Obedience and Holiness: Parshat Chukas

Obedience and Holiness: Parshat Chukas


Howard Adelman

In the blog before the last one, I wrote about three young people who did not seem to have a religious bone in their bodies and who also seemed to have no sense of the sacred. In last Friday’s blog I wrote about the competition over defining holiness between Korah, who found holiness in everyone and Moses and Aaron whom God anointed as holy. A commentator wrote me that taking the side of Korah meant that if humans were already holy, they did not need to improve and the whole enterprise of Judaism would have been aborted. I countered by suggesting that seeing holiness in each human was not to be equated with seeing perfection. In today’s blog and a discussion of Parshat Chukas (Numbers 19-21) I want to zero in on the concept of holiness.

In Judaism, the mount where the temple stood by its very designation is viewed as sacred. We know it is sacred more from how that sacred place was profaned that through the sacrifices and God’s presence. We are ending two weeks of the three weeks of mourning that began on Canada Day, I July and the 17th of Tamuz that leads up to Tish B’Av ordained to commemorate the destruction of the first and second temples, each a Beit Ha’Mikdash. The sacred place was made profane in that destruction. But sometimes profanity is smashed as when Moses confronted the Israelites who had built and worshiped the golden calf as if it were holy. So the holy and unholy are regarded as opposites that are complementary. If Moses smashed a golden calf, the Syrian Governor burned a Sefer Torah on the Mount, a destruction also commemorated in this period of mourning. Finally, King Menashe committed the ultimate unholy act and placed an idol right on the Beit Ha’mikdash, an act of destruction also commemorated in this period of mourning.

But what has all of this to do with Parshat Chakas that describes the perfect red heifer, the parah adumah, and the laws applicable thereto? What has all of this fight between the holy and the unholy have to do with the military destruction that runs through Parshat Chakas, beginning with the destruction of the Canaanite army quickly followed by the defeat of the Moabites and the Amorites. And all the time the Israelites kvetched. There was not enough water. Living conditions were terrible. And when God responded by making them really miserable by infesting the camp with poisonous snakes, Moses had to get rid of them with the magic of his copper snake and save those who had been bitten.

The Israelites were (and remain) a recalcitrant lot. They were an unholy people because a holy people obeys because they are commanded to obey, not because they understand why they are obeying or because obeying fits in with how we feel or think or because we want to set off our own will against that of another.

A person is holy because he obeys. That is why Korah is seen as betraying his priestly role, because he went beyond kvetching and challenged instead of obeying. A place is holy because one is willing to sacrifice one’s life for that place, not simply to win it, but to prevent that place from being desecrated, from being used to burn a sefer Torah, from being used to construct an idol, from being destroyed itself. Moses was seen as a uniquely holy one because he was chosen to obey God’s commands without question.

If this is so, why do I sympathize with Korah? Why do I suggest that Moses ran a kangaroo court in dealing with Korah’s protest? Why do I portray Moses, who is a prophet like none other, who is supposedly holy like no other, who is privy to the secret of the red heifer, but not the secret of who God is, why do I portray Moses as a manipulator and a sophist who twists words and meanings?

In Judaism, the prime injunction is neither to Know God nor oneself, but to obey Him in spite of your profound ignorance, not to know oneself, but to understand that the highest degree of wisdom is to enact decrees (chukot), to implement orders that you not only do not question, but have no right to question, to live a life that expresses chukat ha’Torah.. And not only do you obey without question, obey without inquiry, but recognizing that it is a mitzvah, a blessing, a good deed, to do so with the best of one’s ability and, thereby, become a pure being in the doing. And in order to perform that act of eliminating what defiles a place, one must ensure that one is not defiled oneself.

