Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Korah (Individual & Community)

For more teachings on this week’s Torah portion, see the archive to this blog for May 25 2006, June 2007, 2008, 2009, and June 12 2010 (bottom)

Korah’s Rebellion

A general thought: all the stories about murmurings and rebellions in the desert—the quail, the spies, Korah—take place in a space and time that is, in a sense, “nowhere”: in the wilderness, a place beyond civilization and all of its artifacts and well-established social norms. Here, things are reduced to their essence: there are just the people, Moses, God, and the sky, rock and sand. There is a starkness to the desert , but also a purity and a strange kind of beauty felt nowhere else (I experienced this personally on those occasions when I spent my reserve duty in an outpost deep in the desert, with only a handful of other men).

What is the story of Korah about? At first blush (at least as traditionally seen through the lens of tradition, of midrash and aggadah), Korah is a power-hungry demagogue who uses fallacious, “populist” arguments to challenge Moses and, by extension, the Torah itself. But there is a problem: on the face of it, in a literal reading of the text, Korah may be seen as a positive figure, the champion of popular democracy: “For all the people are holy, and God is in their midst; why then do you lord it over the congregation of God” (Num 16:3). Indeed, a cogent argument: if human beings are made in the image of God, than all people are equally holy and, in a sense, all are deserving to be priests. And in fact, there are tendencies like this in world religion: this was in particular the great motivation behind Protestantism: to challenge the elaborate and often arbitrary hierarchy of the Catholic Church; to assert that all men can and should read Scripture and interpret it directly. In some of the more radical Reformation churches there were no priests or clergy of any sort; this is the social meaning of such things as speaking in tongues among the Pentecostals, or of “Thou”-ing and of everyone being allowed to stand up and speak at Quaker meetings. This was also, ultimately, the great idea behind America: the breaking down of the rigid class system practiced in England and elsewhere in Europe; the creation of a new, open society—as open as the vast spaces of the endless prairie and deep forests and high mountains (I know this sounds like a Fourth of July sermon: I think of the contrast to our own tiny country in the Middle East, enmeshed in an endless, bitter struggle over a few thousand square kilometers): that every man’s vote counts, and every man’s voice may be heard. And this radical democracy is perhaps now entering into a new level with the Internet, where anyone can say almost anything in a potentially global forum. But to return to Korah: Moses was the Divinely-appointed leader, a prophet who spoke in the name of God. Korah challenges him, asking, on the simplest, most vulgar level: “Say’s who?” The answer, on the level of peshat, is equally problematical: Moses invokes God’s power, performing supernatural miracles to buttress his legitimacy: Aaron’s incense is accepted, rather than that of the others; the unrepentant Korah and his followers are swallowed up by the earth; Aaron’s staff flowers with almond blossoms. But there is no answer on the level of polemic, no appeal to reason or to man’s innate moral sense.

There are several possible answers to this dilemma. First, that midrash supplies the answers missing in the text itself: Korah is portrayed there as scheming and duplicitous, offering arguments that, upon closer examination, prove to be fallacious and self-serving, motivated, not by genuine concern for the people and the alleged injustices perpetrated by Moses’ Torah, but by the desire to gain power for himself.

Second: a close reading of the text itself shows Korah as a demagogue. Moses’ answer to Korah in vv. 8–10 cuts through the façade of the idealistic leader concerned with the welfare of his people to get to the heart of the matter: “Is it a small thing that God has separated you from the congregation of Israel to bring you close to him so as to serve in the Sanctuary… that you also demand the priesthood?” In other words: behind his high-sounding words about democracy and equality are concealed petty, ego-centered ambitions and jealousy: he thinks that he rather that his cousin Aaron should have been appointed high priest—and that is where it starts and ends.

But there is a third possible answer, perhaps the simplest of all. By his reliance on Divine intervention Moses was saying something very important: if one simply and sincerely believes, or rather knows, that God is present with one, that is the most convincing argument or proof of all. If Moses was truly the humble man we are told he was, for example, in the section read two weeks ago—alongside the description of his extraordinary level of prophecy (Num 12: 6-8), we are told that he was “humbler than any other man on the face of the earth” (v. 3)—then he would not argue his own case, but rely upon God’s greatness to manifest itself, seeing himself as no more than a servant and “emissary” of God. The signs he wrought, his evident personal charisma, and even the shining of his face, were all proofs for the truth of his mission.

Let us return from this perspective to the issue of universal democracy and equality. We live in a cynical age: we find it difficult to believe in leaders who are truly selfless. There have been too many examples of prominent men—political leaders, religious figures, intellectual heroes, business leaders, not to mention “celebrities” from the worlds of sports and entertainment and media—who have been shown to have clay feet, and to do what they do for personal benefit: for money, for sexual favors, for fame and ego gratification. Hence it is difficult for many of us to believe in anyone being truly selfless: the model of the Tzaddik gamur, the wholly righteous person as presented e.g. in the opening chapters of Sefer ha-Tanya: a person who has not only subdued his “Evil Urge, but “burned it away” so that it does not exist at all (“my heart is empty within me”), the one who has achieved total bittul atzmi, self-abnegation, seems an unachievable, hypothetical dream. But even granting that, I have been privileged to know at least a few people who have been genuinely God-fearing, deeply erudite and learned, but also genuinely humble—albeit, being human, not perfectly so.

