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Who Has the Authority to Change Judaism?

In his well-known 1936 commentary on the Torah, popularly referred to as the "Hertz Humash", Dr. J. H. Hertz refers to this week's Torah portion, "Korach", as "The Great Mutiny". Rabbi Gunther Plaut, writing in the Reform movement's recent commentary on the Torah, calls these chapters "The Rebellion of Korach, Dathan, and Abiram". Dr. Jacob Milgrom, in the new commentary on the Book of Numbers published by the Jewish Publication Society, refers to this portion as the "Encroachment on the Tabernacle".

The source of these negative ascriptions is not difficult to find. The very beginning of the Torah portion establishes the nature of the latest rebellion against the leadership of Moses: "Now Korach...betook himself...along with Dathan and Abiram... to rise up against Moses, together with 250 Israelites, chieftains of the community, chosen in the assembly, men of repute. They combined against Aaron and Moses and said to them: 'You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Lord's congregation?'" (Numbers 16:1-3)

The challenge hurled at Moses, anathema and rebellion to our ancestors, often seems, on the face of it, to have legitimacy in the eyes of contemporary Jews. After all, what is inherently wrong with the question posed by Korach? All he seems to be saying is that as the entire Israelite people were sanctified at Sinai, the claim to sole legitimacy and authority by Moses is, to use an anachronism, "undemocratic". Rabbi Shlomo Riskin has thus characterized this portion as "the classic confrontation between the democratic rebellion of Korach and the divine authority of Moses".

Raised in democracy, trained to believe that all are entitled to vote, American Jews often resonate to the words of Korach, notwithstanding the fact that they may have no idea who he is. Translated into contemporary terms, Korach's challenge implicitly asks: what is the role of the community in formulating (or, to be more precise, "reforming", "reconstructing", or "conserving") the Judaism of our time?

Put differently, to what degree is the authority to interpret and adjust Judaism to be reserved for rabbis trained in and conversant with the Jewish legal tradition (the "Halakha", or Jewish law), and to what degree is that authority to be shared with reasonably informed and involved Jewish laypeople?

Orthodoxy, asserting the divine origin and binding nature of Torah and Halakha, reserves the right for rabbis only. Conservative Judaism affirms the binding nature of Halakha, while believing in the right of rabbis to make changes within the Halakhic system. The input of laypeople, however, is considered important in determining which changes the community is prepared to accept, or needs to have enacted on its behalf.

Reform Judaism, which in fact traces its origins to the modernizing actions first of laypeople and later on of rabbis in several congregations in Germany in the 19th century, has always allowed a voice from the community to inform its policies and platforms.

Reconstructionist Judaism has perhaps most enthusiastically embraced the idea of a lay-rabbinic partnership in formulating a modern interpretation of Judaism, with its recent liturgy, platforms, and policies being the result of such collaboration.

Inherent in the tradition's abhorrence of the rebellion of Korach was the concern that, once empowered, the community as a whole ran the risk of distorting, even destroying, Jewish law and Jewish tradition. Rabbi Riskin gives this perhaps exaggerated example: "If tomorrow, five million American Jews would vote that circumcision by a mohel is no longer necessary...would that vote change the law?"

The legitimate concern raised by those who resist the participation by laypeople in the formulation of Judaism is that a majority, acting out of ignorance, expediency, or antagonism, might well overturn sacred foundations of Judaism.

The legitimate concern raised by laypeople who resist the privatization of Judaism in the hands of rabbis is that such a model proceeds from assumptions no longer shared -- i.e., divine revelation -- and is in opposition to the way in which they have been raised to participate in the larger society -- i.e., by being informed, involved, and, as it were, "voting".

In the section of the Mishna known as Pirke Avot, "The Teachings of the Sages", we find the following: "A controversy for the sake of Heaven will have lasting value, but a controversy which is not for the sake of Heaven will not endure." What is an example of a controversy for the sake of Heaven? The debates of Rabbis Hillel and Shammai. What is an example of a controversy not for the sake of Heaven? The rebellion of Korach and his associates." (Avot 5:19)

Despite what appears to be the reasonable nature of Korach's challenge, on closer examination, we find that he is merely using the people to further his own goals, and to support his own desire to replace Moses. What appears to be a populist argument is in fact the popular tactic of the demagogue: hiding one's own authoritarian aspirations behind the cloak of community.

There is a sharp and important difference between a reform from within the system and an attack upon the system. Some contemporary Jews often angrily confront rabbinic tradition and contemptuously challenge rabbinic authority. Other Jews thoughtfully and respectfully approach Jewish tradition with an eye both to reshaping it and maintaining its essential integrity, seeking a partnership with rabbis rather than their displacement.

Writing in the early part of the twentieth century, Rabbi Solomon Schechter argued that will of Klal Yisrael, the Jewish people in their entirety, needed to be taken into account by rabbis in the reformulation of Jewish law.

Rabbi Robert Gordis, writing but a few decades later in the middle of the twentieth century, saw the necessity of redefining Schechter's formula, suggesting that only the opinions of those Jews who were educated, observant, and involved should be considered. Knowledge and commitment are appropriate criteria by which those who seek to participate in the reformulation of Jewish life should be admitted to the discussion.

The rebellion of Korach was dispatched by a display of supernatural pyrotechnics; the challenge he articulated is not so easily dismissed today. The crisis of Jewish continuity is the responsibility of all concerned Jews, rabbis as well as laypeople. Notwithstanding our differences, the story of Korach teaches us that for our discussions to be productive, we must strive for them to be "for the sake of Heaven".
Topics: Divrei Torah
Type: Dvar Torah

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