Parashat Emor (Leviticus 21:1-24:23): An Eye for an Eye and Blasphemers

I am a blasphemer. Not in how I use God’s name as a swear word. I swear very little if at all. I am probably not a blasphemer in contravention of the Third Commandment that instructs us, “not to bear the name of YHWH in vain.” (Exodus 20:7) However, I am a blasphemer deep in my heart and even deeper in my mind. This is not a charge stated lightly or carelessly. Rather, it is an onerous one and is the main reason I find this week’s portion so intriguing.

What is a blasphemer?

Parashat Emor is primarily about the equation of purity and holiness and, more particularly, how priests are to avoid becoming “polluted”. Yet, incongruously, the portion ends with the stoning of the blasphemer just before the law of retaliation (lex talionis) is repeated. The two sides of the sandwich, rules of retaliation and priestly injunctions against pollution, are critical to my understanding of blasphemy and how it should be treated by a community.

Let me begin with the injunction of an eye for an eye, the injunction to retaliate. Verses 24:19-20 read as follows:

ויקרא כד:יט וְאִ֕ישׁ כִּֽי־יִתֵּ֥ן מ֖וּם בַּעֲמִית֑וֹ כַּאֲשֶׁ֣ר עָשָׂ֔ה כֵּ֖ן יֵעָ֥שֶׂה לּֽוֹ: כד:כ שֶׁ֚בֶר תַּ֣חַת שֶׁ֔בֶר עַ֚יִן תַּ֣חַת עַ֔יִן שֵׁ֖ן תַּ֣חַת שֵׁ֑ן כַּאֲשֶׁ֨ר יִתֵּ֥ן מוּם֙ בָּֽאָדָ֔ם כֵּ֖ן יִנָּ֥תֶן בּֽוֹ: Lev If anyone maims his fellow, as he has done so shall it be done to him: 24:20 fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. The injury he inflicted on another shall be inflicted on him.

This is not an abstract imperative to me. Last Monday I was operated on my left eye. It was injured when I was seven-years old. Doctors removed a piece of lead, stitched up my pupil and for over fifty years I could only discern light and dark; through that eye, everything only looked like various shades of a cloud. Once just over twenty years ago when we were driving north on Vaughan Avenue just south of St. Clair Ave. W. and I was in the passenger seat, I suddenly exclaimed aloud, “I can see! I can see!” For the first time in over five decades on the big billboard on the north side I could discriminate actual shapes with my left eye – blurry though they were. I even saw some sort of difference in colour, though, when I checked, not quite what others saw. But the recovery of some sight in the left eye was “a miracle.” I could see with my left eye, not clearly, but see nevertheless.

Over the years since, contrary to the pattern of most people, my sight in that eye gradually improved so that I began to be able to identify shapes and even read very large print. The improvement was attributed to the fact that the scar tissue on my pupil had gradually become smoother over the years and had become more and more transparent. My retina had never been injured. It was suggested that I get laser surgery and there was a good chance that my vision would improve even more.

When I was first told about this, I was informed that there was a risk, not a tiny one but a significant chance that there would be no further improvement and that the improvement in my vision would even be set back. The main reason was that my pupil had been misshapen by the injury and laser surgery would be riskier. I decided not to take the risk and rather enjoyed the gradual improvement in my sight in my left eye over the last two decades.

Then four things happened. First, I had begun to develop cataracts in my eyes, much worse in my partially-sighted left eye than my right, and my vision in that eye had begun to become more blurred again. Second, laser surgery had improved enormously and the chances of success had changed dramatically. Third, my optometrist, whom I saw regularly, seemed more dedicated to improving my eyesight than I was and “insisted” that I see a surgeon. Fourth, in the test for my surgery, at least in one of the tests, the technician put a blackout lens over my right eye and a dark lens with pinholes in it over my left eye. I was asked to read the letters on the screen.

Miracle of miracles! I could read every single letter, right down to the tiny ones on the final line. Clearly, I could even have perfect vision out of that eye if the light was allowed to reach the retina easier and perhaps more directly and more focused. I joyfully acquiesced to the surgery.

A week ago Monday I had the surgery. This Wednesday I went for my follow-up examination. I could read through the left eye all but the bottom row of letters on the black-and-white screen. I had been rewarded with 20/30 vision. Success!

What does this story have to do with a revenge ethic let alone with blasphemy? The full context of the injury helps clarify the relevance. When I was seven-years-old, fifteen months younger than my late older brother (he eventually became a highly-regarded cardiologist), he had just turned nine. As he did his homework at the kitchen table in our house on Ulster Street, I began to tease him mercilessly for having to take school work home and for not finishing everything at school or even dispensing with it quickly when we got home. Finally, in rage and exasperation at the continual interruptions and the constant teasing, he turned and flung his pencil at me. The pencil hit my left eye and the end piece of the lead broke off and remained lodged in my pupil.

That was on a Thursday after school. We did not know the extent of the damage at the time, or that the lead had been lodged in the pupil. My eye just stung and kept watering. The nurse was not in the school on Friday and I was sent to see her first thing on Monday morning. She immediately called my mother and I was rushed to Sick Children’s Hospital in the old building on College Street that now houses the blood bank. I was operated on the same day and spent the next three weeks in the hospital graduating by steps from a black mask to a Lone Ranger mask and then a black pirate patch over my left eye.