A sign that you have done so? You do not kvetch. You do not complain that there is no water. You do not complain that there is no food. Moses failed his people, not by giving into their complaints and using his rod to bring forth water, but for calling them rebels because they were such kvetches, because he insulted and degraded the people and did not see in them their potential for holiness. Moses was unlike Korah, not because he sinned by giving in to populism, not because he did not sufficiently trust God, but because he did not sufficiently trust the people that God had chosen to be His bride. So Moses, even though he was holy like no other, even though he knew the secret of the red heifer, was not holy enough to enter the land of Israel, not holy enough to stand on the Beit Ha’Mikdash. And he was not holy enough because even Moses did not have enough faith in God to sanctify God in the eyes of his children. (Numbers 20:12)

So what does one do if one loves the study of Torah enough to sacrifice time to earn money, time to be spent on pleasures, but not to fulfill it, not to become holy and not to serve to make Israel a holy place? That is the central question – not to be or not to be. So in Parshat Chukas, God spoke to Moses and Aaron to inform them that the statute of the Torah required them to locate and acquire a perfectly unblemished cow that had never worked a day of its life, that had never pulled a plow, and to have it slaughtered by a Kohen and participate in voodoo by dipping your finger in its blood and sprinkling that blood before, not on, the Holy of Holies, and then burning the entire red heifer until there is absolutely nothing left but ashes, ashes to be used paradoxically with water to make oneself clean,, including the Kohen who must be cleansed from participating in the slaughter of the red heifer.

Why should ashes of such a rare pure and unblemished cow that has been sacrifices serve as “an everlasting statute for the children of Israel”? Why is the central issue and top priority in Israel washing the body of the dead to purify it before burial? Is this not an act of necrophilia? Why is the corpse which dies, if not death itself, considered unclean? Why does Saul in the movie Son of Saul become so obsessed with cleaning the body of the corpse he regards as his own son and insist on a proper burial. Why does he end up washing that body in a fast flowing stream as he tries to bury it, and does so even though it may sabotage the revolt as well as efforts to record the horrible events that occurred in Auschwitz/Birkenau?

And what about the others? What about the non-Israelites? A message was sent to the King of Edom to let the Israelites pass in safety. But the King of Edom refused, did not grant a right of passage and blocked the path of the Israelites towards the promised land. When Edom came forth with a vast force and a strong hand, when he refused a right of passage, Moses was ordered to sacrifice his brother, the High Priest, on top of Mount Hor where Aaron died before he could lead the Israelites to smite the Edomites. This was followed by the destruction of the King of Arad and his Canaanites at Hormah.

In spite of these victories, the Israelites kvetched even more. So the horde of venomous snakes attacked them until Moses once again used the magic of his copper staff to smite the serpents. Even though Moses had more cause this time, he did not put down the bride of God, he did not give in to the propensity to denigrate his people, God’s people, but, in spite of their obvious inadequacies – and his own – to express pride in who they were and not shame at whom they were not. And Moses did so even though he had been found unworthy of entering the land of Israel. Moses saw that he had made the greatest mistake of his life, but owned up to it and carried on with his responsibilities even though he knew it would be without personal reward.

The slaughter of the Edomites and the Canaanites was followed with victories over the Moabites and King Sihon of the Amorites, And the Israelites took possession of all their lands. This happened again in 1967. And the Jewish people were once again divided. Some said hold onto that land because it is sacred and God delivered it to us as our holy land, a land that we must be willing to die for. Others said give it back. We have enough land on which to live and thrive and we can live and thrive best if we live side by side with our neighbours in peace. But those neighbours on that land, or many of them, particularly their leaders, refused to acknowledge the right of the Israelites to live not only on the land captured in 1967, but even on the land they made their own in 1948. Jews might be allowed to live there on sufferance, but not by right and certainly not on the Beit Ha’Mikdash.

So more and more Jews became convinced, not of God’s promise, but that they had been given no choice, that they had to continue living on all of the promised land that had been captured. In the greatest irony, the non-Israelites served that ancient promise even more so than the Israelites and the Jews throughout the world. Only the so-called dedicated few, the zealots, rejected the idea that the Israelites had to live in accordance with the natural laws of force, for they were few in number and did not constitute a huge army that the Israelites had assembled when they first conquered the Holy Land. These Jews rejected both the idea that Jews were destined to live in accordance with natural laws, including the “natural” laws of realpolitik.

