K'doshim (April 30, 2011)
(1) The LORD spoke to Moses, saying: (2) “Speak to the whole Israelite community and say to them: You shall be holy, for I, the LORD your God, am holy.”
Excerpted from The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Revised Edition, editor W. Gunther Plaut (NY: URJ Press, 2005). Used by permission of URJ Press, www.urjbooksandmusic.com.
This idea of the God-like nature of humans reappears in this week’s Torah portion, when God instructs Moses to tell the Israelites they shall be k’doshim, holy, just as God is holy. Not much further in the narrative, Moses’ cousin Korach interprets this to mean that “all the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst.” (Numbers 16:3) Korach then challenges the political leadership of Moses and the hierarchical structure of the priesthood led by Aaron, advocating for some form of a democratization of religious authority.
Korach and his followers base their rebellion on ideological grounds, arguing that if the Israelite people each are intrinsically holy, then no one person has greater authority than any other. From this point of view, because no one can dispute what another’s holiness inspires him or her to believe, no definitive agreement exists on the content of God’s instruction or how to interpret it. Therefore, each individual would be the autonomous authority for his or her own religious decisions. In placing the decision-making powers of the individual before the authority of the Torah, we could, in a sense, consider Korach the first Reform Jew.
Most commentators, however, don’t accept Korach’s interpretation that holiness is an intrinsic quality of being an Israelite but rather understand our verse in Leviticus to mean that holiness is a potential towards which we must aspire.
Everett Fox, for example, observes that Korach’s claim that “all the congregation are holy” is “a view of the people that by and large is rejected by the Bible itself and especially by the prophets. For them, holiness is intrinsic solely to God.” Only through conscious actions can the ever-present possibility of holiness be realized. For example, the “Holy Land” of Israel (as a sacred space) and the Sabbath (as a sacred time) each must be hallowed by specific human behavior, and the “Temple sacrifices may be rejected if not accompanied by genuine repentance and social action.” (1)
In claiming that all the people “are” holy, rather than “can become” holy, Korach could be seen to be advocating a religion of complete apathy, in which spiritual growth is impossible. Nechama Liebowitz writes that Korach misunderstands God’s words as “conferring on [the Israelites] superiority and privilege, rather than as constituting a call to shoulder extra duties and responsibilities.” (2) Korach errs in thinking that “chosen people” is a mere title of distinction, rather than a charge to a spiritual mission of self-perfection. For Liebowitz, it is only through the constant examination of one’s spiritual self, through the practice of tangible rituals, that one can begin to be holy.
Martin Buber takes a sympathetic approach to Korach’s position, observing that both Moses and Korach desired for the Israelite people to be a holy people. But “for Moses, this was the goal. In order to reach it, generation after generation had to choose again and again” to follow the path of holiness. (3) Korach, therefore, was not wrong to call the people holy, so much as premature: He anticipated a time when all people would be holy, but that time had not yet arrived. Yaakov Fogelman, in support of this idea, observes that in Psalms 92:13 the final letters of the phrase Tzaddik Katamar Yifrach (“the righteous like the date-palm will blossom”) spell out “Korach,” and he interprets this to mean that “in the end of days, his vision will prevail.” (4)
As Jews, we aspire to a future in which people instinctively are righteous, in which all of us created in the Divine image live each day with holiness. But to get us to that better world, it is to Moses and the Torah that we must turn for guidance.
(1) Fox, Everett. “Parashat Korah.” Learn Torah With… Torah Aura, 1 July 1995.
(2) Leibowitz, Nehama. Studies in BaMidbar. Trans. Aryeh Newman. Jerusalem: World Zionist Organization, 1980.
(3) Buber, Martin. Moses: The Revelation and the Covenant. New York: Harper and Row, 1946.
(4) Fogleman, Yaakov. “Korach.” The Weekly Torah Reading. Torah Outreach Program, 23 June 1995.
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