Redefining zealotry for the good of building sacred communities

Posted June 28, 2013 by

We meet the archetypal zealot in this week’s parasha, Pinchas. Rav Kook teaches, from the words of Shmuel HaKatan, that zealotry is not a simple matter and “since [it] often contains some slight influence of human failings, our powers of self-examination must determine our primary motive. We must ensure that it is not based on personal zealotry” but rather on a motive that speaks for the good of building sacred communities built upon the “desire to bring true peace (shalom) and perfection (shleimut) to the world” (Gold from the Land of Israel, Rabbi Abraham Isaac HaKohen Kook, pp.275-277). Perhaps this is why God gives Pinchas a “covenant of peace” (Nu. 25:11-12).


Consider this parasha in the context of both the Jewish calendar and contemporary times. This is a serious time of the year in the Jewish calendar as we literally count down the three weeks to Tisha B’av, when a full fast day is observed in remembrance of the destruction of the Temple and other major destructions impacting the Jewish People. What does it mean that thousands of years we still mark the destruction of the Temple, which was then the single, unifying institution of the Jewish people. Yet, even at that moment of great loss, the movement to create a decentralized system for shaping Jewish life, including the creation of new institutions, had begun. Most significant about the destruction of the Temple was the loss of direct contact with the Holy One. The priestly system ceased, and so began the growth of Jewish scholarship as rabbis took over the responsibility for creating a new system for interpreting the Law and transmitting it to the people.


The Jewish People has always known periods of both enlightenment and destruction. Still, we have endured. Our survival is linked through an on-going connection to our ancestors’ biblical journey to the Promised Land – a story told and retold each and every year. It is also linked to a Jewish tradition that is both ever-renewing and responsive to the needs of each generation. In our case, given the longevity of life, there are four very different generations seeking response. Consequently, institutions which have sustained Jewish life for over a century are closing their doors or being re-invented. The creative response of the millennial generation is extraordinary, as we witness both examples of social entreprenurialship and emergent communities.


Radical changes in societal structure, the increasingly public search by atheists for affirmation and community, and widespread successful assimilation demand the response of our communities and our institutions. It is not that the synagogue is defunct – rather it is seekiing more meaningful ways to attract and engage people in vibrant Jewish living. This is sparking innovation in worship, rethinking the purpose and operation of religious school, and the recognition that the Jewish journey for most people is neither linear nor necessarily committed to any one expression or movement of Jewish belief and practice. Challenges abound, but change is afoot.


JCC plays a very important role in this outreach and engagement effort. It is our mission to open our doors to all and meet whoever walks through our actual or virtual doors with warm, non-judgmental embrace. JCC is creating space for Jewish living and providing safe spaces for families and adults to experience and celebrate a compelling culture, a rich heritage, and an expansive approach to wellness.


We are driven to be more responsive to those who are, as my colleague, Rabbi Ari Moffic, recently said, “inter-heritage, inter-cultural, inter-married AND inter-ested!” Organizations and institutions such as Jewish Outreach Institute ( and Interfaith Family ( and JCC Chicago are working together to look for Jews in every place imaginable. JCC’s “zealotry” is found in a tireless commitment to fostering meaningful and lasting relationships between and with all people and to celebrating a rich, inspiring life. Our vision is to shape inclusive communities founded on a “covenant of peace.”


Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Nina J. Mizrahi


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