They also rejected what was an even more alien principle for them, that Jews were like everyone else entering the modern world, the contemporary world, the world that worshiped existence, that worshiped the greatest idol of all, the belief that the world was made so that the self could experience it and live in the present rather than for the sake of the future, in the belief that everyone had his own personal truth and that being authentic to that truth was the ultimate commandment, a “truth” that rejected the sense of sacrifice, a truth that rejected the sense that one must be willing to die for what is holy, a truth that rejected the duty to become holy in following a commandment that seemed out of this world and not part of it, but a commandment that most of all rejected the idea that the holiness of the command from the other world did not command the killing of others, though it acknowledged the necessity of doing so if the armies of those others rejected one’s holy obligations.

So how do those who are holy or, more accurately, who aspire to holiness, address their fellow Jews who regard such a concept of holiness as crazy, as absolutely nuts, as other worldly, for any address starts with the premise they reject, that there is an authority which you not only do not know or understand, but whom you cannot even question. The irony is that the quester has more in common with the secular existential individual who lives for his or herself in the contemporary world, rejecting any source of authority, even a source in reason and logic, outside his or her own personal sense of what is right and wrong. For those in quest of holiness and those convinced that holiness lies within themselves without any external reference at least both believe in a holiness; those who conform to the rules of realpolitik do not.

In accordance with the lesson of Moses, who failed to live up to that idea of holiness, of obeying a God one did not and could not understand, those in quest of holiness must trust their fellow Jews, both those who reject the sacred altogether and are simply devoted to national survival in accordance with the rules of international force, and those who only see holiness as residing within, without any external reference, who revere diversity and difference because there is no universal holiness, there is no one God. Those in quest of divine holiness must follow the commandment not to “diss” their fellow Jews, not to lose faith in the bride of Israel even when they willingly become servants of the enemies of Israel as in the case of Jewish Voices for Peace. The dictum is not to love thy neighbour as oneself, but to love one’s fellow Jew even though he kvetches all the time and seems to have lost all faith in God. Those in pursuit of holiness must reject the notion that Korah held that there is something of the holy in every one of us, reject the notion put forth by a philosopher/teacher in a Jewish Conservative seminary (the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York) such as Alan Mittleman (Human Nature & Jewish Thought: Judaism’s Case for Why Persons Matter), reject the case of this contemporary Baruch Spinoza who took the belief in the spark of the holy in each individual to its logical conclusion.

But those in quest of holiness must not reject such advocates as simply kvetchers who betray God, for they are all part of God’s people, and the people as a whole are always holy even if the individuals within, including those who openly pursue holiness, are not. And even if those who pursue holiness must contend with what they regard as the sacrilegious belief that holiness is immanent within each one of us, these pursuers of the holy cannot reject these others. They cannot thrust them into a man-made purgatory. For the kvetchers of realpolitik must confront what Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik insisted upon, that with the advent of modern science and quantum theory, there were no absolute natural laws to serve as a reference point while those in pursuit of holiness must accept that these blind followers of faith in the absolute laws of nature must not only be tolerated, but must be embraced. So too the kvetchers of existential angst remain part of the Jewish people and their contribution to that people; however alien, they must not be rejected even if their particular beliefs are.

And where do I stand among the kvetchers espousing realpolitik, among the dropouts who seek to realize an ephemeral holiness within themselves and believe that the right to choose is our most sacred blessing, among those who implicitly and explicitly join the enemies of Israel and help foster its possible destruction, and among those who believe that holiness can only be achieved by strict obedience to a God one does not and cannot understand? I stand amongst them all, yet apart from them all, and that is not my pride, but my failing. For in revering detachment and understanding most of all, I sin more than all the others in reverence for the greatest idol of them all – abstraction instead of commitment, in a belief in reason rather than holiness, in a belief in thought rather than an inner sensibility, and the contradictory belief that empathetic understanding and objectivity can be reconciled. My faith in reason and in this fundamental contradiction of reason, is my ultimate failing and why I will never be holy.

