Friday, June 11, 2010

Korah (Aggadah)

For more teachings on the parashah, see the archives to this blog, at 2006_05_25, as well as June 2007, 2008, and 2009.

We mentioned two weeks ago that the entire middle section of Sefer Bamidbar may be read as a catalogue of human weaknesses. Beha’alotkha, with the story of the people’s craving for flesh and the sending of the quail, represents the basest physical appetites. The parashah continues, in the story of Aaron and Miriam’s complaints against Moses, with a tale of sibling jealousy. Shelah lekha deals with raw fear: fear of the unknown, fear of violent conflict and the encounter with the (allegedly) stronger, fear of annihilation and death, and the panic and inability to act that ensue in their wake.

In Korah, we turn to a more sophisticated level of human interaction: that based upon ideological conflict over public leadership, which often serves as a screen for ambition and personal benefit. Almost every human group at one time or another has split over “principled” issues. This is particularly true of political groups, particularly revolutionary groups (the arguments over fine points of Marxist doctrine among socialist and communist splinter groups in the US in the 1930’s were notorious), as well as of religious groups: churches and synagogue organizations seem to be constantly splitting over issues of belief and ritual. But this is true of other groups as well—even those with such innocuous aims as Overeaters Anonymous or immigrant groups.

Who was Korah? Rav Soloveitchik describes his enterprise, in an essay published in one of the first collections of his public lectures, as “The First Rebellion against Torah Authority.” Korah used various demagogic tricks, invoking sublime values, to besmirch Moshe and Aaron in an attempt to wrest leadership from their hands.

However, as I explained in a short essay published here two years ago, there is also an alternative, underground Hasidic tradition that paints Korah in more positive, sympathetic light: the Hozeh of Lublin referred to him as “dem zeide Koirakh”—Grandfather Korah. Why?

The central issue raised by Korah—and again, whether this was a demagogic tactic or reflected authentic concern for the people makes all the difference—is his call for a kind of primitive democracy, in which all are equal, all have equal access to the Holy Spirit (an issue prefigured, in somewhat different fashion, in Beha’lotkha, when Eldad and Medad “prophesied in the camp”—Num 11:26-29): “For all the people are holy, and the Lord is in their midst; why then do you lord it over the congregation of the Lord” (16:3). To this, according to a series of midrashim, there is added his call for a simpler, more rational halakhic praxis (the midrash shows Korah him mocking the tzitzit and the mezuzah, in which a few blue threads or a single small scroll on the threshold exempt an entire garment or an entire house) and for a kind of rudimentary social justice (the story of the widow who is overwhelmed by Moses’ and Aaron’s demands for tithes and other religious taxes every step of the way).

The Izhbitzer suggests that Korah’s mistake was in anticipating the immediate implementation of a state of radical equality that can only truly be realized in messianic days. He cites the image at the end of Ta’anit, in which the righteous dance together in a circle (symbol of non-hierarchic brotherhood of all), pointing with their figures towards the Redeemer God: “this is the God for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in His salvation”! But such equality can only be realized at the End of Days. (But why only then? Why can we not create our Utopia in the Here and Now? That is the question asked by all revolutionaries and social reformers.)

On another level, Korah’s challenge brings to mind a fundamental debate about the understanding of what religion is all about—a debate alluded to by Art Green in the title of his book, Devotion and Commandment, one which is enjoying a new lease on life in today’s cultural climate, with the “New Age” revival of “spirituality.” To summarize (in its contemporary formulation, not that of Korah): is the source of religious inspiration and knowledge of the Divine a revealed body of teaching—i.e., the Torah—and the authority of its recognized interpreters? Or is it the inner consciousness of God, which may reside within each individual? Is the goal obedience to the reign of Torah, or is it a kind of universal elevated spiritual consciousness—that “the earth be filled with the knowledge of the Lord, like water flowing down to the sea”? Korah clearly chose the latter: “for all the congregation are holy.” Indeed, one commentator notes that the all-blue talitot worn by Korah’s followers were a symbol of universal holiness: just as the Ark of the Covenant was wrapped in a blue cloth when carried from place to place in the wilderness, so too is every Jew a potential Sefer Torah (an idea reflected in the halakhah that one rends ones garments upon seeing a person die, or that one stand one a Talmid-Hakham enters the room).

