On any given weekend, I attend 3 to 4 worship services. I attend a conservative synagogue with my wife on Friday and Saturday. I go to my own Episcopal church on Sunday mornings. Lately, I’ve also been filling in for Saturday night and Sunday night services at other churches on occasion. On any given weekend, I am confronted with quite a few texts, and I’m always fascinated when concepts slip from one context to the other.
In synagogue this week, we had parsha Pinhas. Here is the brief back story on this problematic text. In last week’s parsha (parsha Balak), Balak hires Balaam to curse the Israelites before he attacks them. Balaam is unable to do it because G-d has blessed them. After three tries, he blesses them instead of cursing them, and gives up. We find out later that he was pretty cunning though. He goes back to Balak, the Midianite king, and says, “I can’t curse them, but you can get them to bring a curse on themselves if they break there covenant with G-d. So send some prostitutes down to them.”
The end result is that Zimri, a prince from the tribe of Simeon, takes a “Midianitish” woman into his tent in full view of everyone. The implication is clear. He is going to break the covenant and bring others along with him. So, Aaron’s grandson Pinhas (Phineas) decides he is going to do something about it. A plague has broken out amongst the Simeonites, and Pinhas takes a spear, walks into Zimri’s tent and gruesomely stabs through the both of them while they are in the middle of the deed. Coitus hasta interruptus. The plague is stopped, and Pinhas is approved by God for his actions.
So, Pinhas is approved as a zealot, but the rabbis have to do a lot of theological maneuvering to handle this because we can’t just have people walking around spearing people willy-nilly – especially when they might be doing something intimate. The big question is, when is it okay, or why is it okay for Pinhas to do this?
The martyrdom of John the Baptist was the Gospel text this week, and I’m also finishing off Buber’s Tales of the Hasidm. Between Pinhas, John the Baptist, and the followers of the Baal Shem Tov, it made me start to ponder what we mean when we say that someone is a “religious fanatic”. The term has taken on a very negative connotation, and I think it probably deserves it’s reputation. The problem is, I’m still not sure what it means. Most of the time, I think it means “you are being motivated by religion to do things that I don’t like”.
So, the Dalai Lama and Ghandi? – religious fanatics, but they’re different because they are the good kind. The people who blew up the twin towers? – they are the bad kind. Isaiah and Jesus who were willing to be martyred for their beliefs? – the good kind. Fred Phelps? – he’s the bad kind. Abraham believing that G-d told him to tie up his son and sacrifice him? – well, he’s the good kind, but it’s a good thing that he didn’t do it in the 21st century because then he’d definitely be the bad kind.
So the lesson is, it’s OK to be a religious fanatic, as long as you agree with me. If you agree with me, then I don’t call you a “fanatic”, I say, “Oh, she’s really spiritual.” If I disagree with you, I say, “Oh, he’s a fundamentalist and a fanatic.” I lump some people into the fanatic category, but I discover that it tells me more about myself than about them.
I hate to get all Kierkegaardian at the end of this…wait, I never hate to get all Kierkegaardian. There is a fundamental difference in paradigms that cannot be bridged. Some people believe they have a relationship with a personal G-d. Some people don’t. For those that don’t, people who believe that G-d has revealed G-d’s self to them in some fashion will always seem crazy on some level. The reason that it seems crazy is because it is crazy.
Rabbi Yitzhak of Berditchev, when confronting a learned man who wanted to debate the truth about whether or not G-d reveals himself responded, “My son, the great Torah scholars with whom you debated, wasted their words on you. When you left you only laughed at what they had said. They could not set God and his kingdom on the table before you, and I cannot do this either. But, my son, only think! Perhaps it is true. Perhaps it is true after all!”
So, it’s crazy, but perhaps it is true. Perhaps it is true after all.