Korach - 5778

Dear Congregant,

 

What would you posit is the most "Jewish" statement a person could make? 

"Shema Yisrael …" ("Listen, Israel [there is but one God]")?  

"Mazal tov! " ("Congratulations!" (or more correctly, "May you be blessed with good fortune."))?

"Oy vei!"  (needs no translation -- nor does it have one)?

 

How about:  "I have a question …"

One of the aspects of the Jewish tradition that is most puzzling to those not born into our faith is our penchant to question everything -- and I mean everything.   

Do I have to believe in God (or its variant: Do you believe in God, Rabbi?)?  

Why can't I eat chicken with milk?  Does a chicken nurse its young? 

Why does Shabbat have to be on Saturday?  What if I choose to observe it on Wednesday instead?

 

Believe it or not, all of these questions and other equally impious queries have been asked and addressed -- at least provisionally, they are still open for further debate -- by some of the greatest minds in the Jewish tradition (and many lesser minds, as well). 

Indeed, most of Judaism's most important texts-- the Mishna, the Talmud, the legal codes (Arba'ah Turim, Shulchan Aruch) -- not only raise difficult questions but also answer them in a multiplicity of voices, placing conflicting responses, drawn from different thinkers, epochs, schools, and geographic contexts on par with one another. 

Judaism understands open-ended inquiry to be an integral component of a robust religious life, and it can be argued that our faith's longevity and resilience is, in no small part, the result of having multiple valid viewpoints to draw upon in the face of ever-changing circumstances.

Indeed, so vehemently do our Sages hold to the imperative to question that they even hold God, God's-self up to critical scrutiny in their reading of this week's Torah portion, Parashat Korach, which relates the story of Korach, a member of the tribe of Levi but not of the sub-caste selected for priestly service, who organizes his relatives to rebel against their cousins, Moses and Aaron, challenging their leadership.

Korach's complaint -- at least as expanded in midrash -- is that Moses and Aaron are misguided in their interpretation of the law.  Indeed, Korach invokes several specific examples that seem to substantiate his claim.  Before the points can be fairly debated, though, the earth opens up and swallows Korach and his followers -- an act that one might assume would definitively resolve the issue and paint not only Korach but any questioner as a heretic.

"Not so fast!"  our Sages reply.  "Korach and his followers were actually justified in raising their queries and the points they raised would normally merit a response.  It was only because of the tone in which Korach raised his challenges -- the affront he caused Moses and Aaron -- that warranted punishment."

Bottom line.  As Jews we are defined by our questions.  They are the tools by which we build our tradition and our world.  Our faith asks only that we raise our challenges l'shem Shamayim, in a way that honors our Creator and those made in God's image and with the goal of bringing about our collective betterment.