This past Shabbat we had a Shabbat meal that seemed to embody this dichotomy: one of our guests was a traditional halakhic Jew, a graduate of a noted yeshiva who now teaches Talmud at the university, and sees the teaching of Hazal as the defining moment within Judaism; the other, a “New Age” Jew who has created his own personal synthesis of a variety of spiritual teachings—Sufi, Hasidic, Buddhist, Yoga—tied together by the criterion of inner consciousness rather than by any objective, external halakhah. We had a good time talking—but can one square the circle? Can one embrace both halakhah and an idiosyncratic, personally defined spirituality? This issue was the subtext of my Shavuot paper about heteronomy and commandment.

Historically, this issue has presented itself in traditional Judaism, albeit in a somewhat different way. Hasidism, with its quest for devekut, “attachment” to God, or the Sefat Emet’s “connection to the root”; Kabbalah, with its focus on learning and transmitting the esoteric “secrets of Torah”; even Maimonides, the rational halakhist par excellence, who sees the summum bonum in “knowledge of God” accomplished through contemplation and rigorous philosophizing; or, for that matter, much of the aggadic teaching of the Sages—all ultimately relate to the quest for the spiritual life, for inner knowledge of the Presence. The difference between them and our modern seekers is, of course, that they accepted the halakhic path and its discipline as the “bottom line” from which any Jewish God-quest must start.

A Non-Eulogy

But the issue of authority and individual autonomy expresses itself in other ways as well. This week Rav Mordecai Eliyahu, former Chief Sephardic Rabbi of Israel (1983-93), and subsequently the Rabbinic leader and spiritual guide of the National Religious Party (formerly Mizrachi), the political embodiment of Religious Zionism, passed away at age 81 after a lengthy illness.

What follows is not a eulogy in the usual sense, but more a series of reflections catalyzed by his death. I must admit that I feel no particular impulse to eulogize him, as I have in these pages with a variety of personalities, simply because I had very little contact with him (I heard him speak perhaps three or four times in all) and know rather little about him. He was of course a towering talmid hakham, a charismatic personality, a liberal posek in certain areas, and a person with a certain down-to-earth, “folksy” touch which made him accessible to the ordinary person. Twice I visited houses of mourning in Ramat Eshkol where he had come to eulogize ordinary people.

I think of him primarily in relation to two interrelated processes within Religious Zionism which, while he did not catalyze them, are somehow symbolized by the period of his Rabbinic leadership. The first of these was the turn of Religious Zionism to identification with ultra-nationalism and right-wing political views—in effect, excluding all those who did not share these views from the movement, or possibly even implying that they were not accepting Da’at Torah. I do not wish to address the substance of these issues here—the pros and cons of returning territories, attempting to make a peace agreement with the Palestinians, etc., but only the “external” aspect of the issue. In its early years, Religious Zionism was, on the simplest level, a movement of all those religious Jews who saw themselves as Zionists—people who kept Shabbat, wore tefillin and davened daily, but also participated fully in the Zionist endeavor: in the Army, in civil service, in professions, in small and large businesses, and in the everyday life of the new Jewish society being created here. Ideologically, they dissented from the anti-Zionist line of the Haredim, that Zionism was a movement that defied Heaven, violated the “three oaths,” etc., and cultivated the notion that the redemption of Israel would came slowly, gradually, and not in dramatic, supernatural events. But this was more a kind of ideological justification, to use current jargon a “narrative,” more of a pious hope for the indefinite future than an active messianic program. This was the view of S. H. Landau (Shahal), of Yeshayahu Shapira (the Admor Halutz), of Chief Rabbis Unterman and Herzog; of MKs Rabbi Yehudah Leib Maimon, Joseph Burg, Zorah Warhaftig; and of men of the Kibbutz HaDati such as Simhah Friedman, Dov Rappel, Moshe Unna—all ztz”l—and Yoske Ahituv (may he have a long life!).

In another context (that of the Conservative movement), Neil Gillman once wrote that ideological vagueness is of great value in that it enables people with divergent views to work together for common goals; the moment one defines beliefs and ideology too sharply, one excludes a large sector of any movement. This is what happened to Religious Zionism: it had been defined more by a certain life style and general attitudes than by sharply-defined ideological views; once this changed (mostly in wake of the ’67 war and the question of what to do with the territories conquered then and the need to take sides), those who were not militant nationalists or who did not support the settler movement were squeezed out. The NRP was reduced to a sectarian political party, in which Zeev Orlev and Shaul Yahalom were the “moderates.”

Secondly, Rav Eliyahu was the first rabbi to be officially adopted as the Rabbinic leader of the movement. The assumption was that, like the Haredi movements with their Councils of Torah Greats or of Torah Sages, Religious Zionism also needed a Rabbinic authority, who would guide them in accordance with Da’at Torah (a notion of dubious halakhic validity or authenticity) in responding to new legislation, conducting themselves in coalition negotiations, etc.

