The Paradox of Retribution and Peace in Parashat Pinchas -- Posted by hazzanmenes
Judaism has evolved beyond the values contained in the Torah. Peace is now elevated above retribution.
I received my definition of spirituality on my bar mitzvah. Vayishlach. Spirituality is the continual engagement in the struggle with God. If so, then today's parasha forces us to be spiritual indeed. Parashat Pinchas - the parasha read more often than any other - contains a number of ethical principles which define Judaism. Some of the principles we may not agree with today.
The obvious: reward for zealous defense of God. The ultimate reward being peace. Retribution and vengeance - against the Midianites. The use of a census. The importance of names and families. The principle of apportioning by population. The principle of acquisition based on need. God's faithfulness to his word - all of the generation who came out of Egypt had died. The status of women: women count, just not as much as men. Inheritance to women is possible. Unforgiving nature of God with Moses. The importance of a leader (but not a king). The importance of commissioning in public, through words and direct contact. The demand of God to be fed - and the importance of reiach nchoach. The days that are important: every day, sabbath, rosh chodesh, pesach, sacrifice for atonement, shavuot, rosh hashanah (yom teruah), yom kippur, sukkot - every day,
Let us discard the principles that seem to have no bearing today: vengeance against the Midianites, the demand of God to be fed, the sacrifices. And we are still left with much to guide us, and much to dispute. The first, and perhaps the last principle, which is reiterated time and time again in the Torah, is the act of retribution. In this case, it is not God's retribution, it is God commanding the Israelites to avenge the acts of the Midianites! How did the Christians go from that to "turn the other cheek?"
The biggest paradox in the Torah is the paradox of peace - aptly summarized here: Pinchas, after a zealous act of violence, is rewarded with the covenant of peace? How can we reconcile peace with violence, retribution, hegemony?
I am not talking about Divine retribution, but about human retribution.
There is no more important issue to resolve than this: how do we deal with evil in the world? Is it a matter for God to address? Is it in our own hands? What is the proper response? Is it violence, and if not, then what is the response? What does "justice" imply, and what are the limits of peace?
Retribution has evolved. Max Margolies, in his book on Theology and Retribution, suggests that retribution in the Torah and early prophets was not individual but rather communal. The community was viewed as unitary moral "person." However, after the exile (1st Temple), the prophets changed retribution to be individual: the community is not punished, the individual is. "the soul that sinneth - it alone shall die, not the son." This contrasts with Jeremiah, who continues the idea of the sins of the fathers being visited on the sons. But this is still divine retribution, God's reward for our sins. This, too, also involves the concept of God's mercy, His foregoing punishment in the face of repentance.
Retribution in the affairs of people evolved from a disproportionate response to middah k'neged middah, or measure for measure. The Torah describes an "eye for an eye" as an improvement on "I kill your whole family because you bruised my knee" A disproportionate response.
But the rabbis of the Mishna take this one step further, explaining that an eye for an eye implies the substitution of a monetary compensation for a wrong. This was a remarkable leap forward changing the nature of retribution.
In the case of murder, the Torah shows no such evolution. It accepts the concept of the avenger, the one who has the "right" to take the life of a person who killed a family member. The concept of the cities of refuge may be a baby step forward, but the Torah still accepts the concept of violent retribution.
And then we have the two unavoidable cases of the Amalekites and the Midianites. In no uncertain terms, the Israelites are told to destroy these groups of people. Their offenses are more symbolic than anything else, and the retribution is unrelenting. There are others in the torah who God punishes directly, such as the rebellious leaders with Korach, but this is a retribution for people to carry out. Where does the value of "peace" enter? Is this the pursuit of "justice?" Is this a matter of self-defense?
The Tanakh, through the prophets and wisdom literature, expounds the value of peace, but does not exalt it above defense or retribution. That is, justice is valued more highly than peace. However, this changes with the rabbis of the Mishna and Talmud. It is only in the Mishna where Hillel says that the loss of a single life is equivalent to the destruction of a whole world. It is not suprising that Yochanon ben Zakai opted for peace with Vespasion rather than rebellion.
Things change when we are exiled from our home. Things change when we are forced to live under other peoples' laws. Did we hear commands for retribution in Egypt? Peace looks awfully good when we need it to survive, but do we have the strength and confidence to pursue peace when we don't have to? The movement to the Diaspora forced us to take a look at the mitzvot of the Torah and forced us to reflect on what it meant to be slaves. Shall we enslave others? Shall we punish the sons for the sins of the fathers? We have evolved as a people and the world view of the Israelites in the Torah is no longer relevant. Read it, learn from it, but recognize that the tannaim and amoraim were wise enough to go beyond it. Beyond the Torah were the prophets, and beyond the prophets were the rabbis.
As we approach Tisha B'Av and confront the horrors that have been visited upon us as a people, we must go beyond retribution. If we take the Torah as if we lived 3000 years ago, we might enslave our neighbors and eradicate our enemies. We might even throw stones at our brothers and sisters who worship differently. We must go beyond retribution to repair the world.
Beyond retribution is peace.