The absolute may be with us at the start, and, indeed, at every point along the way when we believe we have located the absolute. But what happens when we accept at one and the same time that each version of the absolute will prove empty and false, that the absolute that is with us from the start in the process of emptying itself for our sake will only carry the promise, not of fulfillment, but of the experience of more and more emptiness? There is an answer for me, and that is the problem with such an answer. It is an answer for me and not for us. I have no answer about how to unify the Jewish world and how that Jewish world can be accepted in the wider world around. I pursue tikkun olam in full recognition that the concept of social justice is merely a ghost of its real meaning, an obligation to correct the defects of the cosmos and not simply the social organization of the world of humanity. My only solace – I live amongst contenders for different concepts of faith even if I cannot live within any one of them.


Orthodox Judaism in Opposition to Reform Judaism

Orthodox Judaism in Opposition to Reform Judaism


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.

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?

Rebellion: Parashat Korah, Numbers 16:1 – 18:32 – 08.06.13

Rebellion: Parashat Korah, Numbers 16:1 18:32                                                 08.06.13


Howard Adelman


On Wednesday 5 June 2013, MP Brent Rathgeber, who represents the riding of Edmonton-St. Albert in the Canadian legislature, resigned from the Conservative caucus and will now sit as an independent. The catalyst for his resignation was the gutting of his private member’s bill on transparency in the public sector, the proposed CBC and Public Service Disclosure and Transparency Act, and its provision that all civil service salaries above $188,000 be disclosed. The committee raised the level for disclosure to the maximum amount payable to a deputy minister, about $444,000, so that even the vast majority of deputy ministers will not have to have their salaries disclosed. Seven conservative members present voted for the change without arguing for it.

I say that the gutting of the bill was only the catalyst because Brent Rathgeber has long chafed under the system of following orders issued by the PMO. So have other Conservative MPs such as Mark Warawa, the outspoken anti-abortion MP. Further, only three of the seven Conservatives who pushed through the change in committee were regular members. One member from BC and three members from southern Ontario — Chris Warkentin (Peace River), Ted Opitz (Etobicoke Centre) who was allowed to keep his seat in spite of voting irregularities in the last election, Dave MacKenzie (Woodstock) and Costas Menegakis (Richmond Hill) — substituted for Dean Del Mastro (Peterborough), Colin Mayes (Okanagan), Blaine Calkins (Wetaskiwin) and Earl Dreeshen (Red Deer) who did not attend. The latter two MPs from Alberta did not respond to media requests to explain why they did not attend, suggesting possibly that they were sympathetic to the position of Brent Rathgeber but were unwilling to join Rathgeber’s open protest.

Brent Rathgeber said: “I’m obviously very, very disappointed both with the government position and certainly with the [committee’s Conservative] colleagues, many of whom philosophically support this legislation unequivocally, but seemed powerless to resist the instructions that were given to them by the [Prime Minister’s Office], by the whip or wherever the final instructions came from.”

Let us examine the so-called Korah rebellion against the background of Brent Rathgeber’s resignation. Korah’s actions against Moses and Aaron can be compared to Rathgeber’s in the following ways:

1. Korah was a cousin of Moses; Rathgeber had no family relationship to Harper.

2. Korah was a Levite, a member of the priestly class; Rathgeber had no special status.

3. Korah sought out 250 men of renown to join the protest; Rathgeber acted alone.

4. Korach combined religious leaders (Levites) and political leaders, Datham and Abiram, from the tribe of Reuben in a united front; Rathgeber’s action was strictly political but rooted in an ethical concern with transparency and accountability.

5. Korah’s rebellion was not an armed insurrection; neither was Rathgeber’s.

6. Korah’s rebellion was not a refusal to obey orders; Rathgeber explicitly resigned because he was fed up with belonging to a caucus that took orders from unelected young guys working in the PMO.

