Religious vs. Observant

It can be argued that Halakha (Jewish law) can lead us to a life of holiness. Still, that assertion is widely disputed, or at least resisted, by a great many Jews who either do not understand the scope and nature of Jewish law and its purpose, or do not wish to have their lives restricted by laws they view as obsolete or irrelevant. Many see Jewish law as out of step with what they personally want to do, and out of touch with modern life.

This week’s parasha affords us the opportunity to renew that conversation. The primary narrative in the Torah, the story of Korach and his followers who rebel against the leadership of Moses and are destroyed by God after a showdown, raises the question of what exactly they did that was punishable by death. One hint lies in this verse, a statement made by Korach:

They combined against Moses and Aaron 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?” (Bemidbar 16:3)

Rashi says that Korah’s main complaint was that Moses was monopolizing the leadership roles. He writes:

“All of them heard the commandments at Sinai from the mouth of the Mighty One. If you yourself have taken the kingship, you should not have selected for your brother the priesthood; not you alone have heard at Sinai, “I am the Lord your God;” the entire congregation heard it.”

In Rashi’s view, Korach’s sin was to challenge God’s chosen prophet, in effect challenging God Himself. But other commentators hold the view that Korach rejected God’s laws as a pathway to holiness. Nehama Leibowitz writes:

Note that they do not say: “all the congregation is holy” – as a unit, but: “all the congregation are holy,” “all of them” – each one taken individually… God demanded of them: “You shall be holy,” that is to say: Show yourselves holy by your deeds!… Instead we are faced by the brazen assertion, all the community are holy, all of them so unsupported by realities.

Leibowitz seizes on a subtlety in the language of the Torah, one more apparent in the Hebrew than in the English, which implies that Korach considered every individual to be holy even without following God’s laws given at Mt. Sinai. Her real point is to assert that Halakha is a pathway to holiness. She equates holiness with deeds, not feelings or intentions.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin suggests a similar idea. He writes:

“The conflict between Moses and Korah reflects a tug of war within the human spirit. . . . Korah denies the importance of the laws. He says, ‘Who needs this system of do’s and don’ts, you shalls and you shall nots? We’re holy already!’ Certainly this perspective was attractive to every Israelite who wanted to be left alone. Who wants to be told what to do and what not to do? If I want to commit adultery, who are you to tell me I shouldn’t?”

Many of the commentators on this narrative, Riskin and Leibowitz chief among them, suggest that the sin of Korach was to challenge not Moses but God and His law. Indeed, whether or not law is necessary at all to lead a meaningful and authentic Jewish life is a main point of ideological difference between Conservative and Reform Judaism. Can we not decide for ourselves how to be a good person?

When asked to describe themselves as Jews, many people say “I’m not religious.” When I hear that, I often reply, “You are indeed very religious, based on your values and your caring about Jewish life and Jewish identity. What you may not be is observant of Jewish law.”

I understand and respect that there are many ways to express our Jewish identity. We need diversity in Jewish life. Still, this parasha asks us to consider the ways in which Halakha, Jewish law, can shape our lives and lead us to the very place we wish to be- a life of meaning and holiness.

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