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  • al-Awlaki has a Phineas moment

    Posted by Charles Cameron on November 10th, 2010 (All posts by )

    Here’s a meme worth noting when it crops up in the advocacy of religious violence:

    You don’t need permission from a religious authority…

    1

    This particular idea came up in the video of Anwar al-Awlaki that was released yesterday, Nov. 8th.

    Flashpoint Partners translated the comment in question, “do not consult anyone in killing the Americans. Fighting Satan does not require a jurisprudence. It does not require consulting. It does not need a prayer for the cause. They are the party of Satan … It is the battle between truth and falsehood.”

    The AFP translation of the key phrase here reads, “Killing the devil does not need any fatwa (legal ruling).”

    2

    My interest was piqued because of the correspondence between this comment from al-Awlaki, and the case of Phineas in the biblical Book of Numbers, chapter 25.

    Phineas is “the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest” – but when he recognizes that the Lord would be infuriated by the interracial and interreligious copulation of Zimri, “a prince of a chief house” in Israel, with Cozbi, the daughter of the “head over a people, and of a chief house in Midian”, he does not go to the priest his grandfather seeking permission to kill them – he knows it is his Lord’s wish that they should die, and so he takes the responsibility for his action entirely upon himself, and kills them.

    3

    As I shall recount in greater detail in two future posts on the topic of Phineas, it is the fact that Phineas acts without first requesting permission that pleases his Lord so much that He grants to Phineas and his seed “the covenant of an everlasting priesthood”.

    It is precisely this acting without requesting permission that is emphasized in modern Christian Identity writings on the topic of “Phineas Priests”:

    So a Phinehas priest is a MAN who acts on personal initiative to execute Yah’s judgment on violations of Yah’s laws which are adversely affecting His people.

    And according to Ehud Sprinzak, the eminent scholar of modern Jewish terrorism, it was reading the “Balak portion” of the book of Numbers, in which the story of Phineas is recounted, that convinced Yigal Amir that he could legitimately assassinate Yitzhak Rabin without first obtaining rabbinic approval (which would have put the rabbi who granted him permission at risk).

    4

    So. We have one more piece of the puzzle by which a mind with its own interpretation of God’s will can come to the conclusion that some specific act or acts of violence – accurately termed “terrorism” by others – are not only divinely sanctioned, and indeed mandatory, but can be undertaken without the requirement of prior verification from an appropriate religious authority.

    And in this case — the religious authority, such as it is, of Sheikh al-Awlaki proposes this.

    5

    Aaron Zelin‘s post on the Qur’anic text invoked by al-Awlaki’s title and the commentaries on that verse by ibn Kathir and others, is well worth your time, if you have not already seen it.

     

    5 Responses to “al-Awlaki has a Phineas moment”

    1. Paul Milenkovic Says:

      As a non-Jewish person, I had occasion to be invited to the Shabbat of a rabbi here in Madison, who for some reason raised the topic of Yigal Amir at the dinner table. Perhaps my host had strong views on the subject, perhaps I was being tested, or perhaps I had strong views on this myself: I made a conscious decision to respond.

      My response was something along the lines that in my opinion, a Jew (Mr. Amir) should not do such a thing (murder) to a fellow Jew (Prime Minister Rabin). My host was suggesting that Mr. Amir could have gotten rabbinical approval (from some rabbi) for his actions, and my response was even if he could, Jews need to, as a Mr. Rodney King suggested in another context, all get along. There were enough other people bent on killing Jews that Jews should not do that to each other.

      My host’s take on this is that Mr. Rabin’s actions in the Peace Process constituted as much an existential threat to Israel as say, Iran’s atomic bomb program, and hence there is a line of argument to back up Mr. Amir reacting to a “clear and present danger” as it were.

      My take on this is that one of the hackneyed anti-Jewish slanders is “Jews all stick together.” But in my opinion, Jews ought to stick together. I guess I come from a moral theory that from love of self comes love of family, from love of family comes love of tribe, expanding the circle outward.

      My take on Phineas, as a Christian, is that many “problem texts” in the Old Testament need to be viewed through the lens of Jesus’ teaching. For example, Jesus was frequently tested and gave responses in apparent contradiction to the Old Testament view of divorce, stoning adulterers, and so on.

      Even if you don’t subscribe to the Christian view of Jesus’ divinity, Jesus was plainly Jewish and plainly a rabbi, who offered his interpretation on sacred scripture. One thing I have learned in interactions with rabbis and other learned Jewish people is that a lot of Jesus’ sayings and teachings, about perserverence in forgiveness (forgive 70 times 7 times), about the moral necessity to not call attention to your charitable giving and so on (those who give in secret will have their reward in Heaven), is far from uniquely Christian and is a thread woven deeply into rabbinical teaching.