Other than eating salty porridge – sugar was still rationed immediately after WWII – my memory of the hospital in a general ward with about twenty other young boys was that we had had a wild great time over the three weeks of my stay. My blind eye has just become a fact about me. Because I had very dark brown eyes, no one noticed that the left pupil was turned upwards unlike my young friend, Charlie Menkes, who had an external scar over his eye where he had been cut. In contrast to me, everyone knew he was blind in his left eye.

What if the law of retribution had been in effect? Would my brother have lost sight in his left eye because he had thrown the pencil? Even though I had provoked the action? After all, the injunction simply stated that, “The injury he inflicted on another shall be inflicted on him.” How unjust that would have been! And my late bother might not have become the brilliant medical diagnostician he turned out to be.

The lex talionis was not nuanced like the Hammurabi Code that only required an eye for an eye if a noble had been injured. The person would only have to pay a few shekels if the victim had been a commoner or even half that value if he were a slave. If he was a Mesopotamian, my brother would have been forced to pay me his earnings for perhaps a few hours of work for I too was just a commoner. But we were not Mesopotamians. We were Jews. And the law in the Torah regarded everyone as equal and requiring the same retributive punishment.

The injunction of an eye for an eye is one part of the narrative, the top slice of the sandwich. I have already written about the other side-story, the bottom slice that occurs in Leviticus, God’s sudden slaying of Aaron’s two eldest sons, Nadab and Abihu, for who knows what – because they erred as priests in bringing alien fire into the Holy of Holies, because they might have been a bit tipsy, or for a myriad of other rationales that rabbinic authorities have dreamt up to excuse such murderous divine action without giving the victim a hearing or any due process let alone some slack. Unlike alleged pollution of the holy, at least an injured eye only required injuring the eye of the one who caused the injury and not sudden and immediate death. Thank God my brother had only injured me physically and not polluted the purity of God’s holy place.  I regard these rare side-stories as perhaps throwing more light on the law than all the details of that law.

Which brings me to the blasphemer. (Leviticus 24:10-12) In the camp, there was a fight between two boys, presumably young adults rather than young boys like my brother and myself. The two boys were not brothers at all. Both mothers were Israelites, but the father of one was an Egyptian while the father of the other was an Israelite. Had the young lad with the Israelite father provoked the other boy by calling him a half-breed? Had the boy with the Egyptian father responded by cursing the Israelite God?

Whatever the back story, the son of the Egyptian father was put in the stocks to await YHWH’s decision about his punishment. Note, there is no indication that the one boy injured the other in the fight, only that he blasphemed God. But was this a different example of retributive punishment? What happened? Presumably God’s honour was far more important than a blinded eye for God ordered the Israelites to take the lad outside the community and stone him.

ויקרא כד:יג וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר יְ-הֹוָ֖ה אֶל מֹשֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר:כד:יד הוֹצֵ֣א אֶת הַֽמְקַלֵּ֗ל אֶל מִחוּץ֙ לַֽמַּחֲנֶ֔ה וְסָמְכ֧וּ כָֽל הַשֹּׁמְעִ֛ים אֶת יְדֵיהֶ֖ם עַל רֹאשׁ֑וֹ וְרָגְמ֥וּ אֹת֖וֹ כָּל הָעֵדָֽה: Lev 24:13 And YHWH spoke to Moses saying, 24:14 “Bring out the curser outside of the camp and all who heard him will lean their hands upon his head, and the whole community will stone him.”

Was this similar to the treatment meted out to Aaron’s two oldest sons, Nadab and Abihu? The treatment of the son of the Egyptian father seems much worse or, at the very least, much gorier. Nadab and Abihu seemed to be instantly consumed by God’s fire. The son of the Egyptian father and the Israelite mother, Shelomith, clearly suffered a much slower and more agonizing death. However, there is an indication that the blasphemous son of the Egyptian father, is, like King Josiah, the real hero of the story. Like Rebecca, the mother of the son with the Egyptian father was Shelomit, daughter of Divri of the tribe of Dan. Such a description was a lofty honorific.

Was racism involved? Was the son of the Egyptian father really being punished for being of “mixed blood” and, therefore, a symbol of the so-called pollution of the nation through intermarriage, through breeding cattle of one kind with cattle of another kind? Did such alleged “pollution” defile Eretz Israel, the Holy Land itself?

That seems not to be the case. The bloody mob execution was not racist. It appears that the text condemns racism. After all, Miriam got a skin disease for chastising Moses for taking an Ethiopian bride. The following verse is even clearer and reads as follows:

ויקרא כד:טו וְאֶל בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל תְּדַבֵּ֣ר לֵאמֹ֑ר אִ֥ישׁ אִ֛ישׁ כִּֽי יְקַלֵּ֥ל אֱלֹהָ֖יו וְנָשָׂ֥א חֶטְאֽוֹ: כד:טז וְנֹקֵ֤ב שֵׁם־יְ-הֹוָה֙ מ֣וֹת יוּמָ֔ת רָג֥וֹם יִרְגְּמוּ ב֖וֹ כָּל הָעֵדָ֑הכַּגֵּר֙ כָּֽאֶזְרָ֔ח בְּנָקְבוֹ־שֵׁ֖ם יוּמָֽת: Lev 24:15 And to the children of Israel you will speak, saying: any man who will curse his God will bear his sin.  24:16 And one who will pierce the name of YHWH will surely be put to death.  The whole community will surely stone him, like stranger and like citizen; when he pierces the name he will die.”

