Who is Korah?

I am in Jerusalem again, studying at the Shalom Hartman Institute where I always find a refuge to recharge my spirit. I am grateful for this opportunity to learn in Jerusalem. I feel fortunate to live in a blessed age in which I can so easily visit the land of Israel. I recognize that my generation is unique in Jewish history. For generations, we only dreamed of such a reality. Now that hope is realized. And that alone is enough to stir my soul.

I come here as well because the view from afar is rarely an accurate portrayal. From a distance the State of Israel too readily becomes a caricature of preconceived notions. For some Israel can do no wrong. For others it is rarely, if ever, right. Israel is either idolized or demonized. It is of course neither. Israel must never be reduced to mere talking points. It is a remarkable and complicated place. Dreams never mirror reality. Prayers cannot be squared with the here and now.

Israel is a human creation. It is not fashioned by God. It should not be governed by heavenly dreams. And yet it forever stirs my heart. Here my people’s dreams are palpable. Here as well those dreams become intoxicating.

Soon after arriving we made our way to the Western Wall, the remnant of the Temple that once served as the focus of Jewish worship. Destroyed by the Romans in 70 C.E. the Wall has become our most sacred place. Until Israel’s victory in the Six Day War, the Wall, and the Old City that surrounds it, remained under Jordanian control. With that military victory in 1967 prayers and dreams appeared all too real. We sang: we have returned. Our songs have ascended. “When the Lord restores the fortunes of Zion we shall be like dreamers. Our mouths shall be filled with laughter, our tongues with songs of joy.” (Psalm 126)

The adjacent Muslim neighborhood was soon razed. A large plaza was created. Jews made pilgrimage to their holy site. The Ministry of Religion was granted jurisdiction over the area. The ultra-Orthodox rabbis exerted their ideology, imposing ever-increasing strictures, diminishing the women’s section, insisting that women’s arms and legs should be covered, and now opposing the way I pray. Today, on Rosh Hodesh Tammuz, my wife Susie ventured with some hundred other women, to the women’s section, to pray with Women of the Wall. I stood outside with other men, peering in and joining in the prayers when we were able to hear our friends’ songs rise above the whistles and names shouted at them.

A young girl became a bat mitzvah. We rejoiced after her aliya to the Torah. The Torah scroll had to be smuggled in. The police confiscated a second scroll. Officers questioned our Reform prayerbooks; they prevented us from bringing a guitar into the makeshift egalitarian section. Why shouldn’t music accompany our prayers? And yet a small victory was achieved. The Torah scroll was lifted above the women’s shoulders. We sang. “Ki mitzion tetzei Torah — For out of Zion the Torah shall go forth and the word of God from Jerusalem.”

The ultra-Orthodox authorities attempt to forbid women from reading Torah. What is commonplace in our home synagogues requires an act of courage and civil disobedience at Judaism’s holiest of sites. The promised egalitarian prayer space remains mired in politics. Prime Minister Netanyahu delays. His ultra-Orthodox coalition partners threaten to leave the government if the plan goes forward.

We joined together, men and women, youth groupers and rabbis, in the large area outside of the divided sections. We sang psalms. We joined in Hatikvah. We were called “Amalek,” the eternal enemy of the Jewish people.

The Western Wall remains a powerful symbol. Many asked me to recite prayers for them, to place their words into the cracks between these ancient stones. It is considered the best place to ask God for special blessings. God is nearer. God can be more keenly felt when touching the stones of the once great, Holy Temple. I prayed for the healing of sick friends. Still, too often I find God becomes distant. Jews shout at other Jews. Jews attempt to assert their ideology over all; they insist that holiness must conform to their view and their view alone.

This week we read the story of Korah’s rebellion against Moses’ authority. Korah screams: “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)

Rebel or revolutionary only the future can decide. I cannot wait; I will not wait. Our history is still being written. It is not divine, but human.

The Jewish state struggles to realize its dreams. And yet I continue to rejoice in its creation. I am among a privileged and unique generation who can walk were my ancestors only imagined. For all the screaming, and the disagreements, and even the cursing, I will never let go of this blessing.

I can walk among my people’s dreams.

About the Author
Rabbi Steven Moskowitz is the rabbi of Congregation L'Dor V'Dor, a community serving Long Island's North Shore. He began his rabbinical career in 1991 at the 92nd Street Y in New York. He travels every summer to Jerusalem to learn at the Shalom Hartman Institute where he is a Senior Rabbinic Fellow. Rabbi Moskowitz is married to Rabbi Susie Moskowitz and is the father of Shira and Ari.
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