Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Walk Article-Korach



Rabbi David Walk


                A few years back Congregation Agudath Sholom here in Stamford, CT became the proprietor of a couple of old Jewish cemeteries.  These cemeteries had belonged to now defunct organizations from the early twentieth century, when Jews had become enamored of the principles of Socialism.  The ideology is just as passe (except to Bernie) as the clubs that supported it.  Recently I performed a funeral at one of these sites.  It was a graveside service and I got there a bit early, so I wandered about the few dozen graves.  They were from about 1910 until 1960, but the most striking of them all was one grave stone from 1929 emblazoned with a huge Hammer & Sickle.  I was amazed at this symbol of anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism from my youth, growing up during the Cold War, covering most of a monument with Hebrew letters of the name of the deceased.  Gazing about I didn't see other Communist symbols but I did see a number of stones with the word 'comrade' or the initials IWO for International Workers' Order which was a Communist offshoot of the Workman's Circle/Arbiter Ring or Jewish workers benefit groups.   My mother OB"M told me that just before World War II she went to a Zionist meeting in Boston, but never went back because all attendees were expected to join the Communist Party.   How could we get involved in this ideology which became so inimical to our people?  I think that we have to understand this week's Torah reading to get some insight into this phenomenon.

                But before we get to the issue in our parsha, a little digression.  Throughout Jewish history we have encountered two categories of existential threats.    One was physical annihilation, and the other was ideological disintegration.  Our Sages wanted us to understand these twin dangers, and, therefore established for us two post-Biblical holidays.  Purim, of course, exemplifies the threat of catastrophic decimation, in the guise of Haman, who was an ancient incarnation of Hitler.  To these monsters Jews must be killed at all cost.  Chanukah, on the other hand, embodies a philosophical peril to our continuity.  The Syrian Greek wannabes would have had us abandon our ancestral way of life for that new fangled Hellenism.   Our Tanach already presented us with these two paradigms.  The first was vicious Amalek, and the other was wily Korach.

                What was the threat of Korach?  He questioned the leadership of Moshe for cynical, personal reasons of jealousy and self aggrandizement.  But we're not interested in that.  He put forward his challenge in ideological terms.   The Midrash famously explains his revolt in the following way:  What parsha precedes this episode? - 'Speak to the Israelites concerning the making of Tzitzit (fringes).' Korach jumped up and turned to Moses: 'You say, "Put on the fringe a thread of blue (tekhelet) wool."  What about a garment that is itself all tekhelet, would it not be exempt from the blue thread on the tztzit?' Moses replied, 'It is obligatory to have the blue thread.'  Said Korach, 'A garment which is all blue is not exempt and four meager threads do the trick!? (Midrash Tanchuma).  It all sounds so intellectual, without any insidious intent. In reality, though, he's attacking Moshe's leadership, as he goes on to criticize Moshe and Aharon:  You take too much upon yourselves, for the entire congregation are all holy, and the Lord is in their midst. So why do you raise yourselves above the Lord's assembly? (Numbers 16:3).  In other words, just like the garment shouldn't need that corner thread if it's all tekhelet, we shouldn't need your leadership, Moshe, since we're all holy.

                A philosophic attack is being waged.  But what is its content?  Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz (1903-1994), that great rationalist, explained the debate in this way:  The difference between these two perceptions of 'holiness' is the distinction between religious faith and pagan worship.  The holiness of parashat Tzitzit is not a given assumption but a task.  There we are not told, 'You are holy,' but a demand is made to 'become holy'… In parashat Tzitzit, holiness is expressed in the most sublime aspect of the life of faith and the religious mindset of man; that he is required to accept upon himself a task... But, in the holiness of Korach and his group... man frees himself from responsibility, from the mission with which he is charged and from the obligation to struggle (Notes on the Weekly Parasha pg.96-97).  

                The Rav (Rabbi Joseph D. Soloveitchik, 1903-1993) gave a similar interpretation of Korach's attack in a speech delivered in 1973:  On the basis of Korach's theory, the mitzvah would have to correspond to the mood that prompts it. The value of the mitzvah is to be found not in its performance, but in its subjective impact upon the person, its ability to arouse a devotional state of mind… Korach argued that the blue thread of the tzitzit was meant to make us think of distant horizons, of infinity, and of the mysterious link between the blue sea and the blue sky… Korach's argument seems quite cogent… However, we do not regard the qualitative and subjective experience as primary…The only solid reality is the mitzvah, the integrity of which the Halakhah can define and control. It is the mitzvah act which has been Divinely prescribed and halakhically formulated; emotional responses cannot be so mandated (The Common Sense Rebellion Against Torah Authority).  The Rav went on to describe three reasons why Judaism demands objective acts rather than subjective feelings, but the bottom line is that the continuity of Torah and Judaism requires specific acts. 

These ideological attacks on Judaism are often a very real danger to our continued existence, because they sound soooo appealing.  They often are expressed in qualities we treasure, like love, caring for others or emotional commitment.  We are engaged in an eternal war for hearts and minds of our brethren, and to prevail we require the mind first. Touchy-feely is wonderful, but is a 'will o the wisp', not very effective for the long haul.