Apart from his own presumed hypocrisy, the problem with Korah’s supposed ideal of a radically egalitarian society, without any leaders or structure of rulership, is that anarchy does not work. Society needs leaders, and some people are more suited to this task than others. All we can hope for are that those who become leaders will be blessed, in addition to superior talents and intelligence, with a reasonable degree of honesty, integrity, and genuine dedication to the common welfare.

SHELAH LEKHA: Postscript

A few brief observations about Shelah lekha:

Numbers 13:33 is interesting: “There we saw the nefilim, children of the giants, from then Nefilim.” Strikingly, the Spies saw the Canaanites in a mythical context, as descendants of the Nefilim, the “sons of gods” described in Genesis 6: 2 and 4 as abducting whatever human women appealed to their fancy. These verses are connected with the legends of “fallen angels” found in the Apocrypha, in Midrash, and in Christian tradition. The point is that, upon seeing the local inhabitants as more powerful than themselves and thus frightening, they “upped the ante” by describing them in mythical terms.

My wife suggested a naturalistic explanation for this: perhaps the legend of the Nefilim have been based upon an exaggerated image of the peoples of East Africa (the Masai warrior nation of Kenya and the like) who are the fastest and tallest race in earth?

Secondly: this year I noticed more clearly than ever how many parallels there are between the incident of the Spies and that of the Golden Calf in Exodus 32–34. Certainly, these two incidents are considered the archetypal sins of the Jewish people in biblical history. First, there are the obvious parallels: the verses of Divine forgiveness and compassion in Numbers 14:17–20 parallel the Thirteen Qualities of Mercy in Exod 34:6–10; indeed, thy are presented as a truncated quotation. But also, here God threatens, in a way that he does not do in any other of the murmurings, to destroy the nation and make Moses and his descendants a chosen people instead: 14:11-12, is a close parallel to Exod 32:10. (Israeli Bible scholar Yair Zakovitch has written extensively about the phenomenon of “mirroring” in various biblical stories.) Finally, we find here many verses of forgiveness that are used liturgically on the Days of Awe, much like those from Ki Tisa: i.e, Num 14:19-20; 15:26.

Third, a somewhat irreverent, semi-humorous observation about the Haftarah. We read there (Joshua 2) about Rahav ha-Zonah, Rahab the Harlot, who provided hospitality to the spies and hid them from the king of Jericho. Has anyone noticed that her name, Rahav, means “broad” —a somewhat rude slang word for a woman, emphasizing what are politely called a woman’s secondary sexual characteristics— i.e., precisely those points that would be accentuated by a “lady of the night.”

More on San Francisco and Circumcision

In discussing the proposed ban on circumcision in that city last week, I said that the motivation was not anti-Semitic, but a new, super-liberal, individualistic ideology. But I was too sanguine: someone drew my attention to a comic book on the web related to this issue, “Foreskin Man,” which uses anti-Semitic stereotypes worthy of Streicher’s Der Stűrmer (readers may google it if they like). But who knows? I can imagine Jews in the US capable of producing such cartoons, and finding them humorous.

Secondly: as I mentioned, one of the arguments of the “Antis” is that circumcision reduces sexual pleasure. I ridiculed this, stating that every circumcised man I know would agree that sex is a highly plenty pleasurable activity even in our “mutilated” state. But in the name of intellectual honesty and accuracy, I must add that Rambam says the identical thing: in the chapters on ta’amei hamitzvot in Guide for the Perplexed, he writes that one of the reasons for circumcision is to reduce sexual pleasure and thereby (supposedly) reduce temptations to sins of arayot and “violent concupiscience.” But, unlike the SF advocates for its abolition, he uses this as an argument in favor of the practice; as a thinker whose ideal human type was the philosopher, who lives entirely in the realm of mind and spirit, Maimonides sought to reduce involvement in corporeality to an absolute minimum (see Guide III.49).

Interestingly, a prominent scholar of American Jewry wrote me that: a) he thinks the chance of the law passing is slim; b) that it is almost certainly unconstitutional; c) one good thing that may come out of it is that Jews and Muslims will make common cause around this issue.

The Antis argue that the proposed law is nevertheless constitutional because “babies have no religion.” Indeed, in our sources (Mishnah Kiddushin 1.7 and the Bavli there at 29a), brut milah is described as mitzvat ha-ben al ha-av—that is, “commandments pertaining to the son incumbent upon the father”—in this case, to introduce him into the Abrahamic covenant. The underlying assumption is that there is such a thing as organic, natural religious communities, and that it is normal, accepted, and expected that parents will initiate and raise their children in their own faith community. The argument of the “Antis” is based on a very different understanding of the nature of religion, rooted in their radically individualistic view of society: society is composed only of individuals, without such a thing as community, and that religion is a purely private matter of personal, inner choice—a definition that may fit some, but by no means all, schools within Christianity, but certainly not Judaism.

,P>Again, the opposition to circumcision may be inspired in part by the analogy to female circumcision, described by the same word, practiced in many Arab and African countries, and the justifiable horror felt at that practice. The latter is a real mutilation, a kind of “castration,” if one may use that term, which prevents a woman from experiencing sexual pleasure. One should reiterate what ought to be self-evident—that circumcision is at least as safe as any other medical procedure, that the vast majority of mohalim are highly skilled people, take necessary hygienic and safety precautions, and that, if anything, it carries many health benefits. Naturally, like any such procedure it isn’t foolproof, and on occasion one hears of tragic incidents—but than, no human activity is foolproof. This might be an argument for licensing and supervision—which by the way, exists in Israel, I don’t know about the US—but not for its abolition,


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