Korah’s tea party

3 Tamuz 5770

This post, a bit belated, concerns last week’s Torah portion, Korah (Numbers 16-17).  It is offered in memory of my father; Korah was the Torah portion for his bar mitzva.  He always joked, given his willingness to question religious cliches and unproven assertions, that it suited him well.  Of course, anyone who knew him realized that his questions, unlike those of Korah, were always for the sake of Heaven and never for self-promotion.

I just want to quote the perspectives of two great teachers of the last generation.  First, from “Judaism, Human Values, and the Jewish State”, Rabbi Yeshayahu Leibowitz (Harvard University Press, 1992), p.85:

“Accordingly, the uniqueness of the Jewish people — also called the “holiness” of Israel — is not something that was given to the people as an abiding and an enduring possession, but is rather a demand, an assignment and a task with which they are charged — a goal toward which they are to strive eternally, without any guarantee of ever attaining it.  The question is not ‘Did God bestow holiness upon the Jewish people?’ but rather, ‘Is the Jewish people striving toward holiness by assuming the yoke of Torah and Mitzvoth?’

This view has been strongly opposed by many who were incapable of such lofty faith.  The first to object to it was Qorah, who declared that ‘All the congregation are holy’ (Numbers 16:3), implying that the uniqueness of the people of Israel is a given fact: Israel is essentially a holy nation.  The holiness of the Jewish People is not, however, a reality, but rather an end or goal which transcends reality….

The Judaism of Moses is arduous.  It means knowing that we are not a holy people.  The Judaism of Qorah is very comforting.  It allows every Jew to be proud and boast that he is a member of the holy people, which is holy by its very nature.  This obligates him to nothing.  There is no greater opposition than that between the conception of Am Segulah (a chosen people) as implying subjection to an obligation and Am Segulah as purely a privilege….

The people of Israel were not the chosen people but were commanded to be the chosen people.  In what does its being chosen consist?  This is made perfectly clear in the wording of the benediction ‘who has chosen us from among all peoples and has given us His Torah’.  The Jewish people has no intrinsic uniqueness.  Its uniqueness rather consists in the demand laid on it. …” (All italics in original)

And from Professor Nechama Leibowitz (Rabbi Leibowitz’s sister), “Studies in Bamidbar (Numbers)”, Haomanim Press, p. 183;

“Note that [Korah and his followers] do not say: ‘All the congregation is holy’ – as a unit, but ‘All the congregation are holy’, ‘every one of them’, each one taken, individually.  The assertion of individual, selfish ambitions outweighs their group feeling as a ‘kingdom of priests and holy nation’.  They interpreted the mission of holiness, the role of ‘chosen people’ with which they had been charged by God, in the sense of conferring on them superiority and privilege, rather than as constituting a call to shoulder extra duties and responsibilities….The titles of ‘special people’, ‘holy people’ were in the nature of demand notes presented by the Almighty for them to honor by deeds of holiness.  Instead they took them to be titles of distinction conferring privileges on them.”  

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3 Responses to “Korah’s tea party”

  1. Riva Atlas Says:

    What a beautiful way to look at Judaism! I find the traditional notion of inate choseness so troubling–and it has sparked both anti-semitism and lazy theology on the part of many Jews.

    Thanks for posting this! I hope this posting (and your blog overall) gets widely read.

  2. Stuart Says:

    I agree completely with your view of the jewish people as commanded to be holy through actions. I must must admit that I am troubled by the fact that when Korach accepted the challenge and made an offering – and taking action – they were consumed and swallowed. I find the correlation disturbing. Rabbi Friedman made a similar point of Judaism being a religion of action, not existence in a recent Dvar Torah on Korach.

  3. Nancy Miller Says:

    David,
    Such a beautiful piece of learning; a nice honor for your father. And I found it particularly meaningful to read it after Tisha B’av. Thank you.

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