process of committing treachery against his Jewish community, a treason that would undermine, threaten, jeopardize and endanger the survival of the community as a whole.

This was learned while taking a course in Jewish Law (in comparison to Islamic Law and to U.S. Law, seen through the prism of multiple contentious legal issues) at Hebrew Univ., Mt. Scopus. It's not only possible but likely that I am not remembering this accurately in its entirety, as it was 17 years ago, so I would be pleased if someone would correct me where I have forgotten or may have gotten it wrong... or even, perhaps, to acknowledge that I remembered this correctly!

In weighing these instances against their source material, including the parasha under discussion and others that also deal with retributive death, vigilante killings and death punishment from the One-On-High, the various killings we encounter in the Torah show a grand moral metamorphosis in death penalty approach. I think you've nailed it in your musings this week.

We've learned initially that we are our brother's keeper, and after that, for punishment, it was all over the map. Jacob rightfully (at the time) feared for his life at the hand of Esau, because of Jacob's taking for himself (stealing, for a bowl of red pottage) the right to the birthright, compiled by further trickery by hairy vestment to receive the blind Isaac's blessing. What older, entitled son wouldn't be mad enough to kill? Jacob had fences to mend, as he knew he and his sons had miles to go.

Aaron's sons handled G"d's fire glibly and got swallowed up. It was a Man to G"d matter. The later cases are about man to man matters. Death for crimes against "G"d" remain G"d's job apparently. There's another religion born in the desert that relegates the death squad job to willing zealots, condoned by approving mullas. I'm so glad Judaism clearly excluded that genre of man-meted-out punishment.