7. Korah’s rebellion was not even a challenge to the leadership of Moses and Aaron but simply a request that power be shared to a greater extent; Rathgeber’s resignation was explicitly a challenge to the way Stephen Harper acted as a control freak.

8. Finally, in the rationale for Korah’s action, he argued that God’s spirit was in all the people and not only in the elite leadership. “Ye take too much upon you, seeing all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them: wherefore then lift ye up yourselves above the congregation of the Lord?” (Numbers 16:3) After all, the Torah does say that the whole community is holy (Kulam Kedushim) and God resides in their midst. As God said at Sinai, “You [the nation of Israel] shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” (Exodus 19:6) This was precisely the same point that Rathgeber made when he protested that the requirement to follow orders betrayed the Conservative Party pledges and its mandate.

There are a number of other interesting observations that can be made. According to the account, Korah’s rebellion seemed to have wide public appeal. I suspect Rathgeber’s action did as well. Rathgeber’s action was not called a rebellion but a protest made by walking with his feet. Korah’s action is virtually universally referred to as a rebellion even though the protesters were unarmed, never stated that they would no longer follow Moses or Aaron or was in any way an effort to destroy either Moses’ political or Aaron’s religious leadership or to remove them from positions of authority, though they clearly wanted to diminish that authority. It is puzzling altogether why Korah’s actions should be seen as a rebellion.

However, that is how virtually all commentators view it. Further, though many if not most might be sympathetic to Rathgeber, virtually all condemn Korah. Why?

First, many contend the protest aimed to challenge Moses’ political and Aaron’s religious leadership. After all, this is clearly how Moses saw the actions citing the principle of divine right. The rebellion was against the Lord and not against Aaron for Aaron was chosen by God to serve as the leader of the priesthood. The rebellion of Dathan and Abiram was against him and they subsequently did refuse to obey Moses’ orders to face him fearing that Moses would kill them. “Is it a small thing that thou hast brought us up out of a land that floweth with milk and honey, to kill us in the wilderness, except thou make thyself altogether a prince over us?” (Numbers 16:13) Moses self-righteously defended his leadership arguing that he has been perfectly honest and a just ruler, not hurting one of them or depriving any one of their property.

The virtually universal condemnation of Korah by commentators accuse Korah of ambition in seeking a piece of the action, of seeking positions as judges and priests and being dissatisfied with the holy roles assigned them of physically taking care of the tabernacle, of mischief making, of being shit disturbers, of sewing dividiveness among the people, of challenging the need for strong leadership, of pride, arrogance and self-exaltation which they are doubly sinful of for they project those qualities on Moses and Aaron, of jealousy and envy that they were not chosen, of populism for they appealed to the will of the people that had so recently been “polluted with sin”, of injustice for they accused Moses and Aaron of usurping power when that authority was assigned to Moses and Aaron by the Lord, of usurping power themselves by engaging in the burning of incense that was a priestly duty, of projecting their own sins on Moses and Aaron for it was Korah, Dathan and Abiram who tried to supersede their authority, of speaking evil against the leadership, of being traitors for they had exalted Egypt as the land of milk and honey in contrast to the wilderness they were now in (see Numbers 16:13 quoted above), of falsely accusing Moses of betraying the promise of delivering the people to the land of milk and honey, and, most of all, of rebellion against the will of God. “For which cause both thou and all thy company are gathered together against the Lord: and what is Aaron, that ye murmur against him?” (Numbers 16:11) God worked in mysterious ways and whether it was His mysterious ways or the ways of the invisible hand of nature or the cunning of reason, the rebels were challenging the laws of the universe.

However, most of these accusations are really repetitions of what Moses said or implied and not representations of what Korah and the other protesters did and said. For the 250 notables only said that you, Moses, have gathered too much power in the PMO, and have removed yourself from the people and taken upon yourselves power that should be returned to the people. There is absolutely NO evidence that they were asking for positions, were unhappy with their positions, or were stirring up the people. They were certainly giving voice to a sense of disquiet. Why is protest regarded as arrogance, pride and self-aggrandizement? Why is a different interpretation of their political condition and the flow of history regarded as sedition? Is it not the responsibility of everyone to speak their mind, stand up and be counted?

