Where Does Holiness Come From?

Korah By :  Benjamin D. Sommer Professor of Bible and Ancient Semitic Languages Posted On Jun 5, 2013 / 5773 | Main Commentary
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Parashat Korah can be challenging for a modern Jew. There is a good guy in this parashah—it’s Moses—and there is a bad guy—Korah. Modern readers, however, often find themselves sympathizing with the bad guy. In the opening verses of the parashah (Num. 16:1–3), Korah stands up against the leadership of Moses and Aaron, saying, “You’ve got too much! The whole congregation, all of them, are holy, and Hashem is in their very midst. So why do you act like princes, raising yourselves over Hashem’s congregation?” Korah’s speech appeals to a modern reader: he’s the democrat who takes the aristocrat to task for acting so much better than everyone else. It can seem disturbing that Moses enjoys a monopoly on holiness, doling out a healthy serving of the sacred to his brother, the high priest Aaron (nepotism!), while leaving everyone else outside the priesthood. Aren’t we all holy? Doesn’t God belong to all of us equally?

Korah seems to have scripture on his side. According to the Torah, God doesn’t dwell in Moses’s tent, or in Aaron’s; the deity dwells at the center of the camp that belongs to the whole nation. The books of Exodus and Numbers take pains to provide us with a detailed map of the Israelite camp, and the Tabernacle (Mishkan) is at its midpoint. Within that Tabernacle, these books make clear, is the very presence of God. Further, what Korah says about the nation Israel is quite reminiscent of verses throughout the Torah. God sanctifies the nation Israel in Exodus 31:13, not just Moses. We learn in Exodus 19:5 that the whole nation—not just Moses’s family—will be God’s special treasure, a holy kingdom. Verses that speak of the Israelite nation’s holiness occur throughout the Torah: Exodus 22:30; Leviticus 11:44–45, 19:2, 20:7–8; Numbers 15:39–40; and Deuteronomy 7:5–10, 14:2, and 28:9. Korah seems to have not only Thomas Jefferson and Woodie Guthrie on his side in his proposal for letting the common man share some power; he seems to have the Torah on his side, too. No wonder he garnered significant support, His program was popular, and it seemed kosher.

But the Torah is quite clear about who did not side with Korah: God. After hearing Korah’s complaint, Moses proposes a test: Korah and his followers should come to the Tabernacle with an incense-filled fire pan of the sort used in sacrificial worship; Aaron will do the same. God’s reaction, Moses implies, will show who’s right. When, on the following day, the test takes place, a fire bursts forth from the Holy of Holies where God dwells, and kills Korah and his followers. Some of Korah’s followers avoid being killed by the fire—but only because the earth opens up and swallows them, an event that tends to reinforce the basic message God is sending about Korah’s proposal.

The Torah makes Korah into a symbol of exactly the wrong sort of belief, even though his proposals seem to hew fairly closely to a large number of verses from elsewhere in the Torah. What is so wrong with what he says?

The answer becomes clear when we read more closely the verses about Israel’s holiness elsewhere in the Torah. These verses never simply tell us, as Korah does, that all Israelites are inherently holy. Rather, they command Israelites to become holy by observing the mitzvot that the Torah commands. Compare Korah’s statement quoted above with the words God speaks just before God gives the Torah at Sinai (Exod. 19.5–6):

So now–
if you all truly obey Me
and adhere to My covenant,
you will be My personal treasure from among all nations.
Indeed, all the world is Mine,
but you will become My kingdom of priests,
My holy people.

Korah’s statement, “The whole congregation, all of them, are holy,” seems on the surface to resemble these verses, but it leaves out the crucial word that appears at the very beginning of God’s statement: if. The Israelites become holy only when they truly obey God and adhere to the Covenant. The same is true of the other verses about Israel’s holiness I cited earlier. To take just a few examples:

  • In Leviticus 19:2, God says, “You should be holy, for I, Hashem your God, am holy. Every person should respect his mother and father. Observe My Sabbaths—I am Hashem your God. Never turn to any false gods, and make yourselves no idols.”
  • In Numbers 15:40, God commands the Israelites to wear tzitziyot, fringes on their garments, so that, when they see the tzitziyot, they will remember God’s commands. “Then,” God says, “you will carry out all My commands, and you will be holy to your God.”
  • In Deuteronomy 13:9 to 14:2, Moses tells the Israelites, “If you obey Hashem your God by carrying out all His commandments that I command you today and by doing what is right in the sight of the Hashem your God, you will be children of Hashem your God. Do not gash yourselves or make a bald spot above your forehead because of the dead [as a sign of mourning]! For you are a holy people belonging to Hashem your God! Hashem your God chose you from among all the nations on earth to be His personal treasure. Do not eat anything that is improper!” (The laws of kashrut follow.)      

All these passages mention Israel’s holiness alongside demands for Israel’s observance of the mitzvot. The consistent message is not that the nation Israel is automatically holy, as if holiness were in some special Jewish gene each of us received when we were conceived. Rather, holiness is something the Torah requires us to foster in our communities and in ourselves. There is nothing special about being Jewish; there is something sacred in observing the Torah. Without the commandments, it means nothing to be a Jew. (And if there were some Jewish gene that made us special, should we conclude that converts to Judaism lack it? Such a conclusion is ridiculous—and offensive from the point of view of Jewish law, according to which all Jews are equally Jewish, regardless of whether one becomes Jewish by choice or by birth.)

Here the danger of Korah’s words becomes clear. Korah is less a liberal democrat than a certain kind of nationalist. He regards holiness not as an achievement but as a right. He remembers the verses that speak of Israel’s status without paying attention to what all those verses say we have to do to earn that status. By recalling the Torah selectively, he converts an ethical demand into a sense of entitlement.

Korah’s revolt, in the short term, achieved nothing. And yet Korahite thinking never fully disappeared. It endures to the present day. There are some Jews who want to take pride in being Jewish without doing anything to deserve that pride. These Jews have a racial or genetic idea of our specialness. Elements of Korahite thinking appear even among Jewish texts and thinkers that have managed to be within the mainstream. Yehudah Halevi was one of the greatest Hebrew poets; in fact some of his poems appear in our liturgy. But at times he expressed the view that there is something automatically special about Jews simply by virtue of their being born as Jews (and for this reason his acceptance of converts as fully Jews was less than complete, in contradiction to Jewish law). The Tanya, a work of popular mysticism by the founder of the Lubavitch movement, holds a similar view of Jewish specialness via birth. Occasional thinking along these lines appears also in the Zohar (e.g., 3:81a). Thinking of this sort can easily devolve into nationalistic, chauvinistic, and even bigoted attitudes. God’s response to Korah provides a definitive rejection of the idea that Jews are automatically special—and a reminder that it is performing the Torah’s commands that allows us to strive for holiness.