Parashat Korah: Ritual act or religious experience

Moses’s perspective was different, and it is the perspective of Judaism from then until today: Action precedes experience.

 ACTION IS required in our reality.  (photo credit: Kid Circus/Unsplash)
ACTION IS required in our reality.
(photo credit: Kid Circus/Unsplash)

In parashat Korah, we read about the rebellion of a group of leaders of the Jewish nation, led by Korah, Dathan and Abiram, against the leadership of Moses and Aaron. This rebellion ended with a severe punishment for the rebels: The ground opened up and swallowed them.

However, the story was not written in the Torah solely to teach us about the punishment of the rebels, or at least not only for that purpose. We are called upon to delve into the motives behind the rebellion, the accusations made, and to question ourselves where the rebels went wrong, what their philosophy was, and why it was mistaken.

On the surface, Korah’s initial claim was simple: He demanded democracy. Who among us would not identify with the demand for democratic rule? 

“They assembled against Moses and Aaron, and said to them, ‘You take too much upon yourselves, for the entire congregation are all holy, and the Lord is in their midst. So why do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s assembly?” (Num. 16:3).

Korah perceived arrogance in the leadership of Moses and Aaron and demanded recognition that the entire congregation was capable of experiencing divine inspiration and therefore did not need leaders. However, as the story unfolds, we discover that democracy was not what Korah truly intended. Like a skilled politician, he used populist arguments to sway the people, but he did not genuinely believe in what he said. He wanted to seize power and lead the people in place of Moses and Aaron. He was using democratic slogans to serve his personal interests.

Reading a torah scroll (credit: INGIMAGE)
Reading a torah scroll (credit: INGIMAGE)

The sages of the midrash expressed the depth of Korah’s argument through the following description: 

“Korah quickly said to Moses, ‘In the case of a prayer shawl (tallit) that is all blue, what is the rule about it being exempt from [having] the tassel?’ Moses said to him, ‘[Such a prayer shawl] is required to have the tassels.’ Korah said to him, ‘Would not a prayer shawl that is all blue exempt itself, when four [blue] threads exempt it? In the case of a house that is full of [scriptural] books, what is the rule about it being exempt it from [having] the mezuzah (which contains only two passages of scripture)?’ [Moses] said to him, ‘[Such a house] is required to have the mezuzah.’ [Korah] said to him, ‘Since the whole Torah has two hundred and seventy-five parshiyot in it and they do not exempt the house [from having the mezuzah], would the one parasha that is in the mezuzah exempt the house?’ [He also] said to him, ‘These are things about which you have not been commanded. Rather, you are inventing them’” (Numbers Rabbah 18).

Democracy, experience, and perceptions of Judaism

In parashat Shelah, we read about the commandment to tie tzitzit fringes on the corners of garments, with some of the threads being dyed techelet/blue. Korah argued with Moses regarding a garment that was entirely dyed techelet. According to Korah, such a garment should be exempt from the commandment of techelet because it is entirely blue. However, according to Moses, the tzitzit should still be attached to it. A similar argument was raised by Korah regarding the commandment of mezuzah. Two portions from the Torah are written on a mezuzah affixed to a doorpost. Korah claimed that a house filled with Torah scrolls should be exempt from having a mezuzah on its entrance. In contrast, Moses argued that even in such a house, we are still commanded to affix a mezuzah.

RABBI JOSEPH B. Soloveitchik, one of the leaders of Orthodoxy in the United States in the second half of the 20th century, explained the dispute by examining two essential motives in religious life: the ritual act and the religious experience. It is clear to all that a ritual act that does not touch the core of a person and lacks an experiential dimension is an incomplete act. Similarly, anyone who observes commandments knows that the religious experience itself is not sufficient; a person is required to act, to obey, to accept the yoke of Torah and commandments. The important question is the relationship between these two powerful motives: Do we expect the experience to awaken a person to act and perform deeds, or do we, on the contrary, emphasize the action and hope that it will awaken the religious experience?

Korah emphasized the experiential aspect. If the blue threads of tzitzit are supposed to evoke a certain experience in a person – and indeed they are meant to do so – this experience can also be evoked in other ways, for example by wearing a garment entirely dyed blue. The same applies to the mezuzah: It is supposed to remind us of the content of the Torah portions written in it, so why should a house filled with Torah scrolls not bring us to the same necessary memory?

However, Moses’s perspective was different, and it is the perspective of Judaism from then until today: Action precedes experience. We expect and strive for the action to touch our hearts and awaken in us a profound religious experience; but in the reality in which we live, action is required! Powerful emotions can lead to the right places, but sometimes also to less correct places. 

The proper action is always correct; therefore, we should not rely solely on the power of the experience. Correct actions will bring proper experiences, but we cannot “rely” on human emotions to lead us to the right actions. First and foremost, we must act! ■

The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and holy sites.