Sunday, July 02, 2006


Weekly Parsha Blogging

I know I've been lax about this, but this week I have no excuse for not blogging on the readings from last week -- I gave the D'var Torah at my shul this last Shabbos. Except, there is so much to talk about with Korach that I kept changing what I was going to say so quickly I did not have a chance to write it down in any final form, so I spoke extempren ... extemporen ... without even notes. Surprisingly -- either people are tired of hearing the usual person give the sermon and were trying to flatter me in order that I should speak more often and mix things up a bit, or they actually liked my talk -- my D'rash was well received.

Anyway, the main highlights of the talk re-expanded into blog form:

The position of the story of Korach in the Torah and cycle of Torah readings: this portion is the third of a set of three portions dealing in large part with the complaints of the Israelites and their leadership. This part of the Torah is read at the end of spring / beginning of summer. What is the significance of this? Well, in the Spring we celebrate the planting and first harvest. In the Fall we celebrate the harvest. Each celebration contains a "new year" (Rosh Hashana in Fall, the first day of the first month -- Nissan -- in Spring). In the winter we now celebrate the promise of light with Chanukah as well as the secular New Year, the Lunar New year of the East and the New Year for trees at the close of Winter. But in an agrarian society, Summer is not a time for vacations, but rather a time for a lot of hard work under a hot sun with a lot of risk that something will go wrong and all that hard work will be for naught. The fear of freedom on the part of the Israelites in the three Torah portions at the beginning of Summer echoes the desire of the agrarian to not have the independence and responsibility of having to succeed or fail in spite of the hard work summer entails. God's angry reaction should remind us that not appreciating freedom but rather complaining, even though that freedom always comes with responsibilities, invites God's wrath. Another interesting aspect of the placement of the story of Korach in the Torah is that it follows immediately after the commandment to wear tzitzis, which leads to some interesting speculation in the Midrash.

The political implications of the rebellion of Korach and associates: Jewish tradition views Korach as the archetypal demagogue. Korach wraps himself with the rhetoric of freedom, but his rebellion actually is to undermine the very system of rules and regulations, which create a level playing field in which freedom is meaningful and exercisable. More sinisterly, lurking on the sidelines of the rebellion are Reuvenites, members of the aristocracy of pre-monarchal Israel as descendents of the eldest son of Israel (one recurrent theme of the Torah is the superceding of old hierarchies based on the birthright of the eldest by the merit and or cleverness of younger children, such as Moses, Judah, Joseph and especially Jacob -- and the meritocracy is what gains Divine favor over the moribund hierarchy) who want to lead a return to the slavery of Egypt. Thus, Korach is a demagogue who may use the rhetoric of democracy to ask of Moses "who elected you?" but who ultimately seeks a return to a very un-democratic mode of living. We see echoes of Korach when certain politicians complain about "rights being extended to criminals" or un-elected judges (like Moses was) and bureaucrats subverting the will of the people. These politicians talk a populist line about majority rule, but what they seek to subvert is the very Constitutional system which makes democratic governance possible, ostensibly in favor of a purer majority rule, but waiting in the wings is an aristocracy of Reuvenites eager to subvert a tyranny of the majority for their own ends. It is especially interesting that the Rabbis identify the dispute of Korach and his associates as the prime example of a dispute not for the sake of heaven. Often the modern Korachs who complain about "activist judges" wrap themselves in the mantel of religion, just as the Biblical Korach did. Yet the Rabbis say that Korach's dispute was not about religion (for the sake of heaven) but rather about power: that Korach was a dictatorial wolf disguised in the clothes of a religious sheep. So when modern Korachs complain about activist judges restricting religious expression, remember that their dispute is, in fact, not at all for the sake of heaven, but for another reason entirely.

Another question is raised by the Haftarah reading, in which Samuel expresses his concerns with the monarchy God has agreed to allow Israel to have. What happens when a people decide to give up their liberty and, e.g., initiate a monarchy? In this country, would it be acceptable to undermine our Constitutional system of liberties which has made this nation so great even if every person assents to undermining this system? While God does agree to the monarchy, which is to be severely constrained in its power, e.g. no divine right of kings, in Israel as preferable to the chaos of the period when only the occasional Judge could arise to unify and govern the nation, the response of God to Korach should indicate that it is against the Divine will to give up a system of laws enabling liberty to do whatever the majority pleases, especially when what the majority pleases is to return to a state of slavery.

There is also an interesting connection between Samuel and Korach: according to Chronicles (but not the Books of Samuel themselves -- the Chronicles are a very interesting pair of books, too: after telling the whole story of Israel from the hoary days before the Patriarchs through the return to Zion under the Persians -- and telling that story warts and all with all cats out of the bag and everything, we are treated to a white-washed history of the monarchy. What's the deal with that? It's like the cop at the end of Holy Grail dispersing the knights: "move along, nothing to see here") Samuel is a Kohathite and thus of the same branch of the Levites as Korach -- given the significance that the Bible places on geneology which is used, e.g. as an indicator of class and socio-political position, what is the significance of Samuel being described -- and only in the whitewashed version of the Bible's "history" -- as being descended from Kohath?

The theological implications of Korach's rebellion: Korach not only makes political claims but also religious claims. Midrash, presumably elaborating on the placement of the story of Korach right after the commandment to wear tzitzis (Rabbinical literature does not assume the Torah is presents the story it tells in strictly chronological order), has Korach making the following arguments: "if one wore an entire Tallis of blue, would one need to wear tzisis with a blue thread? if one had a library of holy books, would one need mezuzas on its doorposts?" etc. Jewish tradition, of course, says that the answer is "yes". Judaism teaches that religion is something you practice whereas Korach holds (cf. the Calvinist doctrines of un-conditional election and perseverance of the saints) that the Israelites are holy so religious practice is un-needed: why practice if you're already perfect? Like certain politicians we all know about (who clearly got the message of "you shall know them by their fruits" backward), he doesn't consider morality to be something you do but rather something you are: it isn't a matter of giving a saint the benefit of a doubt -- a saint is a saint no matter how much he sins and, e.g. the Clenis is a sinner no matter what good he may have done. The story of Korach reminds of me Star Trek V (I know -- I shouldn't compare the Holy Writ with what is generally held to be one of the worst Star Trek movies): in both stories a demagogue seeks direct communion with the divine without any rules or regulations about such a communion and in both stories the demagogue is swallowed up by the ground, more or less. Although in Korach it's God making the swallowing happen whereas in Star Trek V the action occurs due to the falsity of the being claiming to be God. But that is just another problem with Korach's style of religiosity: how do you know that what you seek to worship independently of any moral constraints is really God and not the devil in disguise? As the Rabbis say, Korach's dispute was not for the sake of heaven, but did he necessarily even consciously realize that?

Another interesting aspect of the story of Korach is that the fire-pans used by Korach and his followers were recovered and used as sacred objects. Rav Kook had an interesting take (nothing unusual there) on this: "the holiness of the fire pans symbolizes the necessary role played by skeptics and agnostics in keeping religion honest and healthy." While Korach's dispute was not for the sake of heaven, not all disputes by skeptics are not for the sake of heaven. Indeed, one problem with the Korach approach to religion is that, by taking away the religious striving that is religious practice, Korach would have developed an ossified and complacent religion which was neither honest nor healthy.

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