June 17, 2004
For Heaven’s Sake
Parshat Korach (Numbers 16:1-18:32)
The Torah portion for this Shabbat is Korach, which details a disastrous mutiny led by Korach, a first cousin of Moses and Aaron. Korach says to Moses, who is leading the Jewish people through the Sinai desert on the way to Canaan: "You take too much upon you, seeing all the congregation is holy, every one of them and the Lord is among them: therefore, why do you raise yourself above the assembly of the Lord?"
The legitimacy and arguments of Korach and his followers are rejected by God as stated in our Torah portion. Korach felt that Moses had overlooked him when he made the appointment of chief of the Levite division of Kohat. Korach thought he should have gotten the job. What started as a family fight, soon turned into a major political upheaval through the skillful manipulations of Korach.
In Pirke Avot (5:19) we read: "A controversy for the sake of heaven will have lasting value, but a controversy not for heaven's sake will not endure. What is an example of a controversy for heaven's sake? The debates between Hillel and Shammai. What is an example of a controversy not for heaven's sake? The rebellion of Korach and his assembly."
More than a few rabbis from various branches of Judaism have viewed other branches of Judaism as resembling Korach's rebellion and have called them "inauthentic" and have used considerable quantities of ink to demean and invalidate their views. In contradistinction to Korach and the 250 princes who followed him, I see many leaders of the streams of Judaism today as teaching Torah Judaism with sincere goals that are for the sake of heaven. The debate today by the most respected leaders of some streams of Judaism is more like the classical rabbinic disagreements between Hillel and Shammai, where each would quote the other with profound respect (and not a put-down) before advocating their own position. Dennis Prager coined a term years ago describing "serious Jews" as those who come from different Jewish backgrounds but who share a passion for Judaism, Jewish texts and a commitment to Jewish living. Serious Jews can debate each other with respect while quoting their sources to support their different views.
I remember Sonja Silverman (who died in 1980) for the continuous inspiration she derived from Judaism. She would shlep all over Los Angeles to attend lectures by rabbis of every stripe. If she knew a particular rabbi or scholar had some precious Torah teaching to offer -- she was there. Sonja inspired me. Her husband, Phil, inspired me and continues to do so by his teachings. Forty-one years ago, he was my confirmation teacher at a Reform temple. Sonja taught in various religious schools around town.
I distinctly remember Sonja cringing when a rabbi would clarify a point about Judaism by saying in a put-down tone: "However, according to the Orthodox [or Reform, or Conservative, etc.]," because Sonja was a Jew with appreciation for all branches of Judaism and absolute loyalty to no one movement. Her loyalty was to the entirety of Judaism, to Torah and to God. In her mind, as I understood her, one should not limit Judaism to a particular "stream," to use today's terminology.
The philosophy of Jewish institutions such as Brandeis-Bardin Institute, the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, the Board of Rabbis of Southern California and The Los Angeles Community Bet Din is encouraging.
I remember one of my teachers, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, who today is the regional rabbi of Efrat in Israel, advocated several years ago that there be a bet din for conversion that would require nine rabbis -- six more than what Jewish law mandates -- in order that Reform and Conservative movements should be represented without taking away the Orthodox requirement for three Orthodox rabbis. Though his proposal never was enacted at that time, may God bless his intention and his efforts -- perhaps one day they shall bear fruit.
Years ago I heard a fellow Jew, who does not keep kosher in any way, criticize another for eating kosher only at home but eating out in non-kosher restaurants, even foods that were clearly not kosher. I knew the other person he was speaking to, who at one time did not observe kashrut at home. I cringed when I heard one Jew berating the other. In my mind I was admiring how this Jewish person had begun on the path of observance and was slowly but surely moving up the ladder, despite his current inconsistencies. In my mind this was far preferable to being consistently treif in all matters of observance, which was the modus operandi of the first Jew, whom I also knew quite well. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once said that we should not only make sure that the food that enters our mouths be kosher but that the words that come out of our mouths be kosher, as well. One can be meticulously kosher with the food he eats and completely treif by his language and intonation.
Some believe that anyone more observant than oneself is a fanatic and anyone less observant or knowledgeable than oneself is an ignoramus. Hillel and Shammai would reject such judgements. Consistency is not the highest value in Judaism -- unless we are consistently working for ways to bring our people together by emphasizing our shared goals and values. Then any disagreements between us will be debated with respect and will be advocated for the sake of heaven. Then we shall remark in wonder how "these seemingly contradictory positions and statements are both expressions of the living God."
Gershon Johnson is rabbi at Temple Beth Haverim in Agoura Hills.