This development is more than a little ironic, because Religious Zionism began in a certain rebellion against Rabbinic establishment of its days—the famous concept of Mered ha-Kadosh, “Holy Rebellion.” Most leading Rabbanim in Eastern Europe did not approve of Zionism; it was only a small minority who saw in it a solution to the ever worsening situation of the Jews in Europe, long before Hitler’s rise to power. In connection with this, many thinkers in Religious Zionism drew a distinction between halakhic issues in the narrow sense—which required Rabbinic ruling—and broad issues of world-view, communal strategy, and the like. Moreover, there were always many within the movement who valued freedom of thought and individual opinion; as the movement turned rightward and toward a more authoritarian posture, these people continued to adhere to their independent positions, but without an organizational framework, or in smaller, dissident groups like Meimad, Ne’emanei Torah va-Avodah and Netivot Shalom.

I must qualify the above. While Rav Mordecai Eliyahu was the first rabbi of the NRP per se, Religious Zionism has always championed the idea of a Chief Rabbinate, as a kind of manifestation of mamlakhtiyut—as an appropriate expression of Ben-Gurion’s concept of statehood and the concomitant creation of centralized institutions. But this institution has also, in my opinion, outlived its usefulness. At one point the office was occupied by great men, men of vision and halakhic daring such as Rav Avraham Yitzhak Kook, Rav Uziel, Rav Herzog, even Rav Goren—but it has long since ceased to be a source of inspiration or of vision; it is no longer the natural home for the most eloquent, wisest, inspired spokesman of traditional Judaism. Instead, it has become a clumsy bureaucracy, whose leaders are, as often as not, chosen in the basis of their success in political wheeling and dealing. It maintains a stranglehold over the areas of personal status—marriage, divorce and conversion—in which it has enforced an inflexible halakhic policy. Far from “making Torah great and glorious,” it has contributed in no small measure to the alienation and antipathy felt by many Israelis towards Judaism of any sort. If there must, let there be a state kashrut supervision bureau and a state marriage registry, manned by officials with proper training in these areas and guided by objective criteria, but without the hollow pretence to spiritual leadership.

KORAH: Postscript

On the week of Parshat Korah, I was scheduled to give a Devar Torah at one of the local synagogues; originally, I planned to say much the same things that I sent out to the readership of HY, but while walking to shul I developed some more ideas, which I now share with you:

One of the most striking features of Parshat Korah, perhaps more than any other in the entire Torah, is that it is based upon miracles and direct Divine intervention. Moses calls upon the rebels to fill their braziers with incense, and he whose offering is accepted, “he is the holy one”—and fire comes forth consuming the 250 men. Korah and his band are swallowed up by the earth, descending live to Sheol, God “creating a new thing.” Finally, when the people remain angry with Moses and Aaron because “you have killed the people of the Lord,” they are told to set out twelve staffs to represent the twelve tribes, and overnight the staff of the Aaronide Levites blossoms with almond blossoms, proving their election.

Korah, by contrast, presents a series of arguments: the seemingly democratic claim that “All the congregation are holy” and “Why do you lord it over the people of God.” The midrash shows him presenting further arguments against various laws of the Torah: the absurdity of one blue thread making a garment “kosher,” whereas an entire robe of pure blue is not; the sad tale of the widow lady impoverished by Moses’ edicts; etc. Whether all this is truly cogent or demagoguery is ultimately a matter of judgment.

What struck me about this is a parallel to the famous story of “the Stove of Akhnai,” told in b. Bava Metzia 59b: the Sages, led by R Joshua, debate a fine point of the laws of purity and impurity with R. Eliezer. Both sides invoke dozens of cogent arguments—but in the end, R Joshua’s position, supported by the majority, takes the day. At this point R. Eliezer invokes a series of supernatural signs to prove that God Himself supports his view: the carob tree is uprooted and moves one hundred ells, the stream runs backwards, the walls of the Study House begin to topple, and finally a Heavenly voice declares “the halakhah follows R Eliezer in every place.” Yet despite all this, R. Yehoshua remains adamant that one doesn’t heed any Heavenly signs: “It is not in Heaven!”—that is, once the Torah was given to men, and ultimate authority had been bestowed upon the High Court of the Sages (by a verse of the Torah itself!), it was as though God Himself had so-to-speak withdrawn from the Torah-halakhic process and had no right to interfere. “My sons have defeated Me!” he told Elijah, with the smile of an indulgent Father–God.

