This week's Torah portion, Pinchas, is concerned with the probity of taking the law into one's own hands. In this biblical account, the Israelites settled at Shittim, the last way station before the entrance to the Promised Land. There, Israelite men fraternized with local Moabite women whose pagan fertility religion provided cult prostitutes to supplicants in the belief that such activity would produce bounteous crops and material wealth. However, Israelite participation in that cult placed the future of the covenant at stake.
The situation was made all the more tense by Zimri, an Israelite, who took Cozbi, a Moabite woman, into his tent located in the center of the encampment. In broad daylight, he affronted the law and the people, destroying the image that the Israelites had of being an "am kadosh — a kingdom of priests and a holy people." The text relates that the punishment for Zimri's defiant act was a plague that afflicted the entire community.
Pinchas, a passionate man with a zealous devotion to the covenant, was unable to tolerate Zimri's public disregard for the mores of the community. He burst into the tent where the idolatrous, illicit union was taking place and, with a single thrust, ran a spear through both of them.
The plague was lifted after Pinchas took the law into his own hands, honoring him with the covenant of peace, and he and his descendants were awarded the high priest's privilege of leadership, as noted by the psalmist: "It was counted to him for righteousness unto all generations forever" (Psalms 106: 30-31).
Nevertheless, this story raises a disturbing contrast between due process and individual conscience. In spite of all his rewards, the rabbis were determined not to allow Pinchas to become the paradigm for the self-righteous endorsement of violence, because the real danger is that siding with those who take the law into their own hands can lead to the breakdown of law and order.
Nevertheless, there are other instances in which a zealot took the law into his own hands. For example, the Haftarah that accompanies Pinchas is about Elijah, another zealous man who led the Israelites to destroy the false prophets of Ba'al. Similarly, Moses took the law into his own hands when he killed an Egyptian taskmaster who beat an Israelite slave. The zealous action of Judah the Maccabee is also championed as the paradigm for virtue and religious devotion.
What is the distinction between breaking the law and being law-abiding when conscience calls for it? This tension is reflected in the Torah s admonition to not to stand idly by while a kinsman's blood is shed, and its exhortation to adherents to observe the law with care. We champion the righteous Christians who broke the law of Nazi Germany by sheltering Jews who were being hunted by the SS, but not all situations are so unambiguous. For example, Henry David Thoreau, the American champion of civil disobedience, once commented on the unjust nature of U.S. interference in the sovereign affairs of Mexico during the 19th century:
"When a sixth of the population of a nation which has undertaken to be the refuge of liberty are slaves, and a whole country [referring to Mexico] is unjustly overrun and conquered by a foreign army, and subjected to military law, I think that it is not too soon for honest men to rebel and revolutionize. What makes this duty the more urgent is the fact that the country so overrun is not our own, but ours is the invading army."
Carrying his viewpoint to an extreme, he commented, "That government is best which governs least," and in an even more strident remark, suggested, "That government is best which governs not at all."
Thoreau's disdain for government and refusal to pay taxes on his property at Walden Pond resulted in a jail term. There, Ralph Waldo Emerson visited him and asked, "Henry, what are you doing in there?" Henry replied, "Ralph, what are you doing out there?" This account raises the question of what ought to constitute civil disobedience, because the issue of when to disobey a law in order to obey one's conscience is not easily determined.
While the biblical author may have rewarded Pinchas with praise and more powerful standing in the society, later generations of rabbis, when confronted by this problem, attempted to create sufficiently human law in order to make it unnecessary to have to stand outside it. They understood that individual action could lead to lawlessness. Inevitably, this age-old question is one that people continue to struggle with in every era.