A few months ago, for Parashat VaYehi, we addressed the violent, vigilante justice carried out at the end of this week’s parasha by Pinhas the priest, a short narrative I described then as “the Torah’s signature episode of political violence”. I also demonstrated how the Pinhas story is a sequel to the morally ambiguous story of brothers Shim‘on and Levi massacring the town of Shekhem to rescue their sister Dinah from the governor’s son, who had raped and kidnaped her, and also likely avenging the outrage (Bereishit/Genesis 34). Here’s what I wrote then by way of summary of the story from our parasha:
“Toward the end of the desert narrative, the whole Israelite community gets seduced into an idolatrous orgy led by the overpowering majority culture Moabites and Midianites. God is enraged (25:1-3): this is the Torah’s version of a national security crisis, as the Israelites are being swallowed by a perverse, aggressive, hegemonic culture. God reads this as a political collapse, sees the entire Israelite leadership structure as irredeemably corrupt, and commands Moshe to execute all the political leaders by public hanging (25:4). Moshe doesn’t do that but, instead, instructs the judges to kill those civilians who have cleaved to the foreign god Ba‘al Pe‘or (25:5). Meanwhile, in this leadership collapse, one brazen couple, an Israelite man and a Midianite woman, flaunts idolatrous lawlessness, copulating, flagrantly, right in the front of Moshe and the whole people. Everyone’s watching, but all they do is cry (25:6). Just then, Pinhas, the grandson of Aharon the High Priest, the central line of the tribe of Levi, took the law into his own hands, grabbed a spear, stabbed the couple graphically, through their conjoined midsections, slaying them, and staying the Divine wrath, which had already killed 24,000 Israelites in a plague (25:7-9). Finally, the Torah names the offending parties: the Israelite man was Zimri, son of Salu, a Chieftain of the tribe of Shim‘on, and the Midianite woman was Kozbi, daughter of Tzur, a Midianite Chieftain. Shim‘on’s and Levi’s predilections for violence meet again, but now, filtered through Ya‘akov’s charge, they are foes, Shim‘on as the brazen sociopath, out to exacerbate a crisis breaking down the community, and Levi as the zealot, who risks his life to commit gory violence in order to stop and prevent greater violence.”
We discussed how the Rabbis understand the Pinhas story as a story about power and a warning siren about a failed judicial system, showing ambivalence toward Pinhas and discomfort with his extrajudicial action, but putting themselves on the hook, as they reasoned that vigilante violence like Pinhas’s, justified after the fact by God, is a necessary and rational response to a failed and frozen justice system that does not intervene when rich and powerful people commit violence.
Today, I would like to add just one important consideration to our ongoing exploration of political violence: the danger of systematizing or normalizing the vigilante response. Recognizing that God praised and rewarded Pinhas for taking the law into his own hands and killing Prince Zimri and Princess Cozbi, the Mishna apparently tries to incorporate that justification into the canons of Rabbinic law. They legislate that in a situation like that, the law is now that “zealots attack them —kannaim pog‘in bo” (Mishna Sanhedrin 9:6). This legislation raises perplexing and troubling questions: if vigilante justice is the use of generally prohibited means and processes in absence of a functioning justice system, how can that same justice system coherently incorporate the vigilante response? Vigilante justice can possibly make sense only where the justice system can’t, doesn’t, or won’t exercise its jurisdiction.
Very early in the Talmudic period, great sages in both Babylonia and the Land of Israel (Rav Hisda and Rabbi Yohanan, respectively) unpacked this dilemmas in a stunning legal pronouncement undermining the reading of the Mishna we flagged above (Talmud Bavli, Sanhedrin 82a):
“If someone comes to consult (the court as to whether they should enact vigilante violence), they may not instruct them to do so.”
Rav Hisda goes further:
“Moreover, if Zimri had separated (from intercourse with Cozbi) and only then Pinhas killed him, (Pinehas) would have been executed (as a murderer). And if Zimri would have turned and killed Pinhas (in self-defense), he would not have been executed (for killing Pinhas), as (Pinehas) was a pursuer (trying to kill him).”
Vigilante justice is not part of the system. The system distrusts it, recognizing the very thin line between vigilante violence and criminal bloodshed. The justice system should always hover. In Rav Hisda’s reading, the Mishna is not legislating that a vigilante should step forward, but observing and recognizing that that is what will happen, and accepting it. Vigilante justice must be extremely risky for the vigilante. But the justice system must always recognize that in a narrow range of situations, when the system shows itself unable or unwilling to hold powerful people accountable, it cannot chastise the person who did the messy work it was unwilling to do. The primary function of the justice system should be to check the power of those who have accrued excessive power, to hold accountable those most likely to get away with violence. If the justice system fails to exercise that courage, it can only expect that someone else will, more dangerously, and in a way that exposes the violence passively sanctioned by the court.