During the time of unity in which we find ourselves, due both to the war in Israel and the Tisha B’Av season, I want to review an interesting comment by R. Norman Lamm. R. Lamm’s sermons are fascinating for many reasons. He is a master of the sermon, both stylistically and with profound midrashic insight. Dating from his time as a pulit rabbi, his sermons show his leadership intuition, his messages for personal and communal direction. The publication of these edited sermons in Derashot LeDorot (so far, four volumes) is an important contribution.
On Parashas Pinchas, while discussing zealotry (in a 1975 sermon titled “Great Ideas Are Dangerous”), R. Lamm explains why he believes Modern Orthodoxy should not cut itself off from the right despite the many disagreements and the frequent heated rhetoric of which R. Lamm would later become a regular target. He insists on a balance, joining together with the right but being conscious of its extremes.
He writes (vol. 4, pp. 157-159):
[W]hat is true for the State [of Israel] is true for Judaism. We have survived to this station because of the self-sacrifice of countless zealots, the historical successors of Pinhas.
That is why I am not overly anxious for our camp, what we call “Modern Orthodoxy,” to cut off from the “right wing.” The “yeshiva world” and the “hasidic world” are reservoirs of passionate commitment, without which we are wishy-washy, wan, weak, and wavering. Of course I am unhappy with many of their policies. But our very survival may well depend on the degree to which we can become inspired by their zeal and learn to bring passion to our own commitments, no matter how much we may disagree with them on specific issues.
However, even in the Torah itself we find hints of apprehension that, like all great ideas, kana’ut has an “other side,” that of destructive fanaticism. The other side of a warm-blood is a hot-headed one. In our sidra, Pinhas is praised and rewarded and yet if we study the verses of today’s sidra carefully, we can find in them tell-tale signs of reservation and hesitation about zealousness. Our Rabbis (Yerushalmi Sanhedrin 9:7) were much more explicit when they said that Pinhas acted “against the wishes of the Sages”…
So, in all aspects of contemporary life, we must seek out kana’ut, but by keeping it confined and restrained and in the context of love and peace, we will avoid the “other side” of fanaticism.
As I have said, I admire the zeal of our right-wing. But emor–we must become upset and indignant when it is thoughtless, abusive, uncivilized. At that point, it can well become destructive and self-defeating.
Of course it is not easy to propose clear formulae on how to determine when zeal shades into fanaticism, when passion becomes poisonous.
But if we are conscious of this potential danger, if we are aware of how destructive great ideas can become, then we will be able to latch on to greatness and avoid the snares and ppitfalls of “the other side.”