It did not matter who cursed God. Israelite or son of an Egyptian were to be treated the same – stoned and murdered for cursing God. Should we be delighted that in this case egalitarian principles of equality before the law trumped racism? Shawna Dolansky a professor at Carleton University whom I have cited favourably before, seems to think so. I myself find this type of compensatory rationale, however valid in bringing out the principle of equality before the law, to be a distraction from the law that required blasphemers to be stoned.

Dr. Serge Frolov finds this injunction to kill blasphemers to be an embarrassment to the religious and body politic of Israel. I, on the other hand, find it intriguing. Perhaps the one who cursed God was not a reference to him in a racist or nationalist sense, but that he was an Egyptian in his heart, that he belonged to the class of people who prevented the Israelites from being liberated. On the other hand, even though he dissed God, perhaps it was he who at this time lived among the Israelites and now stood on the side of liberation and freedom as well as equality. Perhaps he stood as a foil in contrast to those who stone others for using God’s name as a curse word and who demand an eye for an eye. Perhaps the son of the Egyptian was a symbol of one who challenges the premises of both injunctions and argues that the God of Israel is a God of self-revelation, is a God that learns the lessons of excess zealotry and reverence for purity, is a God who gradually, through intercourse with flawed humans, learned too of His own flaws and learned as well to accept responsibility and to diss His inhumanity.

Afterword I

Ignoring for the moment those who simply deride the barbarism of such laws, this stance is quite different from that of most Reform Jews, who avoid discussing such injunctions that they find embarrassing. Others, supply twisted rationales. Still others, mainly a few evangelical Christians, believe that such demands should be taken literally and enforced. Certainly, in their own way from their own sacred texts, Islamicists from the Taliban and ISIS take similar injunctions literally. What about interpreters like myself who try to understand the plot, the characters and the theme in terms of the textual context and the thrust of the narrative?

The story begins with two boys struggling. Unlike Cain and Abel or Jacob and Esau, they are not blood brothers. But they are at odds. But like those stories, in the struggle, the one favoured by God (Abel) or by Isaac (Esau) is not the one that becomes the carrier of the historical narrative. Cain and Jacob win but carry the wounds of that victory similar to the way Jacob limps after wrestling with the angel. Similarly, after an enraged Moses killed the overseer for his barbaric treatment of the Hebrew slave, the next day when he found two Hebrews fighting (Exodus 2:13) and asked why one Hebrew had struck his fellow Hebrew, the striker bravely retorted and asked why Moses was acting so high and mighty. Then he mocked Moses responding, “Do you think you can kill me like you killed the Egyptian?”

This story of the stoning of the son of an Egyptian father and an Israelite mother echoes that one, for the son of the Egyptian God, like Moses, acts out of rage, not to kill as Moses did, but to use God’s name as a curse word. But unlike Moses, the Israelites do not flee for they are now on their own land. Further, it is the Israelites who perform the unseemly violence, not Moses, and not in wrath, but in a cool-headed and cold-hearted belief that they were just inflicting a divinely sanctioned punishment for simply using God’s name in vain.

This fighting (נִצִּים) that takes place in both cases is not simply a physical fight, but a struggle to find the correct path and the norms. And like the pattern throughout the Torah, somehow, the choice originally taken seems the worse one, whether the injunction flouted is one of protecting the purity of the Holy of Holies or the name of the Holy One Himself. It will take humanity to soften and amend the harshness of God’s pristine and inflexible commandments.

That is reason enough to be a blasphemer.

Afterword II

Note that, unlike the case of Aaron’s two sons, towards whom God took umbrage, it is the Israelites who arrest the son of the Egyptian father and Israelite mother for cursing God.  God simply delivers the verdict. But God does not get off the hook so easily. We all know the nursery rhyme, “Sticks and stones will break your bones but names will never hurt you.” Just as it is totally unjust to take an eye for an eye, it is far worse to take a life simply for dissing God. Unless – an important unless – the name of God is His life essence. Blasphemy is not simply using God’s name as a curse word, but abusing God’s name, God’s reputation.

Is this not like Putin punishing dissidents or Erdoğan arresting Turks for insulting the highest authority in the land or Donald Trump insisting that dedicated civil servants be fired for besmirching the name of The Donald. After all, what else is Trump, for better or for worse, but his brand? Isn’t that true of God? And is it not much more of a blasphemy than using God’s name as a swear word to comparing YHWH to Putin, Erdoğan and Trump? Does that not make me a blasphemer in my heart and mind much more deserving of being stoned than the son of the Egyptian father and Israelite mother who used God’s name as a curse or my brother who, in justified anger, threw a pencil at my eye?

All the twisting of the story to turn it upside down and inside out to insist it is a warning against the Israelites insulting anyone’s god, is a lesson against religiously inspired violence based on the belief that insulting the divine name is a most serious and egregious transgression, is not only beside the point, but a more repulsive apologetic in the name of higher principles than all the Talmudic rabbis who try to justify the injunction.

