The Most Difficult Parashah

Headshot of Gail Labovitz
Headshot of Gail Labovitz
Rabbi Gail Labovitz, PhD

Professor, Rabbinic Studies

Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies

Rabbi Gail Labovitz, PhD, is Associate Professor of Rabbinic Literature and former Chair of the Department of Rabbinics for the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. She also enjoys serving as the Ziegler School’s faculty advisor for “InterSem,” a dialogue program for students training for religious leadership at Jewish and Christian seminaries around the Los Angeles area. Dr. Labovitz formerly taught at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (JTS) and the Academy for Jewish Religion in New York. Prior to joining the faculty at AJU, Dr. Labovitz worked as the Senior Research Analyst in Judaism for the Feminist Sexual Ethics Project at Brandeis University, and as the Coordinator for the Jewish Women’s Research Group, a project of the Women’s Studies Program at JTS. Rabbi Labovitz is also preparing a teshuva (rabbinic responsum) for consideration by the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly on whether a person who is unable to fast for medical reasons may nonetheless serve as a leader of communal prayer on Yom Kippur.

posted on July 10, 2014
Torah Reading
Haftarah Reading

Nowadays, I refer to it as my "quasi-Orthodox" phase. It was that transitional time in my life between high school and college, when I joined one of the early groups of United Synagogue Youth's Nativ year program in Israel for recent high school graduates (a program my own son will be attending beginning this fall!), and found myself beginning to develop my own, personal, on-the-way-to-adulthood relationship with Judaism and Jewish practice. Newly turned on to the place of Jewish law (halakhah) in our history and tradition, I began observing Shabbat and adhering to a stricter standard of kashrut than that with which I had been raised, and incorporating regular prayer into my daily routine. Now, if I'm being honest, I'm not sure how "quasi" it was, and if a few circumstantial things in my life had happened differently (if, for example, I'd met and fallen in love with an Orthodox man instead of one who was raised Reform and was moving towards a Conservative place once he got to college) it's possible that I'd be a Modern Orthodox Jew today. But I'll stick with the "quasi" because there was always one issue that kept me from a full-fledged leap into that life-style: gender. More particularly, gender segregation of Orthodox life and the rights and responsibilities denied to women in Orthodox synagogues and study halls.

And it was a challenge for me from the beginning. I still remember a conversation with a man I knew at the time, one of the people who was most influential on my journey of personal discovery, about this very issue. What he said to me then was an iteration of a common apologetic (and I choose that word quite deliberately) on this topic. He said - I paraphrase - "I might want to be a Kohen, but I'm not a Kohen, and nothing I do can make me one. I have to accept that I am an Israelite, and the limitations that go along with that." The implication was meant to be clear: he could not alter having been born an Israelite, and I could not alter having been born a woman, and the only proper response was acceptance of our God-given roles. But even then, at least one response was apparent to me. Was this not comparing apples and oranges? Just how many privileges do the Kohanim - a small minority of the Jewish population - generally enjoy in Judaism today? - The first aliyah, the opportunity to say Birkat Kohanim before the congregation...and not much more. How could exclusion from those few perks (which also happen to come with a few traditional limitations, such as a ban on marrying a woman who is a convert or previously divorced) possibly compare to the near complete exclusion (in most of the Orthodox world) of half the population from participation in the synagogue, in the most rigorous forms of Jewish learning, in religious decision making for the community as a whole?

But there was a time in Jewish history when genealogical inclusion or exclusion from the priesthood could have been much more significant in a Jew's daily life. During the time when the Israelites in the wilderness placed the Mishkan, the travelling sanctuary, in the center of their encampments, during the times when the First and then Second Temples stood in Jerusalem - at those times being a (male) Kohen carried some rather significant rights and responsibilities, and the (male) Kohen was indeed quite distinct from his Israelite co-religionists, or even the other members of his own tribe of Levi who were not descendants of Aaron. The Kohen served at the Sanctuary/Temple, the central place for communal worship of God, in a way no other Israelites were allowed (even entry into certain sacred precincts was forbidden to anyone but a Kohen), and was entitled to sacrificial meat and various sorts of gifts from other Israelites such as first fruits, first born animals, tithes, a portion of dough, and more.

It is precisely this privilege, granted by accident of birth, that is one crucial element of the rebellion(s) against Moses and Aaron that is (are) described in this week's parashah. In fact, when one attempts to read closely through this parashah, it quickly becomes clear that multiple narratives have been woven together, and that there is not really one rebellion, with not only one cause, intent, or instigator. For my purposes today, however, let me focus particularly on the grounds for the rebellion.

When Korah - and his apparent co-conspirators - are introduced to the reader, it would seem their complaint is against Moses:

"Now Korah, son of Izhar son of Kohath son of Levi betook himself, along with Dathan and Abiram sons of Eliab and On son of Peleth - descendants of Levi - to rise up against Moses..." (Num. 16:1-2)

But when they begin to speak, it is against both Moses andAaron:

"They combined against Moses and Aaron and said to them, 'You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Lord's congregation?'" (16:3)

And as part of his response, Moses identifies another element (and target) of Korah's complaint (if not that of the Reuvenite participants in the rebellion):

"'Now that He has advanced you and all your fellow Levites with you, do you seek the priesthood too? For who is Aaron that you should rail against him?'" (16:11).

It seems that among the motives for rebellion, Levites want to be priests, and/or that Reuvenites protest that they (the descendants of Jacob's eldest son!) have been passed over in favor of the Levites (from Jacob's third son). Moses thus proposes a test in which the rebellious Levites and/or Reuvenites will come before God with fire pans and incense (that is, some of the implements of sanctuary worship), and God will indicate which offerings actually have Divine favor (16:16-17). When everyone is assembled, the ground swallows up Korah and his band and their families (16:31-32), and/or the men attempting to offer incense are consumed by fire (16:35), proving that Moses and Aaron are the divinely chosen leaders.