Evidently not if you are not echoing the party line, what is seen as the word of the Lord. Then speaking your mind is a sin. Then calling for sharing of power is a usurpation of power. Then such a challenge is a message for the leadership answering back and asserting that you are either for me or agin me. Make a choice. And God will choose those who are on the side of the Lord and the flow of history. Rathgeber, you owe it to the people who elected you as a Conservative candidate to resign and go back to seek a mandate from the people for being independent and an iconoclast. That was the response of the PMO. That is the response of Moses. Let us test your challenge.

Further, the terms of the test are set by the leader. It is not the protesters on their own who light the fires of incense against priestly regulations. Moses instructs them to do so in the true savvy of a Lenin who cunningly tricks the protesters into usurping the rules of the game.  Korah is a naïve Levite, but Dathan and Abriham are too politically astute to be sucked into the schemes of Moses even as they mistakenly interpreted the history of the people as a path of despair rather than hope. They played on the fact that Moses had come from being raised as a prince in the court of the Pharaoh and was not raised among the people. Thus, he had been conditioned to raise himself above everyone else. And Moses puts forth his integrity and self-sacrifice as a defence when there never was any accusation that Moses was in business to line his own pockets.

The congregation backed away. They witnessed the unbelievable event of the rebel leaders being swallowed by the earth and/or being consumed by fire, presumably from the own vessels of incense, and disappearing from history. What we have is an image of a sinkhole rather than an earthquake. For there is no shaking and trembling – just an opening up into what appears as a bottomless pit. The protesters were treated as all protesters are by totalitarian leaders. They join the disappeared.

However, the retreat of the people is only temporary. They stir up their courage and return to Tahrir Square in Cairo or Taksim Square in Istanbul, and show up in even larger numbers to accuse Moses of killing God’s people when he used such drastic and violent methods for suppressing the protest. Infuriated, God mows the people down inflicting them with the plague. “Get you up from among this congregation, that I may consume them as in a moment.” (Numbers 16:45) If you think the casualties in Tahrir or Taksim Squares or even in the slaughters in Syria were bad, 14,700 unarmed civilians were instantly wiped out simply for wanting a Voice. Aaron intervenes and serves once again as the mediator and moderator against the wrath of both Moses and God. Aaron and Moses once again play the game of good cop, bad cop. As Moses said, as the Turkish Prime Minister, Racep Tawip Erdogan, said, the protesters are all agitators, extremists and terrorists. They are not interested in environmentalism or the well-being of the people. We will stick to our plans. We will not get off message.

Therefore, how can Korah’s protests be considered a sin? Korah’s failure is not his arrogance or his pride or ambition, not his dissatisfaction nor his trouble-making, not his divisiveness nor his envy, not treason nor usurpation of power. Yeshayahu Leibowitz in a lecture at HebrewUniversity years ago said that the sin was not in Korah’s protests, but in his assumption and interpretation that the Israelites were holy instead of understanding that holiness was a task and an aspiration God granted to the Israelites. It was not an essential given. The protesters were not wrong in seeking a greater distribution of power, but wrong on why that power should be distributed and, therefore, how. The Israelites are chosen not because they are holy but because their task is to become a holy people. Tzitzit are not holy because they are made of blue threads but because there is one blue thread sewn into the fringes. The whole is not made holy by the actions of everyone but by the actions of the singular one. Korah was a populist. The failure to recognize the fallacy of populism was Korah’s sin, not his challenge to priests or rabbis that they alone are divinely sanctioned to interpret, teach and instruct nor his challenge to the chain of command. In seeing himself as the embodiment of the people’s holy will, he was far guiltier of the usurpation of authority than the Israelite leadership.