Juxtaposition is one of the most powerful tools in the exegete’s toolbox, so it’s no surprise that Midrashic sources connect Korah’s revolution (Numbers 16) in this week’s Torah portion to the commandment with which the previous portion concludes (ibid. 15:38): “Speak to the Israelites and tell them to make tassels (tzitzit) for themselves on the corners of their garments throughout their generations and put a blue (tekhelet) thread on the tassel of the corners.” According to the Jerusalem Talmud (Sanhedrin 10:1), Korah makes a tallit “entirely of blue” for himself and each of his 250 followers, then confronted Moses with the question: “Does a tallit entirely of blue require tzitzit?” Moses replies that it does, and Korah concludes: “The Torah is not from heaven, Moses is no prophet and Aaron is no high priest!”
Bearing this story in mind, we can understand the reaction of some to the desire of the Women of the Wall (WOW) to hold a women’s prayer service on this Sunday, the New Moon of Tammuz. Organizations such as Women for the Wall (W4W) see the tallit worn by WOW as analogous to the tallit of tekhelet worn by Korah: a heretical stunt for the purpose of undermining the Torah.
Perhaps instead of considering the tekhelet of lore, W4W and their allies should consider the tekhelet of law. For 1500 years, even as they read the passage of tzitzit twice daily, Jews did not have a way of fulfilling it as written, for the simple reason that tekhelet was not available. Tekhelet is not just a color; it is a dye produced from a certain sea creature, the hilazon, and nothing else (Tosefta, Menahot 9:16). Under Roman persecution, the dyers of Dor (AKA Tel Dor or Endor), near Haifa, eventually abandoned the production of tekhelet, probably some time in the 6th century. (Check out: http://www.tekhelet.com/timeline.htm.)
Nevertheless, Jews continued to wear both the small and large tallit, based on the Mishna’s ruling (Menahot 4:1): “The blue does not preclude the white, and the white does not preclude the blue.” Even though tzitzit are supposed to be composed of some white and some blue strings, the unavailability of one does not invalidate using the other. The tallit remained, but the only memento of tekhelet was the black stripe across its body.
The search for tekhelet continued, as an academic curiosity, until about 30 years ago, when Otto Elsner of Shenkar College and Ehud Spanier of the University of Haifa managed to put all of the clues together and identify the process for extracting tekhelet from the Murex (Hexaplex) trunculus. This tekhelet was first commercially available in the 1990’s, and that’s when I started using it. I thought that the mainstream Jewish world would follow, but it has not. Why? Some halakhic objections have been raised, but it mainly boils down to a rousing chorus of: “Tra-DI-tion! Tradition!” Our holy rabbis weren’t bothered by the lack of tekhelet, so why should we be? Why do we need this strange innovation when the old ways have served so well?
And that’s what the objection to WOW boils down to as well. As the estimable Dov Bear has pointed out (http://dovbear.blogspot.co.il/2013/05/some-more-arguments-on-behalf-of-women.html), Rav Moshe Feinstein (Iggerot Moshe, OH 4:49), a halakhic authority whom no one would accuse of being feminist or liberal, ruled 40 years ago that a woman may wear a tallit and make the blessing over it, just as she may do so for the blowing of the shofar, as long as she has the intent to draw closer to God by this. The true objection comes not from Halakha, but from “normative Orthodox practice,” whatever that means–the kind people kept telling me I was contravening by wearing this newfangled tekhelet.
So now the death threats are flying back and forth, and it’s not clear what will happen on Sunday. I’m sure there are plenty of sermons being written right now about the evils of egalitarianism. But I still have one question for those who feel threatened by WOW: why are you so convinced that they’re wearing the tekhelet of Korah, and not the tekhelet of Moses?