Fanatics (Political Theology) (Response to Shaul Magid)

(Hans I Collaert [1525/30-1580], Pinchas killing Zimri and Kosbi)

Shaul Magid published a provocative piece in Tikkun about and in defense of the figure of the political zealot, namely Pinchas in the book of Numbers. I wanted to respond here at JPP and Shaul has been kind enough to respond to my response –and not so kind as to compare me with David Brooks, which is very funny. I think the friendly difference between us, on roughly the same side of the left-right divide, comes down to nomianism, antinomianism, and trust, unless of course leftists like Zizek one day get to line up liberals like myself against the wall. As always, Shaul gets the last word, which I post below:

I wanted to know what Hasidism has to do with Walter Benjamin, Slavoj Zizek, and political violence? I think Shaul Magid is right. It has to do with the figure of the “fanatic.”  Shaul torques the biblical hero Pinchas son of Eliezer son of Aaron the Priest into a political  figure for today. A minor character in Jewish textual reception-history, Pinchas plays an outsized role in the Book of Numbers of the Hebrew Bible. The poor Israelites are out in the desert, ensnared by the wiles of the Midianites, who use “their women” to seduce the people against God and towards the worship of Baal Peor. The rebellion against God and Moses is led by one Zimri from the tribe of Shimon who goes in to fornicate with Cozbi, a Midianite princess, as some 24,000 Israelites begin to drop dead at the hand of God. This public spectacle is a classic state of emergency. Pinchas intervenes with overwhelming physical force, killing both Zimri and Cozbi. According to Scripture, this earns he who acts outside the law God’s eternal “covenant of peace.”

For Shaul, the question is how to redeem Pinchas and the zealous act for progressive politics. To do so he turns to a Hasidic text of R. Zvi Elimelekh. But it’s Shaul’s own commentary that interests me more. From Pinchas Shaul wants us to learn with Zizek about the pure, revolutionary, messianic act of violence. Shaul is clearly drawn to antinomian forms of religiosity and politics. They are supposed to sweep away all the rot and corruption that besets the order of things and which liberal moderates, in their moderation, only serve to perpetuate.

It’s a nasty rabbit hole we’re invited to go down. It’s not that I don’t understand the desire to act, to act in a decisive way. I understand also that Shaul means to address the form of what early Buber would have called an “unconditional deed.” What attracts Shaul is the sense that today, we too are in “a state of emergency.” That’s what Zizek tells us. That’s what Agamben tells us. But I’m hearing too many echoes of Carl Schmitt, and the zealous ideology of Yigal Amir, the assassin of Yithak Rabin (z”l). And while Shaul, like Zizek, wants to capture “zealotry” for the left, I don’t think it’s ever possible to surgically separate ends and means. Violence has its own impetus, and it’s hard to stop it.

Fear, I think, is indeed the beginning of wisdom, versus the kinds of act that get people killed, usually other ones, and what I appreciate more than the immoderation of Schmitt or Zizek is the moderation of the rabbis in the Babylonian Talmud. 

In its reading of the Pinhcas story in tractate Sanhedrin (81b-82a), the Bavli makes three interesting claims, explicitly and implicitly.

[1] Pinchas actually acts within the law, not outside the law. The Mishnah, which “of course” was revealed to Moses at Sinai, clearly states, IF ONE STEALS THE KISWAH, OR CURSES BY ENCHANTMENT, OR COHABITS WITH A Gentile WOMAN, HE IS PUNISHED BY ZEALOTS. In the gemara that follows, Zimri shames Moses by challenging his (Moses’) marriage to a Midianite woman.  “At that moment Moses forgot the halachah [concerning intimacy with a heathen woman], and all the people burst into tears; hence it is written, and they were weeping before the door of the tabernacle of the congregation. And it is also written, And Phineas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, saw it. Now, what did he see? — Rab said: He saw what was happening and remembered the halachah, and said to him, ‘O great-uncle! did you not teach us this on thy descent from Mount Sinai: He who cohabits with a heathen woman is punished by zealots?’ He replied. ‘He who reads the letter, let him be the agent [to carry out its instructions].’ So what we learn from the story is not that Pinchas acts outside the law to secure a higher purpose. What we learn is about the violence that law always allows itself in order to be law.

