While leading a tour of Israel for a group of college kids in the summer of 1995, I read a newspaper headline that described a newly issued halachic ruling by 15 rabbis -- with former Chief Rabbi Avraham Shapira at their helm: "The evacuation of West Bank IDF military bases poses a threat to Jewish life, and therefore, by halachic decree of this rabbinic council, all religious soldiers in the IDF are to refuse military orders to take part in any such operation."
Having been a soldier in the IDF in a Hesder Yeshiva unit, where reverence for halacha and respect for military orders harmoniously coexisted, this ruling by Shapira was one of the first attempts to shake this harmonious balance and create an atmosphere of tension in a religious soldier's mind. "Do I listen to God, or to my officer?" was the question floating through thousands of religious IDF soldiers' thoughts.
The atmosphere created by the ruling that summer led me to return to my congregation with a sermon where I predicted that in the coming year, the political situation in Israel would lead to Jewish blood being spilled by the hand of another Jew. We all remember what happened that fateful Nov. 4, 1995, and don't let anybody tell you that Shapira's halachic ruling did not help build the atmosphere which brought that fateful moment upon us.
The rabbis in the Talmud were wary of halachic rulings that inspired extremist behavior or zealotry, and the classic example of this is based on the incident of zealotry found at the end of this week's parasha. In reaction to Zimri the Israelite's public sexual behavior with a Midianite woman, Pinchas ben Elazar "rose up from the midst of the congregation, took a spear into his hand, and thrust the spear through the man and the woman."
From this incident, a halachic ruling came about that stated: "He who has sexual relations with an Aramean [or Midianite] woman, zealots are permitted to inflict harm upon him." The Jerusalem Talmud records a tradition stating that the wise men were uncomfortable with this halachic ruling, as they were uncomfortable with Pinchas' act of zealotry. Rabbi Yehuda ben Pazi is of the opinion that the Israelite community actually sought to excommunicate Pinchas, and what saved him from this was the "Holy Spirit of God springing forward to his defense."
Lest one come away from this with the impression that the rabbis oppose acts of zealotry and the halachic rulings behind them, yet God favors them, the Torah Temimah commentary teaches that God's jumping into the picture is the very reason why we must shy away from any halachic teaching which inspires zealous behavior. Since Pinchas' act needed God's seal of approval in order to justify it as a "true act of zealotry purely on behalf of God," and since nobody can guarantee that God will intercede again, the possibility and risk that the proposed act of zealotry is for any reason other than "purely for the sake of God" (i.e., politics) means that a rabbinic court must refrain from any rulings which inspire zealotry, insubordination or disrespect for authority. As far as the rabbis were concerned, Pinchas' act was a unique incident suspended in religious history, not to be used as an example for future generations.
The rabbis were uncomfortable with all of these matters, because many of them lived to see the devastation brought upon the Jewish people by acts of zealotry. The late Second Temple period was filled with groups of Jewish zealots who waged bloody political and physical battles with each other, ultimately leading to civil war and the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. The post-destruction rabbis learned the lessons of history, to the extent that they were even willing to take issue with halacha when it potentially inspired chaotic behavior among the Jewish people.
If the current religious leadership in Israel refuses to learn from the hard lessons of 1,900 years ago, can they at least look back to the summer of 1995 as an example of what not to do?