I am more worthy of being cursed because I challenge not only God’s holiness as giving Him an immunity, but the whole idea of separating the holy and unpolluted from the profane and unpolluted. For the nitty-gritty of ethics is to be found in the profane rather than in any abstract vision of purity or perfection. That is why rabbinic Judaism was superior to either the puritanism of the Essenes or the priestly ritualism, even if it often slipped back into the errors of its close predecessors and contemporaries.

 

Hail to heartfelt and mindful blasphemers!

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Orthodox Judaism in Opposition to Reform Judaism

Orthodox Judaism in Opposition to Reform Judaism

by

Howard Adelman

The mentality of Orthodox radical opponents of Reform is not that you are either with us or against us. Rather the point is that, as long as you do not challenge our (the orthodox) sacred mission, whatever else you do and however atheistic or indifferent you are to religion, you are not a threat. You live beside but not fundamentally in opposition to the holy spirit. But if you question whether God is on our side – on the assumption that God does indeed take sides in such arguments – whether “we” are the holy bearers protecting the word of God, then you are a heretic and Reform institutions and rabbis should be shunned by the Orthodox community. For the argument is about which segment of Judaism embodies holiness. Secular Jews do not claim to be holy so they are no threat; cooperation with the secular world is fine. But if one claims to be Jewish in a religious sense, but you are not halachic Jews in accordance with minimal requirements by the Orthodox, then that is beyond the pale.

For what is at stake for these spokesmen of Orthodoxy is the most important matter of all – the salvation and redemption of the Jewish people. Secular Jews may work towards that redemption through Zionism even if their intention is not to advance towards a religious redemption. Unconsciously, “they long for the truth and Divine light found in the Torah.” They retain a spark of holiness. Reform Jews, however, claim to offer a different path to redemption or, even worse, advance themselves as religious Jews while ignoring the whole task of redemption. They have deliberately chosen to extinguish that spark of holiness. They are despoilers who undermine both God and the Torah as God’s holy word. Better to ignore the claims of Torah than offer interpretations that disavow its essential holiness.

The secular merely do God’s work indirectly. Reform Jews are evil and undermine God’s word. They are “like an atrophied limb festering in the nation’s body, devoid of Torah and the light of true Judaism.” The limb must be amputated to save the body politic of Judaism. For Reform offers an alternative religious route that denies Oral Law as a source of religious legal authority. Reform is heretical because it plunders Torah without revering it and “uses ideological terms to lower the Torah to accept our desires and the modern liberal western ethos.” In the Reform movement, man, not Torah, defines what is true and what is good. Reform “denies G-d’s revelation to us through prophecy and the Holy Temple, denies the eternal life he planted in us through the Torah commandments.” There can be no truck with the devil, no compromises or cooperation, though this does not apply to individuals, only institutional efforts to gain even the slightest entry in Israel and gain legal and public legitimacy.

There is no way to justify granting the Reform Movement the slightest entry, and neither legal nor public legitimacy in the state of Israel.

The issue is not which movement does or does not embody holiness, but rather Orthodoxy insisting this is what is at stake. In contrast, Reform argues that the law of the land, the law of a secular state should not be used to adjudicate such a debate or even confirm that this is what is at stake in the debate. My argument is that the Orthodox are truly following in the steps of Moses in defining heresy, in defining who and what embodies holiness, in defining who are the elect of God, and most importantly, insisting that this is the debate while the opposition insists it is about arrogance, about quashing other views, about a failure to listen, about usurping political and legal authority to advance one’s position using spurious arguments that distort the nature of the debate.

Though this debate may seem like a family or in-tribe argument, I suggest, especially in light of my reading of Korah, that it has wider implications. What follows is an article by Rabbi Baruch Efrati distributed by Arutz Sheva in preparation for a forthcoming conference on Reform and Israel. It puts forth this Orthodox position. After that brief paper, I include two very different responses to my interpretation of Korah. Tomorrow I will return to discussing BDS and its intellectual roots.

Op-Ed: The critical difference between the Reform Movement and secular Jewry
Arutz Sheva has received a position paper written for the Zion and Jerusalem Conference to take place next week on the topic of the Reform Movement and Israel.
Published: Tuesday, July 05, 2016 7:38 PM

Rabbi Baruch Efrati

Translated from Hebrew by Rochel Sylvetsky
In contrast to the words of individual rabbis who called on Israel to cooperate with the Reform Movement, our message is a call to stand firm and declare, in the immortal words of the Prophet Isaiah “Your plans will not be realized nor will your words be upheld, because G-d is with us.”

Let us explain our stand on the matter.

Historically, G-d fearing Jews approached the Zionist Movement in one of two ways. Some turned their back on the Zionists because most of the new movement’s adherents were not religious. They placed prime importance on negating anything secular, thereby protecting their communities, but also ignoring earthshaking Jewish national developments. Rabbi Kook, zts”l, did not respond that way, but sought to join the Zionists, to be involved and try to raise the spiritual level of our people, of every sector, by imbuing their endeavors to return to Zion with an aura of holiness.
Rabbi Kook spoke and wrote often on the uniqueness of Israel and on the obvious and revealed Redemption that was taking place before his eyes. Non-observant people of integrity, he said, do not come here to be free to lead a decadent and erring way of life, but because unconsciously, they long for the truth and Divine light found in the Torah. Ideological secularism is being revealed in confused souls whose hidden inner desire is the light of the Almighty, the light they lacked in the exile before our nation’s coming back to life here. The secular world is one of impurities. but in its depths there is a spark of holiness that keeps it alive – and that allows the appearance of the true Jewish soul to come to the fore.

