Are you an extremist? 

This week’s parsha is named after Pinchas, the zealot, whose brazen actions saved the Jewish people and for which G‑d blesses him and accords him the distinction of one who is in possession of the true “Peace Prize”—G‑d’s “Covenant of Peace. 

While one might not want to share a room with a zealot, the bad rap these zealots have received is not all that justified. There are good zealots and there are bad zealots.
In our politically correct society, being an extremist is not good. The terms “radical” “fanatic” “zealot” extremist” are all regarded as pejoratives; and indeed, in a good many cases they ought to be classified as such. Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, and all the Communist leaders—and many other despotic dictators on all sides of the political spectrum—were evil extremists because they were extremely evil. 

But not all extremism is bad. In fact, this week’s parsha makes it abundantly clear that Pinchas’ zealotry and violence saved the day. 

How do we distinguish between a good zealot and an evil one?

There is a simple answer to this question that requires is to define the terms “good” and “evil.” For example, most would agree that helping the poor is good. Devoting one’s life to helping them is even better. Helping people zealously and being extremely kind and compassionate to the extreme is obviously a virtue, not a vice.

The problem arises as to how we define the terms good and evil. When a given act is not clearly understood as being good—the grey areas of life—we tend to err on the side of moderation, but when an act is unequivocally positive, being extreme in that direction is certainly commendable.

Why then is our society so hung up on vilifying extremism and fanaticism?  

There are many reasons, the most obvious of which is the tragic history of villains that perpetrated the most heinous crimes against society who were all extremists. The problem with this reason is that there is also a rich history of people whose extreme goodness has made it possible for us to survive today. 

There is another reason why extremism is so shunned by many that lies in the belief that there is nothing that is absolutely and inherently good or evil. And since these people do not believe in absolute good or evil, anyone who does becomes their enemy and branded a dangerous extremist who must be fought—often, stridently and yes, extremely. 

What happens to these relativists is that in the absence of the real concepts of good and evil they create artificial, disingenuous and hypocritical definitions of good and evil. Being a moderate is good, while being an extremist is bad. Or even worse, in the interests of denying that there are absolutes in this world, we find people who become extreme opponents of those who do believe in absolutes. 

To illustrate this point. A colleague of mine was arguing with a college student as to whether there are absolutes. The student adamantly denied that what Hitler did could be construed as evil; although he “concede” that he did not like what he did. The exasperated rabbi was dumbfounded and could not find any words to deal with such a horrible and degenerate denial of the existence of evil. The rabbi was even more shocked when he began eating his Shabbat, chicken dinner. When the student saw the rabbi eating chicken he couldn’t control his indignation and blurted out to the rabbi, “That’s evil!”

I actually had a similar experience when a law student was arguing against labeling anyone or anything evil, for in his eyes, evil is all relative. 

About twenty minutes later, the name of an unpopular past-president came up, and the student couldn’t control his distaste for him and, you guessed it, stated to me, “He is evil!”

The Torah couldn’t be more emphatic that good—absolute good—and evil—absolute evil—do exist! And that when one pursues good to the extreme it is extremely good.

Another important lesson from this week’s glorification of Pinchas is that his extreme act was violent, but according to the Torah’s description of what he did, it saved the lives of thousands of Jews. It was an act of self-defense. The lesson is obvious, the Torah defines good not only when one does acts of charity, but also when one uses military force to help defend the lives of other innocents. As distasteful war is—and we therefore pray daily for G‑d to bring the Moshiach when there will be no more war—when it is necessary to defend the innocent, it is an act of righteous zealotry. And that is why we honor our troops who risk their lives—an extreme act—to save ours!

It is no surprise then to find that according to the Zohar and other classical Jewish sources, Pinchas is identified as being one and the same person as Elijah the prophet who was also characterized in the Bible as a zealot. And yet it is Elijah the prophet that we all welcome into our homes every Passover Seder and who participates in every Brit-circumcision. But what is most revealing is that he is the one who heralds the coming of Moshiach.

People who are moderately good should be praised for their good and not for their moderation. Moderation is a virtue when it comes to things like eating, sleeping and other mundane activities.  People, however, who take the ideals of goodness to the extreme by being obsessed with making the world a safer, better and holier place are to be lauded for both their goodness and their extremism. Indeed, that is what the Messianic Age is all about; it is an age of extremism; extreme goodness and kindness, extreme distaste for arrogance and evil; extreme devotion to all that is good and holy. It is no therefore no surprise that Elijah/Pinchas is the one who announces its arrival.