At this point, before I continue, I have to say that I am not entirely sorry that in the several years now that I have been in the "line-up" to write drashot for this list, I have never before been assigned Parashat Korah (although there are several others that I have been given more than once). It took me a while of reading through the parashah, noting interesting points and commentaries on them and trying with limited success to imagine the drasha I would write out of those points and commentaries, to realize why. What I finally admitted to myself is that I think this may be the hardest parashah of all to explain - and not just because its narrative is tangled and strange. To focus on any one particular point is to attempt to pretend one needn't grapple with the problematic heart of the parashah as a whole. Which is this: In the modern, Westernized, post-Emancipation context (and perhaps others too) in which I presume most if not all of my readers reside, wouldn't it seem that our natural urge would be to side with Korah and his band? His/their protest against the autocratic leadership of Moses would seem to fit well with our democratic and meritocratic ideals, in which all people have (or should have) access to roles of leadership, and such roles are awarded based on competence rather than arbitrary characteristics beyond a person's control or unrelated to ability, such as racial/ethnic origin, religious identity, gender.

Put another way: how is Korah's claim against Moses and more particularly against Aaron and the concentration of the privileges of the priesthood in a single family (and its future male descendents), so different from the claims of Jewish women - or other marginalized groups in the Jewish community such as gays and lesbians? Must we simply accept the roles or limitations placed on us by birth, irrespective of our abilities or desires to serve God more fully?

Throughout Jewish history, rabbis and scholars and commentators have attempted to give reasons why Korah's motives were in fact not good, not what they might seem. Some find fault in Korah's claim that "the community are holy, all of them": in contrast to the aspirational command found throughout Leviticus to "be holy," Korah claims that "we have achieved our goal and nothing more need be demanded of us" (following the commentary in Etz Hayim), and/or Korah and his group "interpreted the mission of holiness, in the sense of conferring on them superiority and privilege rather than as constituting a call to shoulder extra duties and responsibilities" (Nehama Leibowitz, Studies in Bamidbar, p. 183). In one rabbinicmidrashic tradition, the rebels mock the details of Jewish law and practice, asking if a house full of sacred texts really needs a mezuzah scroll, and similar questions. Another possibility is that although Korah resorted to a kind of populist rhetoric, his real goal was to supplant Moses as the sole leader or Aaron as High Priest. Where Moses (and other prophets) resisted God's call at first, Korah is eager - not so much for leadership, as for power. Personal self-aggrandizement, not a desire to serve God or the community, drove the rebellion.

Jewish feminists, of course, are familiar with at least this last charge. As just one example, in 1976, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, one of the great halakhic scholars of the 20th century and a posek(legal decisor) still revered in and sometimes beyond the (Modern/Centrist) Orthodox community, wrote a teshuvahaddressing the rise of feminism. He headed this work "Concerning the new movement of smug and (self-) important women," and in it insinuated that any desire of women to be more involved in areas of Jewish life traditionally withheld from them "comes out of a rebellion against God and his Torah." Women's own testimony about their spiritual desires or motives - their desires to delve deeper into their religious identity, to embrace Torah learning, to serve the community, to come closer to God - is discounted, irrelevant, not trustworthy.

There is at least one commentator who sees positive spiritual longing in Korah's motives. Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehudah Berlin, living in the 19th century in Lithuania, had this to say in his commentary, Ha'amek Davar (translation taken from Leibowitz, p. 221):

The men who offered the firepans were not sinners but saintly persons, for whom the deprivation of priestly office spelt the forfeiting of a coveted opportunity for closer communion with the Creator. They harboured no illusory worldly ambitions, nor hankered after the sweets of office but longed to sanctify themselves and achieve greater spiritual heights through the sacred service.

Yet even if we accept this reading, we must still, in the end, grapple with the failure of Korah's rebellion and with the devastating Divine response with which it is met. Can we take away any other message than that a challenge to the established order, no matter how arbitrary that order appears to be, no matter how well intentioned the challenge may be, is sinful and wrong, worthy of the harshest punishment?

Oddly enough, if there is an alternative to be found, I think we might find it among the very rabbis who inaugurated the midrashic tradition that first tried to interpret the complexities of this story. Not in their attempts to discredit Korah and his motives, and not in their own rulings that limited and restricted women's equal participation in Jewish rite and ritual, but rather in their very existence. Rabbinic Judaism began and eventually flourished precisely by taking the place of other models of leadership that could no longer stand. Prophecy, the rabbis asserted, ended with the last of the biblical prophets. Kingship (considered an ambivalent form of leadership already in the Bible; see the haftarah this week) had become the province of the corrupt Hasmonean dynasty before being abolished under Roman rule. The Temple was no longer standing, depriving the Kohamim of the locus of their relevance and claim to leadership. In the place of these forms of privilege and leadership, the rabbis created a system that - though still not open to all - was far more open than anything that preceded it. Again and again, the rabbis tell stories of men who have no claim of birth yet come to prominence for their scholarship purely on the basis of merit and ability, despite coming from places of poverty (Hillel, Akiva), illiteracy (Akiva), and even criminal doings (Resh Lakish). Even so, it took hundreds of years for the views and ideals of the rabbinic movement of antiquity to become simply the Judaism that dominated most of subsequent Jewish history. May it be that with the fullness of time and always with the intent of dedicating ourselves more wholly to the service of God and the community, that the expanded ideals of leadership that we are developing today themselves become simply the Judaism of the future.

Shabbat shalom.