This viewpoint led Rabbi Kook to have faith in the tikkun that the secular Zionists would experience, and, he believed that even those most adamant in their antagonism to the Torah would return once the vibrant and holy light of the Torah was apparent to them – and in the end, they would contribute much to the revival of G-d’s Word in Israel. We believe in the Almighty Who has stretched out His hand to redeem His people, he said, and all the vicissitudes of Israeli culture are attempts to reach spirituality, to search for the grandeur of a G-d without limits – and will, eventually, lead to tikkun.

In contrast to Rabbi Kook’s loving and empathetic approach to the non-observant Israeli, he castigated the Reform Movement vehemently in his writings, and wrote the following letter to American Jewry, which he saw as fated to disappear because of the activities of this movement:
B”H, The Holy City of Jerusalem (may it be rebuilt speedily in our time), 1922
To our brothers, to the beloved and holy congregations in the United States of America and Canada, may G-d protect them, those who seek to keep the word of G-d, believe in the heritage of Moses, the Written and Oral Law, G-d’s Covenant with the people of Israel: Greetings to you from the Holy Mount of Jerusalem.
My dear Brothers,
The state of true Judaism as it is upheld by the faithful in your midst has been brought to my attention and it breaks my heart. The despoilers have come, those who have destroyed the vineyard of the Lord of Hosts, and are even now are causing many to abandon the G-d of Israel and His eternal Torah – They, the inventive Reform leaders to whom many, even from within the faithful religious camp have been drawn unwittingly, uproot the foundations of the world that are intertwined with the basic principles of Torah and Judaism.

And these cracks are in the wall of sanctity, evidenced in the words that are publicly uttered, the actions that leave their mark on entire congregations, including the way synagogues are constructed and what customs they follow – and they go from evil deed to evil deed, one sin leads to another, destruction brings on more destruction, to the point where they have laid their hand on the holy mesorah, in place from the beginning of time, that mandates separate prayer sections for women and men.

We know what happened to the first despoilers who began destroying and abandoning the original Jewish tradition and heritage, we know what happened to them, that almost all of them are lost to the people of Israel, having left the faith along with their offspring. Many of them have been swallowed up without a trace by the non-Jewish world, and those who have not yet been lost are like an atrophied limb festering in the nation’s body, devoid of Torah and the light of true Judaism. Our eyes see this and are filled with longing for them, while the best of them regret the sin of their fathers once they see the spiritual ruin that it spawned.

There is no way to justify granting the Reform Movement the slightest entry, and neither legal nor public legitimacy in the state of Israel.
Why did the sainted Rabbi Kook have such a vastly different attitude to Reform Jewry than the one he evinced towards secular Jews? Why didn’t he seize the opportunity to call for cooperation with the Reform Movement the way certain rabbis do today? Why did he refer to them using sharp names such as: “despoilers,” “destroyers of the vineyard,” “wreckers,” “uprooters of eternal foundations,” “instigators,” “cut off from the house of Israel,” “atrophied limbs in the body of the people” – epithets that the rabbi never used in describing anyone except the Reform Movement and Jews who converted to become heretical Christians?

The answer is crystal clear. The secular world and the observant world live side by side. The non-observant have chosen wrongly, the Rabbi felt, but they are open to tikkun because of the light spilling over from the religious world existing beside them and their sacrifices for the Jewish people. The secular Jewish world does not want to take over the religious world from a theological point of view, but to live beside it – hence, the possibility of influencing that world, listening to its hearts’ desires, elevating its holy sparks to their heavenly source. The secular are actually non-observant Orthodox, they do not present an alternative organized religion that turns transgressions into an ideology intended to take the place of the Torah. They have not invented a made up religion but are in the midst of a process where secularism is withering and faith is blossoming, as one can see over the last few years in which there is constant strengthening of ties to Torah, baruch Hashem.

In contrast, the Reform Movement has a “progressive” ideology that wishes to exchange the Oral Law’s G-d-given message. It does not wish to ask questions about the Torah but to create a religious empire of its own. It has an organized theology that grants legitimacy to transgressions and turns them into religion. There is no possibility of living side by side, but a battle over who will lead the nation. Our dialogue is thus one between enemies, not lovers. It is either we or them, the holy or the ritually impure and their ideological rebellion against the Oral Law.
Isaiah describes idol worship as gaining strength because it justifies man acting according to his baser desires. When a man bows to idols, he is really bowing to himself and his desires, turning his sins into an ideology and sanctioning them a priori as religious activities. Idols were always lascivious or murderous in their design, and an example of this is Ashtor, a nude female holding weapons of war and symbolizing lust and bloodshed. The idol is really the worshipper himself, he alone decides what constitutes ethical behavior with no heavenly agent above him. The lust for idol worship is so pervasive, that people would sacrifice their own children to prove their loyalty, but really succeeded in proving that they were true to their basest instincts and not to a Supreme Being who restrains and sets limits for human behavior.

