The Hasidic sefer Mei Hashiloach is particularly famous for its passages describing how biblical figures struggled with taking action that apparently or actually transgressed halachah. One of the factors involved is their sense that they are on an unalterably high level, such that the action they wish to take must indeed be the fulfillment of what God wants of them.
Do not imagine, heaven forbid, that Zimri [who publicly had relations with the Midianite princess, in consequence of which Pinchas killed them both] was licentious, heaven forbid, because the Holy One, blessed be He, would not make a parshah in the Torah regarding a licentious person. But there is a secret in the matter.
There are ten levels in lewd behavior. The first level is a person who adorns himself and proceeds purposefully to commit a sin—i.e., he himself draws his evil inclination onto himself. And following that there are another nine levels. And on each level when a person’s power of choice is taken away from him he cannot save himself from sin, until the tenth level—i.e., a person who removes himself from the evil inclination and guards himself from sin with all his might until he cannot guard himself any more against it. and then, when his evil inclination overcomes him and he commits the act, then that is certainly the will of Hashem, and as with Judah and Tamar, for she was truly his marital partner.
And that is what was here: for Zimri in truth guarded himself from all evil lusts, and now he had the idea that [the Midianite princess] is his [marital] partner, since he lacks the power to remove himself from that act. And Pinchas said, on the contrary, that he still has the power to remove himself from that….
Mei Hashiloach: Parashat Pinchas
Now we move 2500 kilometers west, from Izbica, Poland, to Edinburgh, Scotland, where the writer James Hogg lived.
The following information is gleaned from Mr. Hyde & the Epidemiology of Evil by Theodore Dalrymple, which appeared in The New Criterion (September 2004).
In 1824, James Hogg published anonymously The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner.
In this book, the protagonist, Robert Wringhim, is persuaded by his father, a Calvinist churchman, that he is one of the saved, according to the Calvinist doctrine of predestination.
This is very different from what the Mei Hashiloach is discussing, which is a person who comes to a state of sinlessness due to his own prodigious efforts.
Nevertheless, both Wringham and (lehavdil [?]), Zimri, share the view that, being faultless, their actions must so be as well.
Wringham, unlike the Mei Hashiloach, does not countenance the idea that such a state must be possible, and so it is the devil who tells Wringham that whatever he does must be definition be the right thing to do.
Despite the differences between the Mei Hashiloach and James Hogg, it is intriguing that there is this shared interest in this theme by two men who, although contemporaries, might be thought to be living on two different planets in terms of their environment, influences, outlook, and spiritual station.
In many places, the Mei Hashiloach places many conditions on any human being aspiring to being like Judah and being able to know that his seeming desire to act in a non-halachic manner—so many conditions, in fact, that practically speaking no one is capable of attaining that level. People have therefore been puzzled as to why he posited this theoretical model in the first place. Perhaps (as indicated in his disciple’s Tzidkat Hatzaddik) it is to offer comfort in retrospect to those who look back upon their actions and reflect that despite their greatest efforts they fell: to tell them that on some level they were walking upon a path that had been immutably set forth for them. That attitude itself can make it possible for a person to acknowledge what he has done and thus take responsibility for it and engage in a more genuine teshuvah.