Saturday 27th July 2019 24th Tamuz 5779


Numbers 25:10-29:40; 1 Kings 18:46-19:21; John 2:13-25

Karen Armstrong, the scholar of religion and popular author of such works as The History of God, relates that wherever she travels, she is often confronted by someone—a taxi driver, an Oxford academic, an American psychiatrist—who confidently expresses the view that “religion has caused more violence and wars than anything else.” This is quite a remarkable statement given that in the last century alone, tens of millions of people have been killed in two world wars, the communist purges in the Soviet Union and its satellites, and the Cambodian killing fields of the Khmer Rouge, none of which were caused by religious motivations.

This is not to say, of course, that religion has failed to play a significant role throughout history in the instigation of wars or the perpetration of individual acts of violence. History is replete with such examples from the Crusades, to the massacre at Hebron by Baruch Goldstein, to the killing and maiming of abortion providers by fundamentalist Christians, to acts of terror committed in the name of Islam.

Those of us who take religious life seriously and who see its fundamental values expressed in concepts of love, justice, and human dignity cannot help but feel both disgusted and defensive about this history of wars and violent acts undertaken in the name of religious conviction even if our secular friends and neighbors tend to impose disproportionate blame on religion for the world’s woes.

This week’s Torah portion, Pinchas, frames like no other parashah the problem of biblical religion’s relationship to violence, particularly zealotry and vigilantism. Last week we read the story of Pinchas, the grandson of Aaron, who saw an Israelite man and a Midianite woman publicly having sex in an alcove (kubah) near or in the Tabernacle. Without warning or any judicial proceedings, Pinchas grabbed a spear and thrust it through them both in a violent parody of the sexual act itself (the spear ended in the woman’s kubah, which may refer either to her belly or her sexual part). That parashah ended with a plague being lifted, but no definitive word about how God or Moses viewed this act of vigilantism (Num. 25:6–9).