The musings of a previously unemployed Jewish Freemason. I write about the job search, about Judaism, and about Freemasonry.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Pinchas: I Give Unto Him My Covenant of Peace

This Torah portion continues the story of the sin of Baal-Peor. Unable to curse the Israelites, the Midianites send their women to the stream of Shittim (acacia) to seduce the Israelites, and to get them to worship Baal-Peor, the Midianite god. The Israelites succumb, and this angers God, who sends forth a plague to punish the idolaters, and commands the people to publicly impale the offenders. The leaders of the Israelite tribes huddled before the Tent of Meeting, hesitant to execute the offenders, when Zimri, son of Salu ran into the tent with a Midianite woman, Cozbi. Pinchas, the son of Eleazar and grandson of Aaron, followed the couple into the Inner Sanctum with a spear, and impales them, in flagrante delicto, thus ending the plague, which had killed 24,000 people.

According to the Talmud, the couple are speared through their embracing genitals [Sanhedrin, 81-82]. This gruesome image shows something of the graphic imagination of the authors of the Talmud. I have to admit, gentle reader, that I am at a loss as to what such a spearing would symbolize.

Judaism struggles with how it treats exogamy. Moses married a Midianite woman, and yet Esau is condemned for not marrying within the tribe. It is clear that endogamy was at one time defined patrilineally, and was later, in Talmudic times, changed to matrilineal progression, which lasts today. The Bible often condemns Israelites for marrying foreign (especially Canaanite and Philistine) women, and yet David and Solomon are not condemned for doing so, until Solomon begins to worship his wives' gods. Therefore, it appears that it is apostasy and not exogamy that is being condemned here.

I have to admit that I am uncomfortable with how strictly Jews proscribe exogamy. Ashkenazi Jews are prone to all kinds of genetic disorders because Ashkenazi communities were tiny for so long, forcing a very limited gene pool, and causing some pretty horrible disorders, like Tay-Sachs. It would be insensitive to interpret such maladies as God telling us to lighten up about exogamy, but all the same, maybe the strictures against exogamy are not serving us well in the modern world. In Israel, there is far less intercourse between Ashkenazim, Sephardim, and Mizrachim (let alone Ethiopian, Indian, or Chinese Jews) than there should be. Even within the Jewish world, there is not the gene mixture that a limited gene pool needs so much.

In various pagan Semitic religions, sex is offered as a sacrament. The Bible describes the קדשה or קדש (qedesha or qedesh, male or female sacred prostitute) who offers themselves sexually for temple worship. This sort of divine sexuality was associated with the cult of Asherah, whom some speculate was a feminine consort of the male God El of the Bible for some Semitic people. The Bible mentions the Asherah pole (a phallus erected for worship) being forbidden. To modern sensibilities, it might seem odd that Temple animal sacrifice was sacred to the Israelites, but Temple sexual sacraments was forbidden, since one ends lives whereas the other generates life. Some of the ideas and practices of Semitic paganism have enjoyed a resurgence today. To modern Jewish sensibilities, the use of child sacrifice in ancient pagan worship was what made the whole religious system intolerable, but to the ancient Jews, all of these pagan practices were loathsome, since they felt that such practices worshiped something that was less than Divine.

In any case, the Israelites sought to distinguish their religious practices from those outside of their tribes, and one major delineating factor for them was proscribing the use of public sexual sacraments. However, sex within monogamous marriage is celebrated within Judaism, and interestingly, sex is always a mitzvah, even if it ventures into forbidden practices. Thus, in Orthodox interpretation, a child born out of wedlock is a mitzvah, and the sex that created that child is a mitzvah, even when the act of adulterous sex is a sin. Sex on the Sabbath is particularly sacred, since the Shekhinah is closer to us during the Sabbath, and thus the sex that we have is imitative of the sacred union of the Shekhinah with the rest of Divinity.

The rabbis of the Talmud were uncomfortable with how gruesome Pinchas' act was, and how the Torah seems to laud it uncritically, so they looked for ways to show that the violence of the double homicide was not to be emulated. Consider the passage:
And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying, Phinehas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, hath turned my wrath away from the children of Israel, while he was zealous for my sake among them, that I consumed not the children of Israel in my jealousy. Wherefore say, Behold, I give unto him my covenant of peace: And he shall have it, and his seed after him, even the covenant of an everlasting priesthood; because he was zealous for his God, and made an atonement for the children of Israel. [Numbers 25: 10-13].
This "covenant of peace" could be considered a palliative for Pinchas' violent impulsiveness. By making of his line an everlasting priesthood, God is yoking Pinchas and his descendants to the strongest religious structure they could possibly be given, keeping them from acting upon their violent urges. So what seems at first like a reward is actually a harsh restriction.

The Torah portion also contains the story of the Daughters of Zelophehad (Banot Tzelafchad), whose father died "of his own sin" in the desert [Numbers 27: 3], and who had no brothers. By the patrilineal rules of inheritance, they could not inherit their father's estate. They appealed to Moses, who could not judge the case for himself, but appealed to God, who allowed them to inherit their father's property. These women had a righteous plea, challenged the status quo, and won their appeal to God. In the 1970s, there was a Jewish feminist group called Banot Tzelafchad, named after these women from the Bible. As if to reward them for their righteousness, the bible names them: Mahlah, Noah, and Hoglah, and Milcah, and Tirzah.

This portion also determines that Joshua, son of Nun, will be Moses' successor when he dies, which will be very soon. Moses lays his hands upon Joshua before all the people.

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