[2] As for Zealots in general, it’s a risky proposition. The rabbis are not going to counsel anyone this way or that way. The zealot may indeed act within the law, but the law also permits the offending party to kill the zealot. R. Hisda said: If the zealot comes to take counsel [whether to punish the transgressors enumeratedin the Mishnah], we do not instruct him to do so. It has been stated likewise: Rabbah b. Bar Hana said in R. Johanan’s name: If he comes to take counsel, we do not instruct him to do so. What is more, had Zimri forsaken his mistress and Phinehas slain him, Phinehas would have been executed on his account; and had Zimri turned upon Phinehas and slain him, he would not have been executed, since Phinehas was a pursuer [seeking to take his life]. This is, indeed, a strange concept of law. It permits the act of the zealot as well as the right of self-defense against the zealot.

[3] As for the covenant of peace, I don’t think it has anything to do with either devotion to God or devotion to social justice. Why, according to the rabbis, do the angels want to kill Pinchas. Because it was “as if” Pinchas took issue with God for God’s unjust punishing of so many Israelites on account of Zimri’s rebellion. “Then he [Phinehas] came and struck them down before the Almighty, saying. ‘Sovereign of the Universe! shall twenty-four thousand perish because of these.’ even as it is written, And those that died in the plague were twenty and four thousand.6 Hence it is written, then stood up Phinehas, and executed judgement [wa-yefallel]7 R. Eleazar said: [wa-yispallel] [he prayed] is not written, but wa-yefallel, [he judged] as though he argued with his maker [on the justice of punishing so many]. Thereupon the ministering angels wished to repulse him. That’s one of the reason why God extends the covenant of peace over Pinchas. Because he was zealous for people in acting against God, he needs the protection of God, to protect him from the angels ready to act on behalf of the honor due to God. This, indeed, is a strange theological concept.

It’s only in the private language game of Slavoy Zizek that Ghandi is more violent than Hitler. Crazy cousin Slavoy says all kinds of stuff, but in more common usage, violence usually refers to more direct forms of harm suffered by persons. A violent act is a violent act, even ones tolerated by God and suffered by 24,000 people. When is it that what “destroy[s] the world, is precisely what is needed to save it”? My own more suspicious thought is that what destroys the world only serves to destroy the world. At least, that’s my own more cynical reason.

What the rabbis do seems more basically right. To take an act that, in the Bible, is outside the law, and to force hermeneutically that act back into the confines of law. I think it’s because they understood that the violence of law and government is always better than the alternative –the violent mayhem of life without law and government (it’s in tractate Avot, I think). What I like about liberalism is its understanding that no system is perfect, that you fix what you can when you can, and that you just have to learn to tolerate low to moderate levels of moral and political corruption. I’d like to think the rabbis might have understood this as well.

Shaul poses gentle fun of the middle way of liberals, “the path of compromise and tolerance.” From the left and the right, the assumption in anti-liberal theory almost always seems to be that liberals are naïve. I’m not sure that’s the case. In the end, I’d also like to think that liberals, like the rabbis, are just more knowing, and more cynical than those who proffer the more radical redemptions whose only yield is catastrophe on top of catastrophe, radicals for whom violence is not a pragmatic fact of life, but a metaphysical principle.


I want to begin by stating that this essay was originally written for inclusion in an Israeli blog “Ha-Okets” and “Erez Ha-Emori” organized by Nitzan Lebovic. I want to thank Nitzan for his translation and helpful suggestions in revising the Hebrew essay for publication there.

Thank you, Zak, for bringing the rabbinic interpretation as an alternative to my Hasidic reading. In some way this enables us to see if, in fact, the rabbinic sages v. the Hasidic masters conform to a liberal/radical split. Both begin with an assumption that should not necessarily be a given for the modern reader: the assumption that Pinhas is a hero and he is rewarded by God for his deed. In a spinozistic spirit we could easily take a more cynical approach and say, “Pinhas was a murderer here and God was a murderer here.” Finished. The fact that they (the rabbis and Hasidic teaching) and we who read them, want to save Pinhas from the dustbin of history says we too hold a traditional notion that the sacrality of scripture goes all the way down, even to the murderous rampage of Pinhas son of Eliezer, son of Aaron the priest. Here we are both traditionalists, liberal and radical, even against our will.