The striking thing about this is that, in our story, Moses so to speak corresponds to R. Eliezer, who in the end invokes miracles and is overruled, whereas Korah corresponds to R. Joshua, who wins by the use of rational arguments, not miracles, and speaks in the name of the majority. What are we to make of this?

One conclusion, of course, is that the rules had changed, so to speak, between the time of the Bible and that of the Sages. The Biblical age was indeed an age of signs and miracles, of direct Divine involvement in the affairs of men on an almost everyday basis. In the Talmudic era, the Torah was given over irrevocably into the hands of man. Prophecy had ended with the three prophets of the Return (Zechariah, Haggai and Malachi) who were really vestiges of the First Temple period; with the Destruction of the Second Temple, the sacrifices and whatever signs they involved (“Forty years before the Destruction of the Temple the crimson thread of the Yom Kippur goat of atonement ceased to turn white, etc.”—Yoma 39b) had ceased. The age of the immediate, tangible Divine Presence had ended forever. Judaism was now a matter of human wisdom and understanding of the sacred text, and its creative interpretation, for better or worse. (This idea was first suggested to me by Prof. David Gallenkin, in a conversation in wake of that same talk.)

Note: For a lucid, poetic characterization of the spirit of these two ages, see Simon Rawidowicz, “Israel’s Two Beginnings: On the First and Second Houses in Israel (Chapters From an Unfinished Introduction to a Philosophy of Jewish History),” in his Studies in Jewish Thought (Philadelphia: JPS, 1974), 81-209. And cf. my two-part essay on his thought at HY X: Vayehi-Shemot [=Zohar]. David Halivni Weiss, in his Broken Tablets, describes the tension between two paradigmatic moments in Jewish history: the fullness of Divine Presence at Sinai, and its total, radical absence in Auschwitz, with the exegesis-centered world of Hazal somewhere in between.

It occurred to me that one might interpret the emergence of Kabbalah, with its thirst for hidden, secret wisdom, and even more so Beshtian Hasidism with its wonder-working rabbis, as well as various other pneumatic movements in Judaism, as last-ditch attempts to revive the direct, unmediated presence of the holy spirit among men—something very much like prophecy under another guise. Perhaps that is why these movements aroused so much passion and controversy on both sides. On the one hand, they represented a deep, profound human need for the living spirit; on the other hand, there is a certain mood of religious sobriety deep within the Rabbinic tradition of Jewish learning that justifiably fears the explosive potential within that same tendency. Indeed, recently a friend of mine, a kind of Jewish New-Age seeker, spoke of the Stove of Akhnai story with great sadness, as signifying the failure of the Sages to leave any opening for direct contact with the Divine.

The second conclusion is far more radical, and is in the spirit of the Hozeh’s declaration that Korah was indeed “the holy grandfather”: that is, that the parallel between the two stories holds completely, forcing us to view the ministry of Moses in a certain ironic light—that perhaps, after all, he did not fully understand the people, and somehow failed to understand the greatness and depth of the issue joined with Korah…. Who knows? Perhaps down there, in the bowels of the earth where they were swallowed alive, Korah and his band are still stirring up far-reaching, radical ideas whose day has not yet come.

Avot: “These Things Take a Person Out of the World”

On Shabbat Beha’alotkha I presented here, without elaboration, three passages from Pirkei Avot which mention negative traits or practices that “remove a person from the world” (מוציאין את האדם מן העולם). The phrase itself is an unusual one, and is somewhat ambiguous: some commentators suggest that it means that the person will literally die, while others suggest that it means something like “his life will come to nothing.” It somehow seems doubtful that it means that these things are literally punishable by death: for that we have the phrase מתחייב בנפשו, “he is culpable of his soul,” which also appears in two or three places in Avot. Rather, it seems to be suggesting that there is an innate causality such that, if you behave this way, your life will lose its meaning or its value; you will, in the end, have wasted your unique opportunity to live in this world. You will not have been a positive, vital participant in the life of this world; and you may not even get much emotional, spiritual, psychological, or possibly even carnal enjoyment or pleasure out of life.

Let us start with the last and most succinct of the three, in the chapter read this week, Avot 4.27 [21]:

Rabbi Eliezer ha-Kapar said: Jealousy [and hatred] and desire and [the pursuit of] honor remove a person from the world.

