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Resisting the Seductions of Religious Zeal

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The things we do for God, or imagine that we do for God, or do for an imagined God -- it doesn't matter which, since it's largely the same thing -- range from the very best things in the world to the very worst. In study after study, we learn that people of faith are more likely to donate their time and money than their non-believer counterparts, and that when they do, the amount donated is more likely to be a larger portion of the whole. And in just as many studies, we learn that individuals who identify strongly with a particular faith are more likely to fear and mistrust those who are not like them.

Like any powerful tool, faith can help us to build our world or destroy it. The issue is not whether we have faith, but how we use whatever faith we possess. And the most effective remedies to the excesses and damage done in the name of God are found within the traditions themselves. If they cannot be found from within, then it's time for that tradition to go.

Perhaps it's because of where we are in the cycle of weekly Torah readings, or perhaps it's because a day doesn't go by without stories of religious zealotry making the news. More than likely, for me at least, it's the combination of the two. The biblical story of Pinchas challenges us to recognize the seduction of religious zeal, reminding us that there are limits when it comes to acting on what we think of as God's behalf.

And it's the things we do for God that are the most dangerously seductive. When we act out of whatever we consider to be base impulses -- hate, greed, ego, etc. -- we eventually either satisfy the urge or feel sufficiently guilty to stop. But when "God wills it," it's amazing how easy it is to justify pressing on with even the most ugly behavior. After all, the underlying logic goes: we are not acting for ourselves, but for God. Enter Pinchas.

The Israelites, according to Numbers 25, were camped at Shittim when the people began "profaning themselves" by having illicit sex with the local Moabites. One of the men, Zimri, appears to have made a public spectacle of himself with a Moabite woman named Kozbi. A priest named Pinchas, grandson of the first High Priest Aaron, and grand-nephew of Moses, took a spear and impaled them on the spot. Result? God blesses Pinchas.

What at first appears to be a happy ending to the story turns out to be a cautionary tale about the dangers of religious zeal. Pinchas is indeed blessed by God, but the blessing reflects both what's missing in Pinchas and the fact that zealots such as he should spend their time removed from the daily life of normal people.

Pinchas is blessed with divine peace, clearly something which neither he nor any religious zealot possess, no matter how much they may say otherwise. Pinchas is filled with rage, and the fact that he believes it to be sacred doesn't make it any less problematic to God (often rage-filled Himself), who confers a corrective blessing which would diminish it.

In addition to the blessing of divine peace, Pinchas and his descendants are guaranteed that they will be priests -- people who serve in the ideal and disconnected world of the Tabernacle and later, the Temple. While that ideal may be beautiful -- a place of soft music, gentle prayer and sweet incense, no illness, human suffering or death (animal sacrifice too, but 2,000 years ago that would have been experienced positively, by the people, if not the animals) -- the Temple was also a place of rigid rules and the total domination of the ideal over the real. In other words, a zealot's dream come true, in which no violations were acceptable and any that occurred, required and swift and automatic ritual corrective.

The Temple was to reality what Disneyland is to six-year-olds: a place where their most deeply-held wishes and dreams were fulfilled, if only for a while. And just as Disneyland, and places like it, play an important role in nurturing children's sense of possibility, the Temple did the same for the Israelites.

But anyone who needs to spend their whole life at either Disneyland or the Temple has a problem. The problem? Not distinguishing between the real and the ideal, not accepting that life is about maintaining a healthy tension between the two. That is the problem of all zealots, Pinchas included, and why he was assigned to Tabernacle/Temple service for the rest of his life.

As Mick Jagger taught, if we are lucky, we get what we need. The same can be said of divine blessings. Pinchas' was given the inner peace needed to resist his own religious zealotry and a safe place to go when that same zeal needed to be expressed.

May none of us be zealots. But if zealots there will be, let them find this same blessing and let us find the strength to help them to do so.

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