On Zak’s reading, the rabbis do what good liberals do; they take a bad situation and a corrupt system and try to make it better within the confines of the system as it is (sounds scarily like David Brooks). Pinhas committed an act of murder (he not only killed Zimri, who may have been deserving of death, but Kozbi, who at least halakahically was not). The question is: Was it justified? In the rabbinic imagination, this question is even more pertinent because the rabbis have Pinhas asking Moses to act against Zimri and Moses refusing. The rabbis do what they do best; they exercise their adept form of mental gymnastics. Was it justified according to the law? What if Zimri fought back? Did Zimri get the proper warning? If he had forsaken Kosbi, Pinhas would have been accountable (we can’t know because Pinhas apparently didn’t give Zimri the opportunity). In short, they take the story into the Beit Midrash and when it comes out it is less a question of an inexcusable murderous act as much as a problematic situation where Pinhas acted, perhaps prematurely, but not in transgression of the law. An act of egregious violence becomes simply a matter for legal reasoning.

In terms of the reward, the rabbis create for us a discrepancy in heaven between God and the angels and Pinhas needs protection from the angels who would come to destroy him. God protects the murderer (who may or may not have been justified) from other murderers (the angels). Thank you, God.

One has to give it to the rabbis; they really know how to get out of a fix. But R. Zvi Elimelekh, who surely knows the rabbinic interpretation, will have none of it. Why not? This is a serious question for students of Hasidism and Kabbalah. Why does the mystical tradition often  reject the rabbinic solution to a biblical dilemma? There are, of course, many reasons. But here, perhaps, it is because R. Zvi Elimelekh wants something different, can we say he doesn’t want the “liberal” solution, he wants to explore the parameters of radicalism to see whether he can find a place for  true radicalism in a  story that screams for justification, even in light of the rabbinic reading that clips Pinhas’s radical wings. The rabbis link the redemption of the zealot through legal justification (e.g. Zimri deserved to die). R. Zvi Elimelekh asks if the zealot can be justified even if he acts “outside the law.” That is precisely where the rabbis don’t want to go which may be  why R. Zvi Elimelekh pushes the rabbinic reading to the side, as if to say, “yeah, yeah….but…”. And here we come to Zizek, Agamben and, yes, frighteningly, even to Schmidt. But this also brings us to some of the radical Hasidic thinkers who tantalize us with their dalliance in the antinomian even as they seem to live nomian lives.

So R. Zvi Elimelekh asks: Can there be a zealot who is so pure because he abandons everything, who embodies a kind of Kierkegaardain “infinite resignation,” that he or she can fulfill divine will outside the law, precisely outside the law. That is, the zealot sins, except for the zealot it is no longer a sin because he has abandoned any hope or desire for reward? In other words, is R. Zvi Elimelekh asking, “How is Pinhas redeemed if that rabbis are wrong?”

Here I see an interesting corrective in R. Zv Elimelekh’s rendering of the holy zealot in that he basically disqualifies any characterization of holiness for all those who claim to be zealots, Hamas terrorists, settlers bandits, 9/11 perpetrators etc. As Franz Rosenzweig once said to Hermann Cohen (and I paraphrase) “All messiahs are false messiahs except for the last one.” In order to disqualify all false zealots, we need a picture of the true zealot.

In terms of “what destroys the world is precisely what is needed to save it,” this is simply the coincidencia oppositorium of most mystical traditions, the paradox of opposites that are the same. It is the foundation of kabbalistic teaching that Hasidism inherits, it is the mystical rendering of “sinning for the sake of heaven (averah lishma)” or “redemption through sin (ha-mitzvah ha bah be-averah).” The rabbis want to fix the world by making what already is, better, The mystics wants to “sweep away the corruption” (as you describe Zizek) by making everything into its opposite (to show that in the end, it is both different and the same). I prefer a little of both. But good people have been arguing over that for millennia.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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1 Response to Fanatics (Political Theology) (Response to Shaul Magid)

  1. Jenny Caplan says:

    A couple of my favorite scholars hashing is out over the parsha for the first public dvar torah I ever gave. Well played, Thursday. Well played indeed.

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