This week’s Torah portion details the rebellion led by Korach against Moses and Aaron. The verses state:“Korach the son of Izhar, the son of Kohath, the son of Levi took along with Dathan and Abiram, the sons of Eliab, and On the son of Peleth, descendants of Reuben. They confronted Moses together with two hundred and fifty men from the children of Israel, chieftains of the congregation…They assembled against Moses and Aaron, and said to them, ‘You take too much upon yourselves, for the entire congregation are all holy, and the Lord is in their midst. So why do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s assembly?”(Bamidbar 16:1-3) This was not the first time the Jewish people complained during their travels in the desert, however Korach’s claim “You take too much upon yourselves, for the entire congregation are all holy, and the Lord is in their midst” was the first time that there was ever a rebellion against the leadership of Moses and Aaron directly.
According to the simple reading of the verse it seems that the core objection was this: by what right did Moses and Aaron assume the mantle of leadership over the Jewish people, if indeed the entire congregation was holy? Rashi adds a layer of context to this episode and quotes the Midrash Tanchuma which relates an incident that took place at the beginning of Korach’s rebellion. The Midrash writes that Korach dressed his followers in cloaks made entirely of blue wool and asked Moses, “Does a cloak made entirely of blue wool require fringes (’tzitzith’), or is it exempt?” He in turn replied, “It does require fringes.” In response to this answer, Korach and his followers mocked him. “Is it possible that a cloak of another coloured material, one string of blue wool exempts it from the obligation of techeleth (blue fringe), and this one, which is made entirely of blue wool, should not exempt itself?” (Rashi commentary 16:1) Moses’ reply was met with ridicule from Korach and his followers because the answer he provided ran counter to their common-sense and plain logic. This Midrash Tanchuma served as the starting point for Korach’s challenge of Moses’ authority, but it continues to this day in regards to how we view the concept of questioning accepted Halachik norms.
Rav Soloveitchik offers an insightful explanation regarding the all blue cloaks of Korach’s challenge. He writes that Korach was not only challenging Moses’ spiritual and judicial authority, but more importantly he was calling into question the integrity of the entire Halachik system. The implication of Korach’s claim that ‘the entire congregation are all holy’ is that every person — not only Moses and Aaron — has the ability and is entitled to interpret Halacha as they see fit. If holiness belongs to the entire congregation then so too the right of deciding halachik questions should be given to each individual based on their own common-sense and world view. (Shiurei HaRav, pg.103-104) This perception runs contrary to the very foundation of the Halachik system, which is designed to provide a unified framework in which every Jew can fulfil their individual and communal potential in the service of God. According to Rav Soloveitchik, the Mitzvah of techeleth quoted in the above Midrash was a prime example of Korach’s philosophical approach: Halacha must align with human-based logic otherwise it is obsolete. If the goal of the strand of techeleth on a garment is to remind the wearer of God then Korach argued that a garment completely composed of the colour techeleth need not require a separate techeleth fringe. With this in mind, we now understand that Korach’s rebellion was much more than a simple power struggle for leadership, rather it was a rebellion against the spiritual leadership of Moses in particular and the integrity of the objective Halachik system as a whole.
Since the time of Korach, there have been individuals and movements following in his footsteps championing the belief that Halacha ought to follow seemingly logical norms which should be modified based on the ever changing societal and cultural structures in which we live. However, the notion that any individual can decide or change Halacha based on their own preference runs contrary to the unique nature of the Halachik system. In a lecture delivered at the 19th Annual Rabbinical Council of America, Rav Soloveitchik explained that the Halachik system is comparable to a scientific construct which is based on its own timeless rules and logic and not on individual perspective. He writes: “The halachik system has its own methodology and manner of analysis, and its own schemata and conceptualized rationale, similar to mathematical constructions… Aristotelian physics proved faulty because it was governed by common sense. Objects fell, according to this approach, because they had weight; Prima facie, this is an eminently reasonable approach—conclusively disproved by Galileo and Newton. Galileo and Newton replaced a face-value understanding of natural phenomena with abstract scientific laws. They substituted a logos with a conceptualization of reality for a common-sense approach….”(Shiurei HaRav, pg.105-106) Similar to Science, the Oral Law and Halacha also have their own specific way to be approached and studied. He writes, “Similarly, the Oral Law has its own epistemological approach, divinely prescribed and conceptually understood, which only a lamdan (Torah Scholar) who has mastered its material and methodology can properly grasp. Halacha has its own logos, its own method of thinking. It is more than a mere collection of laws, in the same way that physics is more than an accumulation of laws. Both are autonomous, self-integrated systems. Consequently Halacha need not conform to the dictates of common-sense reasoning any more than mathematical or scientific conceptualizes systems need accommodate themselves to common sense.”(ibid). In order to be fully understood and correctly applied, Halacha, like Science, must be studied and clarified by a person who is well versed in its specific methodology and analysis. Similarly, just as a person’s own individual preference has no impact on the legitimacy of a scientific system, so too individual preference is not a factor when it comes to the system of Halacha.
It is a human nature not to do that which one does not understand. Like many after him, Korach felt the need to align Halachik practice with his own common-sense approach and individual understanding. But Korach, to his detriment, failed to appreciate the autonomous and independent nature of Halacha and therefore could not synthesize the two. In our own search for understanding, we must be sure to approach Halacha within its unique context and not superimpose to it our own limited, subjective logic. In this way, the beauty and timeless relevance of Halacha will truly come to light.