The Reform Movement originated in a form of heresy that wished to establish a new religion based on plundering that which is holy. It is a model that does not speak of raising one’s level of purity in order to accept the Torah, but uses ideological terms to lower the Torah to accept our desires and the modern liberal western ethos (some of whose beliefs are beneficial to man in themselves). It does not sacrifice children, but it sacrifices G-dly values in the same fashion, and that is just as grave.

The Reform Movement wishes to accomplish exactly what its name says, to effect a critical change in the foundations of Torah, putting man in the center to define truth and falsehood, good and evil. It denies G-d’s revelation to us through prophecy and the Holy Temple, denies the eternal life he planted in us through the Torah commandments. Its goal is not to strengthen efforts to achieve a higher plane, as Israel’s non-observant Jews do, but to lessen and remove the sanctity of Jewish tradition. It does not believe that Jews are the Chosen People and wants the world to unite, as do the Christians, under one faith – that of belief in man, his desires, his wants. The Reform Movement is against a biological definition of the Jew, instead emphasizing his personal feelings and self-definition.
This is not Judaism.

Confronting this heresy, there are no compromises and no cooperation. Just as no one would join forces with the man who steals his wife and wrecks his home, so there can be no joining of forces with a movement that wishes to do the same to our home, the State of Israel, to our Jewish identity, to our Torah-true values.

As I have written before, this movement made a strategic decision to infiltrate the State of Israel from the United States and to change the balance of power in Israeli society so that the religious world would not continue to be a place of commitment to mitzvot and the guidance of Heaven, but, become, instead, a folkloristic tradition. The movement donates large sums of money to yeshivas and other organizations and it is hard to stand strong in the face of this temptation, so that one can already discern their devious influence on rabbis and concepts in the religious Zionist world.

This has to be the rule: i
Individual Reform Jews are our brothers and we will welcome them warmly as part of the Jewish people (those that actually are Jewish), and we are prepared to explain their mistaken view of Judaism to them if they wish to listen. However, we will wage an everlasting war against their ideological movement, a war that does not affect our relations with individual members There is no way to justify granting the Reform Movement the slightest entry, and neither legal nor public legitimacy in the state of Israel.

Two shining luminaries, the High Priest of Modern Orthodoxy, Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik and the High Priest of Religious Zionism, Rabbi Avraham Hakohen Kook, were unequivocal about this issue and came out strongly against legitimacy and cooperation with this misguided and destructive movement. At the same time, they told us to love every Jew. We, their students and the students of their students must grasp the folds of their garments and not swerve from the path of our Torah, even if we have to pay a high price – literally and figuratively – for our principled stand.

What now follows is a selection of two responses to my commentary on Korah, including my reflections on them.

Howard,
Comparing Moses to Kim Jong is inexcusably offensive and misses the whole point of the Korah narrative, showing he was wrong and Moses was right. For if Korah’s doctrine had prevailed, Moses’ project would have been aborted then and there. The teachings of monotheism would have been checked. For if these tribes already are the holy people of Yahweh, no further reforms are necessary and no further struggles need to be waged. This Moses cannot accept. He knows that the people have a long way to go; and he fears they may never get there if instead of hallowing themselves through the new teachings, they look upon themselves as already holy. (See Buber,Moses,p.190,in Irving M.Zeitlin, Ancient Judaism: Biblical Criticism from Max Weber to the present).

Thanks very much for the feedback. It is greatly appreciated.

Of course, the point of the narrative is to show that Moses was right and Korah wrong. But on what basis? Due process? A fair hearing? Further, Korah’s protest was not about the project itself, but about how decisions were being made, and, even more, about the attitudes behind them, even if behind it all there was a deeper challenge. If the argument is made that Korah stood for a reactionary position in insisting that the people were already holy and, therefore, did not have to undergo further change, that is a separate argument. I merely read the text as asserting that all of holiness is not embodied by the top leader but shared to some degree by the people. It is not about perfection having been achieved. I said in my blog that I was not favouring Korah’s argument or the way he challenged Moses. What I argued is that the challenge was deformed and Korah was subjected to a kangeroo court.

As for the substance of the issue – the holiness of the people – I would consider that Korah, in arguing that the people were holy, was not so much proclaiming an accomplished task as insisting on a form of populism, a reference used to oppose Moses’ assuming all power through reference to a higher authority rather than in his own name. Populism, of course, is a frequent way of challenging authorities and has its own problems. Even if Moses had done that fairly and with consideration, it would be another matter. But Moses dealt with the matter through distortion, escalation and, as another reader noted (see below), by displacing responsibility. The true richness of the text comes through in that, while history is written by the victors, there is no real effort to whitewash Moses. He is on display with all his faults.

What happened to Korah and his fellow protesters was indeed worthy of Kim Jong-un. I, obviously, do not care for idolizing heroes in Jewish history or rationalizing their actions in terms of the future justifying a drastic action in the present that goes beyond the pale, which I have a sense Martin Buber did, but such an analysis would require a separate examination than the one I provided.

A very different response follows.

From the perspective of a non-religious, agnostic reader, who is largely ignorant of the contents of both the Torah and the Bible but eager to learn from the learned so as to become a better person: This situation reminds me of more contemporary vertical hierarchies where people on the ladder hide behind the higher up when it comes to assuming individual responsibility: “I am just a simple administrator and executor of the Board’s wishes. If you don’t like what I am doing, you are in effect criticising the leadership above, not me. They had put me into this position, it was their choice, ask them if you have questions regarding their decisions.”

