Friday, June 27, 2008

Korah (Mitzvot)

For more teachings on this parasha, see the archives to this blog at June 2006.

Tithes and Heave-Offerings

This week’s parasha, like Beha’alotkha and Shelah lekha before it, contains a mixture of narrative and laws. The connection between the two is often unclear, making for one of the puzzles in understanding the internal logic of the Book of Numbers. The latter half of Parashat Korah (Numbers 18), following the account of Korah’s rebellion and his dramatic downfall (literally!), describes the tasks assigned to the priestly families in protecting the integrity of the Sanctuary, the statutory portions given them from various sacrifices, and the gifts given both priests and Levites from the produce of the fields—terumot u-ma’asrot. Even though the system as a whole, without the existence of the Temple, is no longer operative as such, the formal obligation to separate these portions from the produce of the Land of Israel still exists even today, due to the sanctity attached to the land. This procedure is performed by the distributors before it goes to market, but there are some pious people who separate these portions at home, not wishing to rely upon them to perform this mitzvah properly.

The essential idea is that a certain proportion of what the land produces must be given to the kohanim and Levites, who have no land of their own, in order to support them and subsidize their sacred activity. The idea of a certain group of people being supported by the faithful, being seen in some sense as representatives of the Divine upon earth, is a widespread one, found in many human cultures. In post-Temple Judaism, we have Hasidic rebbes and various other holy men who are supported by their followers; today, there is an entire sub-culture of Torah students largely supported, albeit modestly, by public stipends. Of course, Marxists and other cynics will say that all this is a means of exploiting the gullibility of the masses, setting up an entire system enabling an entire class of sacred functionaries to live off the rest of the population without engaging in productive labor—and historical examples are legion.

What spiritually redeeming aspects are there to this system, if any? What answer can one give to the sceptics? One might argue that, at least in theory, such people live a more elevated, spiritual life than the ordinary person, and the financial support enables them to engage in such a way of life. Such tithes are also based on a certain notion of surrogacy—of someone else serving God (more intensely than I am able) in my stead.

But has not the whole tendency of Judaism over the ages, in the transition from the sacrifice-centered Judaism of the First Temple period to the late Second Temple and Classical Rabbinic age, been to say that each individual is responsible to study Torah and perform mitzvot himself? This is exemplified, for example, in the concepts of atonement and repentance, in which teshuvah in some sense takes the place of the Yom Kippur atonement ritual, with its proxy-goat sent into the wilderness.

Nevertheless: is the idea of such surrogacy, of paid religious functionaries, entirely negative and improper? There is a traditional Jewish concept of “Issachar and Zevulon”—of division of labor between those who engage in the economic sector and those more engaged in the spiritual realm. The idea, the impulse—which seems to be a universal human one—is that a person engaged six days a week in the struggle for economic survival, feels a sense of vicarious elevation through knowing that there are individuals who engage in something higher—and that he has played a part in their support. Of course, the idea can and has been abused: indeed, such a system at times seems almost to invite corruption and exploitation of their position. But when it works as it should, there is a certain sublime logic to it, providing economic freedom for those touched with a certain religious spirit.

I will close with two incidental questions. The distribution of ma’asar and ma’asar min hama’aser—i.e., 10% to the Levites (18:21-24) and 10% of that, or only 1% of the whole, to the kohanim (vv. 25-32), even when combined with terumah gedolah (the “heave offering”: v. 12, another 2%±), suggests that the Levites are far more numerous than the priests. Yet this doesn’t seem to be the case today in reality. Why?

Second: Why is this halakhic passage placed here, specifically? The obvious answer is that it would seem to be a kind of response to Korah, in that it simultaneously grants significant economic prerogatives to the Levite families, while more clearly ordering the hierarchy between the kohanim and Levites. But might not this arrangement simply reinforce the validity of his accusation that Moses and Aaron are “lording it over us”?

“Korah Our Brother!”

One Shabbat Korah some years ago, I happened to daven at a rather anti-establishment, bohemian sort of minyan. The rabbi–teacher–preacher began his talk on that occasion with the words: “Korah, you are our brother!” He went on to state that the Hozeh of Lublin —a focal figure in early 19th century Hasidism, who bridged between the tradition of the Maggid and the emergent school of Pshyshcha-Kotzk—used to refer to him as der Zeidey Koirakh, “Grandfather Korah.” He added that anyone with commonsense refrained from taking sides in the great controversy between Moses and Korah; it was only after the Divine verdict was issued, in the dramatic form of the earth swallowing Korah, that it became clear that Moses’ position was correct. What is the meaning of this underground tradition that turns everything most of us have ever learned about Korah upside down? Is there in fact ground for a sympathetic, even positive reading of Korah?

