by HaRav Mordechai Greenberg
Nasi HaYeshiva, Kerem B'Yavneh
The attribute of zealousness ("kanaut"), for which the Torah praises Pinchas, is not intended to be used on a consistent basis, nor is it intended for the average person. Even regarding Pinchas, the Talmud Yerushalmi states that the tribes of Israel wanted to excommunicate him for putting Zimri to death. They were only restrained by a Heavenly voice (Bat Kol) that announced, "It shall be for him and his offspring after him a covenant of eternal priesthood" (Bamidbar 25:13), thereby connecting him to Aharon, who was known to love peace and actively pursue it.
In many instances, supposed religious "zealousness" is motivated by hate or self-interest. Throwing stones at a car on Shabbat mainly because it disturbs the Shabbat atmosphere, or because it prevents the children from playing in the streets, is not zealousness motivated by religious fervor. Rather, it is simply an issue of neighborly responsibility, a problem that the Shulchan Aruch deals with in Choshen Mishpat (which relates to monetary matters), using religious zealousness as a convenient cover to hide behind. The true religious zealot is one who is motivated only by love of G-d. Upon seeing evil, his soul is filled with anger and disgust toward the transgression to the extent that he can no longer restrain himself. In such an instance, the Torah takes his emotions into consideration, even though if he were to first consult those knowledgeable in the ways of G-d, they would advise him not to proceed.
Anyone who is not classified by Halacha as a zealot, and is suspected of acting out of personal interests, is in no way allowed to harm or even speak badly against any other Jew. This idea is expressed in the testament of R. Yaakov of Lisa, author of the Halachic work "Netivot Hamishpat." He writes: "Be very careful not to speak badly against another Jew, even he if acts in a fashion similar to that of Zimri. After all, you know that you also have done evil, and perhaps your own evil is worse than his, so how dare you speak badly about your friend!"
The Gemara (Berachot 10a) relates that when some outlaws bothered R. Meir, he prayed that they should die. His wife, Berurya, showed him the pasuk that says, "Sins ("chataim") will cease from the earth, and the wicked will be no more." (Tehillim 104:35) She said to him, "Does the Pasuk say `sinners?' No, it says `sins!'" Upon her advice, R. Meir then prayed that they might repent, which they eventually did. This illustrates that we must help those among us that are sinful to rise out of their spiritual distress through prayer, in the same way that we pray for a person who is physically ill and unable to help himself.
R. Pinchas of Koritz similarly writes in his sermons:
One must love even the sinful, but must hate their actions. Although it is forbidden to be close to the wicked, one must still love them, so that perhaps they will return to the path of the Torah. As our Rabbis teach us regarding Aharon, "He loved peace and actively pursued peace and brought people closer to Torah." (Pirkei Avot 1:12) By loving his fellow men, Aharon brought them close to Torah, bringing them back to the correct path.
Although the Gemara (Pesachim 113) says that if one sees his friend sinning, it is a mitzvah to hate him, Sefer Hatanya (ch. 32) limits this to a friend who generally observes Torah and mitzvot, yet has spurned proper rebuke. However, regarding a person with whom one is not friendly in this manner, we find in Pirkei Avot, "Hillel was fond of saying, `Be a student of Aharon - love peace ... love G-d's creatures, and bring them closer to the Torah.'" This refers even to those who are distant from Torah and the service of G-d, and for that reason are referred to merely as "creatures." They have to be drawn with bonds of love, hopefully bringing them back to serve G-d.
Similarly, the Chazon Ish writes (Yoreh De'ah 2:16):
The law of Moridin (that certain sinners are indirectly "eliminated") is only operative when Divine Providence is clear, such as when miracles were common, and the Bat Kol (Heavenly voice) was used, and the righteous were visibly guided by Divine Providence ...
However, at a time when all of this is hidden, when belief is not found amongst the commoner, ... since the whole purpose [of this law] is to improve society, it does not apply when it will not achieve any improvement. Instead, we must bring them back to the ways of the Torah using bonds of love, and to set them on the correct path as best we can.
The Ba'al Shem Tov, as well, writes (Parshat Kedoshim):
A person should train himself to judge the wicked who sin for pleasure meritoriously ... Furthermore, he should well know that this transgression exists within him also to a small degree, just that he always finds excuses to justify his own behavior. In the same way, he should try to find justification for all of his fellow Jews, because the common denominator of them all is that they are all righteous, they are all pure, and they are all worthy of receiving all blessings.