Moses does not engage at all in a discussion of Korah’s points (like a good manager would do), he immediately escalates the issue to the Board. This is cowardly authoritarian move, disrespectful to Korah, who after all has all the human qualities to get promoted into the same leadership position. Moses hides behind the Board’s authority, and “tells on” Korah’s move to them, without trying to solve the disagreement at the level where it was raised. He does not at all assume leadership, appropriate to his position, but places all the responsibility onto the higher-ups. Plus, Moses attempts to silence Korah and his followers by “threatening” them to tell on them to the “boss.” In this move Moses acts like an ass- kisser, sure in his belief that the “boss” will take his side, regardless of the fairness or unfairness of the situation. As if that was not in poor enough judgment, Moses tries to divide (and further intimidate) the followers of Korah. It is to their great (and wholly unappreciated by subsequent interpreters) credit that they do not cave, despite the tremendous potential (and, as we know, ultimately actual) repercussions.

Like any ass-kisser, Moses first tells on them, and then quickly “pleads” to the boss to save the “wrong-doers” in order to present his role in this whole scene as squeaky clean. First he had explained his actions as the “boss” made him do it, then as the “rebels” forced him to report their move to the authorities. Nowhere does Moses claim that it is his sovereign decision to act the way he acts because, e.g., this is the ethically right thing to do. Is he aware of his ethical wrongdoing in his heart of hearts? Most cowardly, authoritarian ass-kissers seem not aware. “The Fuhrer made me do it!” is how far their justification of their acts go. Moses is all too banally human after all, which does not excuse, only explains his actions.

What is more disappointing is god’s response. He simply takes the ass-kisser’s word for it and “reorganizes” the company with mass lay-offs, and that without severance pay: he just gets rid of it all, never asking himself whether his choice in appointing Moses and Aaron to top managers was the right one in light of the situation and Moses’ cowardly role in it. He also does not check individual participation in the alleged rebellion: all must go: a tyrannical move. Like all tyrants, god does not tolerate dissent. If we read this under the unshakable belief that god is always right then there is nothing more to add…

If we read it however as a negative case study for bad management in a business course it all makes sense. After all, not leading the children of Israel into the Promised Land right away (milk and honey notwithstanding) upon reports of this being a high-risk undertaking on account of the powerful and hostile locals was not a bad move after all. It may be deemed as the decision of a low-risk taker; nevertheless, it could have been explained and discussed and the other leads’ opinion asked and maybe put up for vote. But all that was not done: the Israelites remained in a fully dependent child-like relationship with the authority at that time, where discussion, not to mention dissent were not tolerated. This may have been a realistic depiction of leadership of the times when the text was conceived, in which god was created in the image of well-known human characteristics and dynamics. The question is: have we evolved at all since that time?

Korah Number 16

by

Howard Adelman

The section is most often labelled Korah’s Rebellion and not just Korah. I initially avoid such a heading lest we beg the question in labeling Korah’s protest as a rebellion. Instead, one of the questions I ask is whether this is fair question.

The text says that Korah and his fellow “rebels,” each a chief of a congregation, each chosen by that congregation, each a well-recognized leader among them. The text does say that they “rose up.” But that could simply mean that they stood up at a general meeting of the Israelites. They certainly stood up in opposition to whatever Moses and Aaron were planning to do. But according to the text, Korah began with a personal attack. Korah accused both Moses and Aaron of elitism, of giving themselves a special holy status denied to the rest of the Israelites.

“You have gone too far! For all in the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the LORD is among them. Why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the LORD?” (16:3)

How did Moses respond? Like a Muslim today, he “fell on his face,” he lowered himself in a beseeching way to Korah. At the same time, his words were anything but beseeching. They were defiant. Wait until morning, Moses told Korah. Then God will determine who is holy and who is not, that is, whom God favours and whom he does not. The determination of holiness and favouritism seem to have been equated. Favouritism means that they have been chosen. How is this determined? By the one God chooses to draw near to Him? So holiness, favouritism, proximity to God and the determination of holiness are all equated.

It is self-evident that Korah has made a serious tactical error in challenging both Moses and Aaron. He had allowed his words to be twisted so that the protest was made in Moses’ terms. Korah had asked why Moses and Aaron were acting “holier than thou” and Moses twisted that to mean a question, not about arrogance and self-inflation, but about proximity to God and His holy word. Moses then raised the stakes even further. He accused Korah of going too far in charging Moses and Aaron with arrogance and self-importance. For it was NOT they that has assumed their roles. God had cast them to perform those tasks. The challenge was really against God’s choice, not the actions of Moses and Aaron.

Then Moses made a third charge. He accused Korah and his co-protestors of ingratitude, not to Moses but to God. “Hear now, you sons of Levi: is it too small a thing for you that the God of Israel has separated you from the congregation of Israel, to bring you near to himself, to do service in the tabernacle of the LORD and to stand before the congregation to minister to them, 10 and that he has brought you near him, and all your brothers the sons of Levi with you?” (Numbers 16:8-10) God chose you to be rabbis. Now you challenge God’s choice of me to be your political leader and Aaron to be the High Priest. In other words, the charge of arrogance was just a cover and a superficial attack. They were challenging whether or not Moses and Aaron had been chosen by God. “I’ll show you,” Moses seemed to be saying, “who God has chosen. Who is the holier one!”

