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On the Shikse problem

Jewish men have long had a Shikse problem. That is to say, the allure of a non-Jewish woman is nothing new to our times. In the Torah the Midianite women have been specifically prohibited, and yet we open our portion this week, Pinchas, to find Zimri, in delicto flagrante with Kosbi, a Midianite lass that he has audaciously brought into the Israelite camp itself. The aforementioned Pinchas is so affronted that he thrusts through the bellies of them both with his spear, killing this forbidden couple in one fell swoop. And his jealous, zealous, intervention is praised by God who offers Pinchas his “brit shalom”, his pact of friendship, or covenant of peace.

The rabbis of yore, perhaps not unlike you today, seem to have had some difficulties with this divine support for such fanaticism. And in the Babylonian Talmud (Sanhedrin 82a) they widen this vivid and dramatic series of events to include Moses, with Pinchas directly defending the honour of Moses himself:

“Zimri went to Cozbi, daughter of Zur, princess of Midian, and said to her: Submit to me and engage in intercourse with me. She said to him: I am the daughter of a king, and this is what my father commanded me: Submit only to the greatest of them. Zimri said to her: He, too, referring to himself, is the head of a tribe; moreover, he is greater than Moses, as he is the second of the womb, as he descends from Simeon, the second son of Jacob, and Moses is the third of the womb, as he descends from Levi, the third son of Jacob.

He seized her by her forelock and brought her before Moses. Zimri said to Moses: “Son of Amram, is this woman forbidden or permitted? And if you say that she is forbidden, as for the daughter of Yitro to whom you are married, who permitted her to you?””

Ouch. Zimri posturing as better than Moses to get the girl is hard enough for us to stomach, using the birth position of his ancestry (Simeon) to show he is of higher statue than Moses. But he also hits Moses where it hurts. He questions how Moses can deny him a foreign wife, when Moses is known to have taken one himself, thus accusing Moses of double standards. Later, Rashi would save Moses’ proverbial bacon by reminding us that Moses married Zipporah before the laws of the Torah were given on Mount Sinai, ie he was in blissful ignorance, whereas Zimri was too late and did not. But in this Talmudic passage the response of our sages is simply to weep:

“The halakha with regard to the proper course of action when encountering a Jewish man engaging in intercourse with a gentile woman eluded Moses. All of the members of the Sanhedrin bawled in their weeping”

Therefore it fell to Pinchas to restore Moses’ honour. And so it was, that he arose with his spear in his hand, and skewered the truculent Zimri and his Midianite princess Kozbi. All this to help explain why God was so pleased with Pinchas - for his loyalty and face-saving of Moses as much as his passionate response to the copulating couple. His rapid reaction and zeal meant that God did not need to get jealous and commit mass murder Himself, at least not beyond the 24,000 who died in the subsequent plague.

Pinchas has had many admirers. The Maccabees saw him as a poster boy and an inspiration for their own rebellion. Josephus speaks of Pinchas’s resolve and character whilst playing down his zealotry, in accordance with his (Josephan) dislike for the zealots of his own times.

The rabbis, as shown above, were less comfortable with the idea of extra-judicial capital punishment, and worked to add details that meant that Pinchas’ actions were legal and justifiable. In the continuation of the Talmudic passage quoted above, Pinchas is shown as having remembered a Jewish law that Moses had forgotten:

“Pinchas said to Moses: Brother of the father of my father, as Moses was the brother of his grandfather Aaron, did you not teach me this during your descent from Mount Sinai: One who engages in intercourse with a gentile woman, zealots strike him? Moses said to him: Let the one who reads the letter be the agent [parvanka] to fulfill its contents.”

In this case it is Moses who is giving permission to Pinchas to have the honour of carrying out this important Mitzvah – Moses happily keeps his hands clean on this one, with or without the sense of “let he without sin cast the first stone”.

I started by noting that Jewish men have long had a problem with Shikses. For those who were offended, I should note that it was an attempt to wake you up, an opening inflammatory statement designed in the style of Boris Johnson, my new Prime Minister. And – in a community with as many mixed-marriages as ours, it is clear that non-Jewish partners – we probably shouldn’t use the colourful yet disparaging Yiddish word shiksa - are not so much a problem as a delight, and a key part in the success of our Singapore community. We should be honouring their contributions and especially the support that they give to their partners and children to ensure the continuation of Jewish life.

And it is this question that is key to the Pinchas passage too. There, our Torah portion comes in the context of Baal-Peor, when foreign women are seen as influencing their husbands towards idolatry and away from worshipping God. This runs contrary to my experience in the UHC, when often it is the non-Jewish partner who encourages their other half to get more involved in the community, and makes sure that their kids attend and participate in our activities. In both directions we can see the power of the partner to influene for good and for bad, but today this way we would seem to have less of a need for a modern-day Pinchas and his zealotry, rather looking towards inclusion and acceptance of all our loved ones, regardless of their faiths and religions.

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