Rabbi O’s Weekly Parsha: Korach (Numbers 16-18) The Uprising of Commonsense Judaism

Is common sense all one really needs in life (and Judaism)?   That’s what Annie Oakley said in one of Broadway’s most beloved musicals,Annie Get Your Gun.Folks like us could never fuss
With schools and books and learnin’
Still we’ve gone from A to Z

Doin’ what comes naturally

You don’t have to know how to read or write
When you’re out with a feller in the pale moonlight
You don’t have to look in a book to find
What he thinks of the moon or what is on his mind
 That comes naturally In this week’s Parsha, Korach led a rebellion against Moses and sought to replace him as the teacher and leader of Israel. He publicly challenged Moses and even ridiculed his interpretations of Jewish law as contradicting the most elementary logic. Korach and his followers seemed to be making a legitimate request. They, too, wanted the right to have leadership positions in the performance of some public religious duties; what could be wrong with that?  In order to understand Korach’s request, we must first understand his mindset. Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik (1903-1993) explains that Korach thought mitzvot were based on common sense. He claimed that anyone with common sense should have the right to interpret Jewish law according to his or her best understanding. There’s no need for the great scholars because we can all be our own authority by just using common sense. The problem with Korach’s approach is that it fails to understand the relationship between raw intelligence (including common sense) and the timeless wisdom transmitted at Mt. Sinai.Imagine a person who knows nothing about medicine challenging a doctor who prescribed anti-biotics. “You mean to tell me this little red pill will get me better? Why don’t I save money and buy cherry cough drops? It’s common sense: if a tiny circular red disk (i.e. anti-biotic) works, then it stands to reason that a large red cough drop will be even more effective.” The doctor might respond, “do you know anything about physiology or pharmacology? Have you spent years in formal and practical education studying medicine and how to apply it effectively? Medicine can’t be administered by simply using common sense. It is based on decades of research and monitored application. People understand that they can’t expect others to seriously consider their opinion in physics if they haven’t gotten past high school physics; the physical world is complex and requires much time and discipline to understand it. The Torah as it has been studied and transmitted since the time it was given, contains the metaphysical keys to unlock the truths of this world, truths which, according to John Adams (in a letter to Jefferson) “have done more to civilize man than any other nation.”  Is it reasonable to claim that such a distinctive body of wisdom can be dummied down to mere common sense? I know a Rabbi who related the following story. He was invited to speak at a communal Jewish event. The speaker who preceded him was a Jewish astronomer, who ended his talk with the follow declaration. “I don’t know much about Judaism but it, like all religions, can be summed up in four words, ‘be a good person.'” The Rabbi, who spoke immediately afterward, decided to change the introduction of his speech: “I don’t know too much about astronomy, but it can be summed up in ten words: ‘Twinkle, twinkle, little star, how I wonder where you are.'”  Perhaps the Rabbi was a bit harsh, but it is ludicrous to reduce the voluminous writings and practices of a nation who have had such a significant impact on so much of the world to a shallow four words. The false ideology behind Korach’s rebellion has survived the centuries. Some people believe they can use their own common sense to decide the relevance and format of contemporary Judaism. They admit they don’t have formal training in Jewish texts and sources, yet like Korach, they still insist they have a right to decide major religious questions by exercising common sense, eliminating the need for religious authorities. They leave science to scientists and math to mathematicians but refuse to leave the integrity of Jewish thought and practice to experts who have spent years studying, questioning, and analyzing it. Rav Soloveitchik explains: Korach’s was a demagogue motivated by selfish ambitions… Now, we know that every rebellion against authority needs an ideology to arouse the fervor of the people and sustain its momentum. It needs a slogan or a motto which projects a noble ideal to replace the intolerable status quo. The rallying cry which Korach chose was “common sense.” He proclaimed that all reasonable people have the right to interpret Jewish law according to their best understanding: “For all the community are holy” (Numbers 16: 3). In down-to-earth logic, the lowliest woodcutter is the equal of Moses. This appeal to populism evokes considerable support because it promises freedom from centralized authority; it flatters the people’s common intelligence and it approves the right of each Jew or group of Jews to follow their own individual judgment…On the basis of Korach’s theory, the mitzvah would have to correspond to the mood that prompts it. The value of the mitzvah is to be found not in its performance, but in its subjective impact upon the person, its ability to arouse a devotional state of mind…The mitzvah of shofar on Rosh Hashanah would be of value only if it succeeded in arousing the Jew to repentance. If these mitzvot ceased having this impact upon people, their observance would be open to question and new rituals, more responsive to changing sensitivities, should perhaps be enacted. What follows from his reasoning is that the mitzvah may be modified according to changing times or even according to the individual temperaments of different people. There is, to him, no inherent redemptive power in the mitzvah beyond its therapeutic effects, its capacity to evoke a subjective experience…The mitzvah is thus reduced to the level of an inspirational means and not an end in itself. From the standpoint of religious subjectivism and common sense, Korach’s argument seems quite cogent.  (The Common-Sense Rebellion Against Torah Authority by Rav Joseph D. Soloveitchik)Doing a mitzvah can be an emotional catalyst, but one seeks the full impact will do it within the guidelines of Halacha (Jewish law). Emotions are a wonderful addition to mitzvot, but if we all invent our own mitzvot based on the emotions we feel, we won’t be practicing the same religion as our fellow Jews.Torah Judaism as is has been practiced for centuries survived in every circumstance, in poverty, yet in wealth. In countries friendly to Jews, as well as those hostile to us. Neither time nor place has caused it to wither and today more people than ever are discovering that its timeless wisdom contains the vital knowledge and tools needed to have peace of mind. Doin’ what comes naturally might work on Broadway but we Jews rely on our mitzvot and the experts who guide us in their observance. Good Shabbos Our Standing Offer Interested in a one-on-one study? Got a Jewish question you want answered? Is there a specific topic you would like to hear more about? Please contact info@charlottetorahcenter.com and we will make that happen. 
 Good Shabbos
Rabbi Oppenheim
Charlotte Torah Center