Then the fourth charge comes like a hammer blow. Not only are they accused of demeaning Aaron and Moses, challenging the holiness of each and challenging God’s choice, but of seeking the priesthood. Not political power. Not of trying to take his position. But of trying to displace Aaron. That is not just a question about God’s choice, but defiance against it. “And would you seek the priesthood also? 11 Therefore it is against the LORD that you and all your company have gathered together. What is Aaron that you grumble against him?”

Moses then summoned Dathan and Abiram before him in an effort to divide the opposition. But both disobey his summons. They are sticking with Korah and the protest. And now we first learn of the substantive issue behind the protest while trying to reverse the path of the verbal sparring back to the home ground of the protest, accusations that Moses and Aaron are being arrogant and self-important. “Is it a small thing that you have brought us up out of a land flowing with milk and honey, to kill us in the wilderness, that you must also make yourself a prince over us?” (Numbers 16:14) Moses and Aaron were leading them back to the wilderness for forty years ostensibly because 10 out of 12 scouts reported back about how strong their enemies were and challenged the attack plans.

Now on top of challenges of arrogance, efforts to push themselves as occupying the holy ground, naming their protest an exercise in ingratitude to God given their own chosen status as religious leaders among the people, and even efforts to usurp the position of High Priest, Moses turned to God and pleaded innocence of any effort to act against them. They feared being tortured and their eyes burned out and refused to come before Moses. “And Moses was very angry and said to the LORD, ‘Do not respect their offering. I have not taken one donkey from them, and I have not harmed one of them.’” (Numbers 16:15) Moses claims innocence of any power trip because he neither threatened them nor took anything from them. But he did ask God to reject their sacrifices. He did ask God to take away their religious roles. Is that not an act of revenge simply for launching a verbal protest and alleging that Moses and Aaron had been arrogant?

So Moses went back to his original position. He gave up on trying to divide the protesters but, instead, summoned them to come beside him and Aaron before the Lord. “We will now see who is right.” Each one of the 250 rabbis was to bring his censer (see Numbers 4:14; also Leviticus 16:12), the brass bowl in which they put coal and burned incense, What happens? It is unbelievable! God appears before the whole congregation of the protesters and asks Moses and Aaron to step aside so He can “consume” the others. Then Moses reverts to divide and rule again, this time not asking Dathan and Abiram to back away from Korah, but asking the other 247 local religious leaders to back away from the rebellious triumvirate.

They presumably refuse and stay loyal to Korah and the other two leaders. The protesting priests, as well as their families and children, are summoned to watch whether Korah, Dathan and Abiram will be consumed by the Lord, giving an ironic twist to the report of the ten scouts that the land would consume them. The earth literally opens up and swallows them, not just the three leaders, but all 250 of the protesters – and before their wives and children. Then they seemed to have been destroyed a second time and in a second wave, God consumed them in fire.

The two versions are not incompatible. Imagine earth torn with a big rift and hundreds being swallowed up and falling into the hot lava. But the issue is really not how two sources are merged in a single story, but the politics of escalating a verbal protest into a rebellion and sentencing the rebels to death for simply criticizing the leadership. Further, the Israelites themselves and not just their leaders lose 14,700 people to a plague before Aaron manages to stay the wrath of God.

Today we might compare the actions of Moses and Aaron to that of Kim Jong-un of North Korea, but without displacing the initiative onto God, for Kim Jong-un is revered as if he were a god. Today we watch Kim Jong-un subjected to American sanctions for the first time while Moses (and Aaron) are treated as the heroes of the story. I am not suggesting that the initial protest against the high-handedness of Moses was correct and certainly not that it was carried out in the best way given that Moses and Aaron held all the reins on the use of coercive power. But Moses’ response has to be read objectively as extremely unfair in both the interpretation of the challenge and certainly grossly unfair and even wicked in the response.
But that is not the interpretation handed down. Moses’ assertion that they were not just accusing him of usurping authority but accusing them of undermining God’s authority is presumed to be valid by religious fundamentalists.

“Korah and his rebellious group had no idea who God is and they ultimately had no fear of God. The bible said they gathered against God and his anoited and the Lord destroyed them. You would believe that the rest of the people would have learnt a lesson, but they continued to rise against the anointed of the Lord and paid again with their lives. People have to learn obedience.”

Reform Judaism does not dissent either. Here is the official summary.
“Korach and his followers, Dathan and Abiram, lead a rebellion against the leadership of Moses and Aaron. God punishes the rebels by burying them and their families alive. Once again, God brings a plague on the people. (16:1-17:15)”

Korah is relegated to the status of one of the great villains of the Torah and Moses is not only totally exonerated, he is virtually beatified for his behaviour. Incivility is attributed to Korah and not to Moses simply because Korah accused his leader of arrogance against the background of Moses and Aaron leading the people back to the wilderness simply because 10 of the 12 scouts thought success in conquest would be too costly and that there was a high risk of failure. Instead, the narrative is treated as a tale of obedience and disobedience, and the punishment, deemed appropriate, for the latter. Simply challenging authority and suggesting it is arrogant and insensitive is enough to deserve being condemned to death. It is outrageous!

With the assistance of Alex Zisman