A number of the best-known, almost canonical midrashim (Num. Rab. 18.3) about Korah show him challenging several basic halakhic institutions. Thus, he ridicules the mitzvah of tzitzit, in which one thread suffices to make an entire garment kosher, parading before Moses with 300 followers, all dressed in pure blue robes. He similarly ridicules the mezuzah, the small container with two brief parshiyot from the Torah that is a sine-qua-non upon the door of every Jewish home, by asking whether a house “full of books” still needs a mezuzah. Yet a third midrash relates the story of an unfortunate widow whose meager financial resources are depleted by Moses’ relentless demands: first by the ordinances requiring tithes from field crops and fruits, then by the first-born of the flocks, the first sheering of the sheep, etc., etc. Several contemporary Rabbinic scholars have suggested that these midrashim may have served as an outlet for the Sages’ own doubts and qualms about certain aspects of the legalistic, formalistic mind-frame of the halakhah—safely projected onto Korah, the arch-heretic of early Biblical history.

In seeking an answer to these questions, I turned to the arch-master of paradox in the proto–modern period—the Hasidic teacher R. Mordecai of Izhbitz, author of Mei ha-Shiloah. The Izhbitzer has two interesting things to say about Korah: First, that Korah debunked tzitzit because they symbolize yirat shamayim, whereas Korah held that, in a certain sense, yirat shamyim is immanent in every Jew. That is, a person cannot help but do the will of God, because everything that a person does in life ultimately comes from God—even his own personal will. What Korah overlooked, says the Ishbitzer, is that we are nevertheless given free will, even if no more than the “size of a garlic peel,” because God desires that man serve him with at least the illusion of free will.

At first blush, this doctrine seems perilously close to determinism, emptying of meaning the dictum of Hazal, “Everything is in the hands of Heaven except for the fear of Heaven” (Berakhot 33b). But one expert on Izhbitzer Hasidism explained to me that this does not mean that man has no freedom but that, on the contrary, he has radical freedom: so much so, that at times the “religiously correct” choice is to be found, not through a conventional halakhic-legalist approach, but by seeking “the will of God.” And indeed, when confronting the truly significant choices in life, the crossroads, the major ethical nexuses, the halakhah is inadequate to show the way a person must walk. At times, God may show him the path: if a person looks deep within his own soul, with absolute honesty and integrity, striving to eliminate any ulterior motives or self-interest, he may merit to hear the voice of God.

Second: Korah was a radical democrat. His basic charge against Moses was that “the entire congregation is holy, and God is in their midst; why then do you lift yourselves up above the congregation of the Lord” (Num 16:3). Korah is portrayed by Mei ha-Shiloah as anticipating that great day, portrayed inter alia in the aggadah at the very end of Ta’anit, in which the righteous will dance in a circle, each one pointing with his finger at the Holy One blessed be He, who stands in the center of the circle, saying: “This is the Lord for whom we have waited and who will save us; this is the Lord for whom we have waited, we will rejoice and be glad in His salvation!” (Isa 25:9). Korah’s error, according to the Izhbitzer, was not in assuming radical equality among all people, but in seeing it as something imminent in his own day rather than as an event that would have to wait for the End of Days.

These two issues—determinism vs. free will, and egalitarianism vs. hierarchy— are central issues in the modern world. Many scientists, in studying the functioning of the brain, will argue that most of our rejections and behavior patterns are “hard-wired” into our physical nature, and that our conscious control and choice regarding our response to various situations is far less than we would like to believe.

One concrete example: the controversy regarding homosexuality, viz. same-sex marriage and ordination of homosexuals as rabbis, which recently rocked Conservative Judaism both here and in the United States, is closely related to the widely-accepted assumption that homosexual orientation is in some sense predetermined, involuntary, and thus not subject to free will in any meaningful sense. Yet in the hundreds of pages of discussion by the best minds of the Conservative movement (at least those major positions that I have read), the issue of free-will vs. determinism is barely mentioned, even though shogeg karuv la-anus, the exemption from liability of one who acts through error tantamount to external compulsion, might have served as a more plausible basis for a permissive position, rather than the dubious heter by Dorff et al. for non-penetrative erotic acts, based on a rather cavalier disregard of Rabbinic and, per Rambam, even Torah prohibitions (but more on that another time). It seems to me that the issue of how to deal with people who seem to be forced by their genetic makeup to behave in ways forbidden by the Torah is a basic one, with far-reaching theological implications, deserving of serious discussion.

The second issue raised by the Izhbitzer, invoked by the image of all Israel dancing in a circle, is that of democracy, of the innate equality of all human beings. There is hardly need to elaborate upon the fact that this is a basic element of the contemporary cultural mood or mentalité; the post-modern reluctance to make any unequivocal moral, aesthetic, spiritual or other value judgments may be traced to the feeling that “Who am I to say that my opinion is truer than that of anyone else?” This is diametrically opposed to the traditional view of Judaism, which accepts the obvious differences between human beings in terms of intelligence, learning, talents and abilities of various sorts, and even moral sensibility. Moses is seen as the true teacher and prophet, the exclusive conduit for conveying the divine Torah to Israel, and as the paradigm for the authority of Sages in later generations. And yet, as the Izhbitzer observes, in the End of Days all will be equal in their direct experiencing of the immanent God. Korah’s “only” error was in “jumping the gun.”

