For the sake of Heaven?

In every generation, we have an element of the Korah story. Divisiveness is justified by invoking the name of God and the inability to change any aspect of Torah.

Pool of a medieval ‘mikve’ in Speyer, Germany, dating back to 1128 (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Pool of a medieval ‘mikve’ in Speyer, Germany, dating back to 1128
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
A young woman on the eve of her wedding went to immerse in a mikve (ritual bath) in Jerusalem this week. When she mentioned she was a bride, the mikve attendants quickly discovered that she was not getting married through the Rabbinate and refused to allow her in.
They did not listen to her story, of a woman with a Jewish father who underwent a non-Orthodox conversion in the US and made aliya. She tried to convert through the state conversion court but was rejected for the following reasons.
Although she is completely observant, her fiancée would not commit to full religious observance, although he was willing to be respectful and ensure the household would maintain fidelity to Halacha. As a result, she was unable to marry through the Rabbinate.
A rabbi had agreed to marry them privately, and so, she was trying to enter under the huppa wedding canopy in the manner of Jewish brides for thousands of years – in purity and sanctity following immersion in a ritual bath, however, the mikve, after consultation with the supervising rabbi, turned her away.
Despite the humiliation and pain, this truly sincere convert quietly went to another mikve, this time without disclosing any of her story, and immersed. This kind of thuggery both in the conversion courts and in the mikvaot is justified through religious indignation that such institutions are only protecting the integrity of the entire system. They are sure that without their rigidity, thousands of years of Jewish practice will dissolve or worse, slide downward toward the vortex of Reformation.
They would do well to ask themselves whether they are truly acting for the sake of heaven or seek to hold onto a power base that allows for totality of control over religious practice.
This week’s Torah portion, Korach, is one of divisiveness and rebellion, couched in holy language but devoid of holy intent. In the aftermath of the spies, the leadership of the nation has been considerably weakened. The nation has lost its destination – entry into the land – and as a result, the people have lost the focus they gained at Sinai and are mired in despondency. The moment is ripe for Korach and his company to challenge Aaron’s exclusive right to priesthood, which represents the upper echelons of spiritual, and potentially, political power.
Korach seeks to seemingly democratize the nation by decrying Moshe’s elitism: “You have gone too far! For all of the community are holy, all of them and the Lord in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation?” He uses the rallying cry of religious freedom in order to foment discontent. On the face of it, he is fighting for a closer relationship with God than a societal hierarchy allows.
THESE ARE intoxicating words. Korach creates divisiveness precisely by offering egalitarianism: We are all equal. We are all holy. We should all be able to make decisions for ourselves together with God! Korach, of course, has no real intention to flatten the hierarchy of leadership in order to build a kibbutz. He is making a run on the leadership for himself.
This is something that Moshe understands when he gives his answer: “Is it not enough for you that the God of Israel has set you apart from the community of Israel and given you access to Him? Now that He has advanced you and all your fellow Levites with you, do you seek the priesthood too?”
Moshe sees what Korach is really after: unbridled power cloaked in the religious language of holiness. Korach represents self-interest but he knows to use the language of democracy, nationalism and most importantly, God, in order to seduce the people into listening to his rhetoric. He also injects an element of truth, which makes his bid all the more convincing. We are all holy for we are all created in the image of God. But beneath the veneer of truth lies raw ambition to take control.
The coup fails spectacularly. Korach and his camp are swallowed whole into the Earth. Two hundred and fifty members of the elite are consumed by holy fire and a plague consumes 14,700 from among the people who were swept up into a fight they mistook for holy idealism.
In every generation, we have an element of the Korach story. Power struggles are justified by invoking the name of God and the inability to change any aspect of Torah, particularly in discussions around complex topics that affect society. While halacha as a system is often praised for its ingenuity in confronting the challenges of modernity, much depends on the willingness of the rabbinic authority base to implement this ingenuity.
Holy space requires structure and relies on a system. But it is a far more fluid and flexible system than many religious leaders would have us believe. When religious posturing is used to keep people out of sacred spaces, those in power would do well to think of Korach, who instead of striving to bring greater holiness to the people, went in pursuit of power.
The writer teaches contemporary Halacha and Talmud at Matan and Pardes, along with courses on sexuality and sanctity in the Jewish tradition.