      What I take from this is that both a Jew and a Christian should not read too much into the account of Phineas as a call to “direct action”, and that there really is no moral justification for Mr. Amir taking the life of Mr. Rabin within the religious, moral, and ethical systems of Judaism or Christianity.

    2. CBI Says:

      The problem with the above interpretation is that it omits context — which changes matters somewhat. In Numbers 25:5, “Moses said to the judges of Israel, Kill you everyone his men who have joined themselves to Baal Peor.” The very next verse begins the account of Zimri’s public (“in the sight of Moses, and in the sight of all the congregation of the children of Israel”) disobedience, and Phineas’ moves to punish him, where Phineas went “from the midst of the congregation” to Zimri.

      This indicates that Phineas was acting under the orders of Moses, and not merely on his own initiative. The context indicates that religious and political authority (they were the same at that time) had been given to Phineas. Efforts to paint this as an example of approved vigilante action do not really fit into what the text says; rather, such efforts reveal a desire to justify these actions.

    3. Charles Cameron Says:

      Paul:

      That’s an interesting story about your Shabbos meal: my thanks.

      What I take from this is that both a Jew and a Christian should not read too much into the account of Phineas as a call to “direct action”, and that there really is no moral justification for Mr. Amir taking the life of Mr. Rabin within the religious, moral, and ethical systems of Judaism or Christianity.

      It appears that way, but there are some in each religion who see things differently – and their influence, when they feel stirred to action, may be disproportionate to their numbers.

    4. Charles Cameron Says:

      Thanks, CBI:

      This indicates that Phineas was acting under the orders of Moses, and not merely on his own initiative. The context indicates that religious and political authority (they were the same at that time) had been given to Phineas. Efforts to paint this as an example of approved vigilante action do not really fit into what the text says; rather, such efforts reveal a desire to justify these actions.

      Most of the efforts “to paint this as an example of approved vigilante action” that I’m aware of come from Christian Identity sources, and I don’t think they’re terribly subtle in their understanding of Jewish sentiment at the time of the Exodus, or of the writing of the text in question – or even of later Talmudic discussion. I’m not, either – which is why, in the Israeli case of Yigal Amir, I’m happy to be able to pass on the opinion of Ehud Sprinzak, who would have considerably better access to the full range of rabbinic interpretations than I.

      In his book Brother against brother: violence and extremism in Israeli politics from Altalena to the Rabin assassination, Sprinzak writes:

      It’s almost certain that Yigal Amir had no unequivocal rabbinical sanction to kill Rabin. Rabin’s assassin told his investigators that he had discussed the issue of din rodef and din moser with several rabbis but none of them was ready to give him a green light. … The decision to kill Rabin thus was taken by the young man alone. Amir believed he was fully cognizant of the relevant Halakhic law and had a sufficient understanding of the misery of the Israeli people to act on his own.

      The Halakhic instrument that ultimately convinced Amir he should kill Rabin was the ancient Jewish doctrine of zealotry. This doctrine maintains that under the most extreme circumstances, a God-loving Jew can kill another person without asking permission. As shown in Chapter 3, the tradition goes back to Pinchas, the son of Elazar, who killed, during Exodus, another Jew. That person, Zimri, the son of Salue, was among many Israelites who made love in public with young Midianite women against God’s orders. In killing Zimri, young Pinchas committed an unauthorized murder of a fellow Jew and had to be severely punished. Yet not only was his act forgiven by God, “for he was zealous for my sake among them,” but God instantly terminated a plague that had already killed twenty thousand Jews.

      [ … ] After admitting to his investigators that no particular rabbi had authorized his act, Amir told them about the biblical precedents of Pinchas and Yael (who murdered the warlord Sisera). He also told the investigators that before he committed the murder he read the Balak portion, the passage in the Hebrew Bible that tells Pinchas’s story and the killing of Zimri.

      The Talmudic rabbis were an argumentative lot in any case, and Judaism is a highly contrapuntal religion as evidenced not only by the disagreements of the rabbis but even by the graphical layout of the Talmudic page. The following commentary, citing Bemidbar Rabbah 21,1, which I found here, offers one among the ways of interpreting the episode — as essentially removing the rage from Phineas / Pinchas by granting him peace:

      “Pinchas, son of Elazar, son of Aaron the priest” (Numbers 25,11) The Holy Blessed One said that it is right that he should receive a reward. “Therefore say behold I give to him my convenant, peace” (Numbers 25.12) Great is the peace that was given to Pinchas for the world can only be maintained through peace and the Torah is wholly peace as it is said “her ways are ways of pleasantness and all her paths are peace” (Proverbs 3,17).

    5. TMLutas Says:

      Anwar al-Awlaki is rejecting the idea of a hudna. The battle must go on to the end of the supply of personnel willing to follow this directive. This is not typical Muslim action which historically has been much more flexible.

      It virtually screams of desparation, of one last big roll of the dice to try to eke out a victory or at least survival. I am immensely encouraged by this.