The Torah describes how Pinchas is rewarded for an act of zealotry; killing an Israelite and a Midianite woman by thrusting his spear through them, as they were together in private.
The killing, to a modern reader, is an obscene act. It is made even more so, because of the overlay of religion, suggesting foreign woman lure Israelite men with guile to betray their people and their God and should therefore be punished.
This is, at its heart, an act of religious fanaticism and Pinchas appears to be rewarded for it.
The Hebrew Bible portrays Elijah as having acted in a zealous way. He says: “I have been very jealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the children of Israel have forsaken Your covenant…” (I Kings 18:10)
This fanaticism on God’s behalf, when people act independently out of misguided concern to protect their religious community, is incredibly troubling.
And the Talmud reflects a certain ambivalence about Pinchas’ conduct. But we are still left with the fanatical act in the Torah. Perhaps we should not read it at all. Or perhaps, as many have suggested, the text serves to caution us as modern, tolerant Jews.
We must read these texts, because we must recognise the capacity for them to be used fanatically, something all religious communities have to be on their guard against.
And we must bolster our interpretative community to ensure that reading does not become reality.
Moreover, it’s high time all religions said proudly to all, and here’s the theological point that I think Elijah really demonstrates, God does not need our zealotry nor does our Judaism (or any faith) need protecting with polemical, ad hominem or violent attacks against those who some may think are betraying it. There is no place for it in our community.
Neil Janes is rabbi at West London Synagogue