I will conclude, very briefly, with a comment on the haftarah. What is implied by the choice of this particular reading (1 Sam 11:14-12:22)? On the face of it, it seems diametrically opposed to the message of the Korah story. Rather than the “populist” tendencies of Korah, here the people had practically begged Samuel to appoint a king, a centralized, authoritarian leader, “like all the other nations” (8:5)—to which Samuel is adamantly opposed, reminding them here that “the Lord your God [alone!] is your king” (12:12). Perhaps this haftarah was chosen for precisely that reason: that they must not give up on the messianic, utopian vision in which all stand directly before God as king; that the ideal of an egalitarian society, expressed davka through the mouth of Korah , is not a bad thing per se.


Chapter Three

A few words about the arrangement of the chapters of Pirkei Avot: the first chapter, after presenting the basis for the chain of tradition from Moses through the Men of the Great Assembly, takes us down through the zugot, the “pairs,” to Hillel and Shammai; the second chapter introduce the great transitional figure of Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai and his major disciples; the third chapter fills in some lacuna in the history of the tannaim with sayings from a variety of figures from the era of Yavneh, the second and third generation of tannaim, and introducing the central figures of the two great schools of exegesis, Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Ishmael (§§16-17). The fourth chapter, which we read next week, takes us north to Galilee, to the Study House in Usha, after the trauma of the Hadrianic persecutions of ca. 135 CE had put an end to the Torah centers in the southern-central part of the Land of Israel. The fifth chapter is based upon a totally different principle of organization—sayings related to numbers, such as ten, seven and four—with only a smattering of sayings whose authors are named at all; while the sixth chapter is extra-canonical.

Our chapter includes a sequence of mishnayot (§§3-4, 6) on the importance of study of Torah at human gatherings of various sizes, whether at the table or in general, and the negative nature of gatherings where Torah is absent. This grouping is followed, or perhaps completed, by two brief sayings (§§9-10) about the sin of allowing oneself to be distracted from one’s Torah or even to forget it. I bring here the most comprehensive of that group:

3.7. Rabbi Halafta ben Dosa of Kfar Hananya said: Wherever ten people sit and engage in Torah the Shekhinah is present among them, as is said “God stands in the Divine assembly” (Ps 82:1). And from whence that even among five? As is said, “and His band is established upon the earth” (Amos 9:6). And from whence even three? As is said, “among the judges He sits” (Ps, ibid.). And from whence even two? As is said, “Then those that fear God spoke [each one to his fellow], and the Lord heard and listened, and He paid heed” (Mal 3:16). And from whence even one? As is said, “in every place that My name shall be mentioned, I shall come to you and bless you” (Exod 20:24).

I would like to read this mishnah as a kind of mini-sociology of community, an enumeration of different kinds of human groupings. I will consider these in reverse order than our mishnah, from smallest to largest:

One: Even an individual who engages in the study of Torah is doing something that somehow pleases God and attracts the Divine Presence. That which a person does by him/herself is significant—certainly intellectually (study is in a certain sense always a solitary activity, involving as it does the understanding of the subject matter within the individual brain!), but also spiritually, culturally, and psychologically.

Two: Two human beings engaged in some common action already constitute a “fellowship,” the nucleus of a “community.” In the traditional yeshiva setup, a hevruta, a pair of study partners, constitutes the basic unit of study during most of the day. The testimony of two people is required to verify and witness many things. Man and woman together as a couple are the basis for the nuclear family. Rav Soloveitchik, in his famous essay Lonely Man of Faith, written as a midrash on Genesis 1 and 2, sees Adam and Eve, the first couple, as already constituting a rudimentary form of human community.

Three: Three already form a group with a certain internal dynamic, the possibility of more complex interaction—not only of back-and-forth discourse and perhaps argumentation, but of majority and minority opinions. Hence Jewish law states that the smallest court of law is the tribunal, three being the smallest number capable of issuing a decisive decision without the dangers of an individual deciding the fate of his fellows by himself.

Why does our mishnah skip four? After all, there are four sons in the Haggadah, four different levels of interpretation of Torah (literal, allegorical, symbolic, and esoteric); and a whole series of examples of fours right here in Avot 5.13-19.

Five: Five is called an agudah, a band. The number is called thus, perhaps, because it corresponds to the fingers of the hand. (The thumb, the finger needed together with the others in order required to grasp things, is referred to in modern Hebrew as agudal.) Five, while not a community, is already a substantial group, capable of gathering together for action.

Ten: Ten is a microcosm of Klal Yisrael. It is, as is well known, the minyan, the minimum number required for public prayer because, as our mishnah says, when ten are gathered together the Shekhinah is present. But it can also be a community in the negative sense as well, as in the ten spies in Shelah lekha who brought back a negative report.


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