Two of the three phrases mentioned here (or three of the four, if one includes the phrase “and hatred”) deal with ones attitude towards others. Jealousy is always of others: the other guy has something I want; even if I have everything I need, the fact that he (seemingly) has more or better fills me with jealousy, so that I cannot enjoy what I have. Hatred, by its very nature, is similarly focused on the other; and the pursuit of honor as a goal in itself is also other-focused, albeit in this case on the quest for positive recognition from others. (Interestingly, some sixty years ago the American sociologist David Riesman, in his book The Lonely Crowd, spoke of “other-directedness” as one of the salient characteristics of our age.) A person whose entire life is guided by others in the negative sense —what do they have that I don’t? When will they recognize my greatness? When will they give me the honor I deserve?—is not living his own life, but is living vicariously through the opinions and accomplishments of others. Of course, there may also be a positive sense in which one is guided by others: namely, in seeing the needs of others, and in attempting to perform acts of loving-kindness and generosity for the benefit of the other—but that is something entirely different!

Finally, the last phrase, “appetite” (which I discussed at length in my teaching on Beha’alotkha the other week), originates within the self. As far as they go, physical appetites are not a bad thing; if we’re honest, all of his enjoy it when our appetites are satisfied; it is when these become cravings, obsessions, when they take over our life, that they “take a person out of the world” in the sense that they reduce life to the pursuit of satisfaction of physical needs and pleasures. Traditionally, Judaism has seen the meaning of life in “doing”—in performing mitzvot, in acts of hesed to others, in seeking closeness to God—and in the fulfillment of that “appetite” which is most praiseworthy: the appetite to learn, to know and understand more and more Torah, at ever deeper levels.

We now turn to 2.14 [11], which bears many parallels to the last mishnah:

Rabbi Joshua said: The evil eye, and the Evil Urge, and hatred of people, take a person out of the world.

The essential insight here is similar to that of 4.27: “the evil eye,” stripped of its quasi-magical connotations, means, quite simply: looking askance at the success or material possessions of others, even if this is in no way detracts from oneself—in other words, senseless jealousy (and is jealousy ever really rational?). The “Evil Urge” belongs to the same semantic field as “appetite” in the previously cited mishnah: the will/urge/appetite for physical pleasures, particularly sexual desire. “Hatred of people [of others}” in turn parallels the phrase “hatred” mentioned as an optional reading in some textual versions of 4.27.

The root of jealousy, as it seems to me, is the idea that life is a zero-sum game: Whatever the other person gets must of necessity come at the expense of others—possibly myself. There is a fallacy here: many economists, who talk of an ever-growing economy, claim that the earth has an almost unlimited capacity to provide for the needs of its population. While this is not entirely true—indeed, the environmental consciousness that has become a part of our political culture in recent decades reminds us that the earth is a closed biosphere, with certain ultimate limits; and that, moreover, the concept of an ever-growing economy often means the production of unnecessary goods and the creation through psychological manipulation of trivial needs, as well as planned obsolescence, creating products that are less durable than they should be—this issue is beyond the scope of our discussion. On the micro level on which everyday human relations occur, the “zero-sum” approach to goods is nevertheless irrelevant. Whatever the consequence on the macro, I believe that jealousy, in the simple one-to-one sense of “evil eye”—looking with adversity upon the other guy’s success—is based on a psychological fallacy.

Finally, 3.13:

3.13. Rabbi Dosa ben Hyrcanus said: Sleep in the morning, and wine at noontime, and the discourse of children, and sitting in the synagogues [or: assemblies] of the ignorant—remove a person from the world.

This mishnah is quite different: its concern is not with bad character traits, nor on focusing in a negative way on the other but, quite simply, behaviors which fritter away time, which don’t take life seriously: sleeping late, while morning is the quintessential time for activity and productive work; drinking wine in midday (I remember my parents commenting, with some concern, that when a friend of theirs who was an alcoholic—although very entertaining when he was tipsy; he was a marvelous raconteur—retired from teaching, he was likely to begin drinking in the morning rather than waiting till he came home from work in mid-afternoon), as opposed to, in the modern context, the person who has one cocktail in the evening after work or, in a working class setting, a pint of beer with his mates at the local pub on his way home. As for the prattle of children—again, what proud parent or grandparent doesn’t enjoy listening to his small children?—yet if this is a steady diet, a substitute for adult conversation, there is something wrong.

The bottom line of this mishnah, then, is that life is a serious business, and should not be wasted either by “killing time “ or engaging in inappropriate social associations.

Note: Incidentally, I believe that the admonition not to sleep on the day of Rosh Hashanah refers to sleeping late in the morning, when one ought to rise close to dawn to begin the holy service of that day—traditionally, davening on the Days of Awe began earlier than on a regular Shabbat or festival day—rather than to sleeping in the afternoon. A careful reading of Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayyim 583.2 Ram”a, including its position, will bear this out; and see especially the comment of Be’er Heitev §7 ad loc, quoting the Ari z”l.


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