What the Story of Phineas Teaches about Morality, Politics, and Plague

July 10 2020

Much public discussion today—in America, Israel, and elsewhere—centers on the difficult problem of how to balance the dangers of the coronavirus with the economic and psychological costs of lockdowns. In this week’s Torah reading of Pinḥas (Numbers 25:10-26:4), Jonathan Sacks finds guidance in the actions of the titular character, Moses’ nephew Phineas. When the Israelites participate in a pagan orgy with the Midianites, God immediately punishes them with a plague, which Phineas stops by simultaneously skewering a Hebrew chieftain and a Midianite woman with his spear. To Sacks, the lesson here is about the distinction between moral and political decisions:

God declared Phineas a hero. He had saved the children of Israel from destruction, showed the zeal that counterbalanced the people’s faithlessness, and as a reward, God made a personal covenant with him. Phineas did a good deed. Halakhah, however, dramatically circumscribes his act in multiple ways. . . . Legally speaking, Phineas was on very thin ice.

[But] Phineas was not acting on moral principle. He was making a political decision. There were thousands dying. The political leader, Moses, was in a highly compromised position. How could he condemn others for consorting with Midianite women when he himself had a Midianite wife? Phineas saw that there was no one leading. The danger was immense. God’s anger, already intense, was about to explode. So he acted. . . . Better to take two lives immediately, of people who would have been eventually sentenced to death by the court, to save thousands now. And he was right, as God later made clear.

I believe that there are moral and political decisions and they are different. But there is a great danger that the two may drift apart. Politics then becomes amoral, and eventually corrupt. That is why the institution of prophecy was born. Prophets hold politicians accountable to morality. When kings act for the long-term welfare of the nation, they are not criticized. When they act for their own benefit, they are. Likewise when they undermine the people’s moral and spiritual integrity. Salvation by zealot—the Phineas case—is no solution. Politics must be as moral as possible if a nation is to flourish in the long run.

Subscribe to Mosaic

Welcome to Mosaic

Subscribe now to get unlimited access to the best of Jewish thought and culture

Subscribe

Subscribe to Mosaic

Welcome to Mosaic

Subscribe now to get unlimited access to the best of Jewish thought and culture

Subscribe

Read more at Jewish Press

More about: Biblical Politics, Coronavirus, Hebrew Bible, Morality, Numbers

How European Fecklessness Encourages the Islamic Republic’s Assassination Campaign

In September, Cypriot police narrowly foiled a plot by an Iranian agent to murder five Jewish businessman. This was but one of roughly a dozen similar operations that Tehran has conducted in Europe since 2015—on both Israeli or Jewish and American targets—which have left three dead. Matthew Karnitschnig traces the use of assassination as a strategic tool to the very beginning of the Islamic Republic, and explains its appeal:

In the West, assassination remains a last resort (think Osama bin Laden); in authoritarian states, it’s the first (who can forget the 2017 assassination by nerve agent of Kim Jong-nam, the playboy half-brother of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, upon his arrival in Kuala Lumpur?). For rogue states, even if the murder plots are thwarted, the regimes still win by instilling fear in their enemies’ hearts and minds. That helps explain the recent frequency. Over the course of a few months last year, Iran undertook a flurry of attacks from Latin America to Africa.

Whether such operations succeed or not, the countries behind them can be sure of one thing: they won’t be made to pay for trying. Over the years, the Russian and Iranian regimes have eliminated countless dissidents, traitors, and assorted other enemies (real and perceived) on the streets of Paris, Berlin, and even Washington, often in broad daylight. Others have been quietly abducted and sent home, where they faced sham trials and were then hanged for treason.

While there’s no shortage of criticism in the West in the wake of these crimes, there are rarely real consequences. That’s especially true in Europe, where leaders have looked the other way in the face of a variety of abuses in the hopes of reviving a deal to rein in Tehran’s nuclear-weapons program and renewing business ties.

Subscribe to Mosaic

Welcome to Mosaic

Subscribe now to get unlimited access to the best of Jewish thought and culture

Subscribe

Subscribe to Mosaic

Welcome to Mosaic

Subscribe now to get unlimited access to the best of Jewish thought and culture

Subscribe

Read more at Politico

More about: Europe, Iran, Israeli Security, Terrorism