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Rabbi Michael Rosensweig
Rabbi Michael Rosensweig

The Rejection of Korach and His Ideology of Kedushah Minimalism

Parshat Korach chronicles the epic ideological battle between Korach and Moshe Rabbeinu. An examination of the initial exchanges between the protagonists reveals that each camp actually invoked a single core concept, "kedushah", as its religious bedrock.

Korach instigates against the prevailing leadership hierarchy and model (Bamidbar 16:3),"vayikahalu al Moshe ve-al Aharon va-yomru aleihem" by declaring, "rav lachem ki kol ha-eidah kulam kedoshim u-vetocham Hashem u-madua titnaseu al kehal Hashem". Moshe Rabbeinu's response (16:5) - "va-yedaber el Korach ve-el kol adato leimor boker ve-yoda Hashem et asher lo ve-et ha-kadosh ve-hikriv eilav ve-eit asher yivchar bo yakriv eilav"- acknowledges the pivotal factor of kedushah in this struggle. Moreover, he embraces the notion and challenge that the outcome of this contest will determine the authenticity of only one of these irreconcilable perspectives on kedushah. What are these diverse incompatible views?

Korach appeals to the democratic character of Jewish life to underpin his rejection of religious and political hierarchy. The fact is that every Jew's life is equally precious (Sanhedrin 74b), an "olam malei" (Sanhedrin 37a), suffused with sanctity and the opportunity of meaningful avodat Hashem. Judaism, indeed, rejects vicarious religion, demanding personal experience and participation in spiritual life. The keter Torah, the most prominent of the three crowns (alongside kingship and kehunah that were disputed by Korach), is, indeed, totally accessible to all (Rambam, Hilchos Talmud Torah 3:1). The midrash (cited also by Rashi), comments that "u-betocham Hashem" refers to the shared and common presence of all of Klal Yisrael during the defining experience of gilui Shechinah (Revelation).

While these motifs are singular to yahadut and provide an important foundation for religious life, they may also erode that very foundation when they are asserted as the maximal ideal and when they are invoked to deny personal spiritual investment and initiative that necessarily distinguish levels of avodat Hashem that are also instrumental in determining qualifying factors in Jewish law and leadership. The keter Torah is indeed the common heritage of all of Klal Yisrael, but only those who toil and sacrifice ultimately attain the crown of Torah (Rambam, Hilchos Talmud Torah 3:6 ). Indeed, the Rambam asserts that one who is unwilling to make sacrifices to attain Torah mastery will never achieve it. He further argues (ibid 3:7) axiomatically that anyone who leaves his scholarship to chance (le-k'she'efneh eshneh) certainly will not achieve that lofty goal. Common access, universal opportunity, and uniform obligation are important but insufficient factors.

The absurd notion that the passive experience of the moment of Revelation equalized every Jew, regardless of his prior investment in that moment (which required hachanah), his subsequent spiritual development, or his broader stature as a religious persona, truly encapsulates Korach's minimalist and passive stance on kedushah. While perhaps appealing to the underachieving population by projecting an illusory egalitarianism or equality, the idea that Moshe and Aharon's leadership credentials were indistinguishable from any other Jew who experienced Revelation fundamentally contravenes the core tenets of Torah growth and leadership.

This passive and minimalist kedushah posture ironically but certainly erodes the very significance of the singular Revelation experience that it purports to elevate. Korach chose to emphasize merely the reality of Divine presence - "u-betocham Hashem" - ignoring the significance of human preparation and the experience of receiving the Torah and integrating the importance of that presence. Numerous mefarshim develop the theme that the apparently passive receiving of the Torah was a subtly different experience for each Jew, as it was conditioned by preparation and the persona of the recipient. For this reason, the common and collective experience is often rendered by the Torah in personal rather than collective terminology. Indeed, the Maharshal (introduction, Yam Shel Shlomoh on Bava Kama) posits that the range of legitimate eilu ve-eilu divrei Elokim Chaim (halachic pluralism) was determined by the individual reception of each Jew at Sinai! The perspective that kabbalat ha-Torah was also a halachic "event", and that it even contributed to the content, contours, and character of Torah, a theme that Maharal (Tiferet Yisrael and throughout his works) and others develop extensively, belies the sensibility that kabbalat ha-Torah was merely about passive presence such that one participant was indistinguishable from another.

Indeed, each Jew is an olam malei not only because of the lowest common denominator that he shares, but also because of his vast potential to manifest a unique dimension of avodat Hashem. The ubiquity of kedushat Yisrael stems not primarily from the fact that each Jew is interchangeable, but from the potential and reality that every Jew is truly singular. Indeed, R. Yossi asserts (Pesachim 68b) that the festival of Shavuot, commemorating not only Divine presence, and not only the giving but also the receiving of the Torah, is a holiday that necessarily accentuates the human dimension (lachem, as opposed to kulo la-Hashem) because it is precisely that experience, and the sanctity it endowed, that enabled distinctive, singular spiritual contribution ("eeh lav hai yoma kamah Yossi ika be-shuka").

Indeed, "boker ve-yoda yoda Hashem et asher lo ve-et ha-kadosh ve-hikriv eilav". The denouement of the Korach story emphatically eschewed the lowest common denominator of Korach's kedushah minimalism and unambiguously endorsed Moshe and Aharon's doctrine of ambitious kedushah, and demanding leadership models. It facilitated a kedushah that was potentially transforming and that qualified those who cultivated it to be worthy of a singular relationship with Hashem - "ve-hikriv eilav." Klal Yisrael's mission as a "mamlechet kohanim vegoy kadosh" emerged from this episode as an inspirational vision of religious and halachic aspiration.

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