Monday, June 15, 2009

Hitzei Yehonatan on Mei ha-Shiloah - Parashat Korach

Once again, thanks to R. Yehonatan Chipman and his outstanding blog Hitzei Yehonatan...

Korah and Determinism

by R. Yehonatan Chipman

As we did last week, we shall once again present a Torah from the Izhbitzer Rebbe, who was fascinated with the more paradoxical sides of Torah (for more on the Izhbitzer and his milieu, see HY IV: Mishpatim). And what more suitable Torah portion than that of Korah, the arch-rebel against Moses’ authority and, some say, supreme religious individualist and iconoclast? Mei Shiloah(Korah; Vol. I, p. 154)

“And Korah took…” [Num 16:1]. It says in the midrash [Numbers Rabbah 18.2]: “Why is the chapter of Korah adjacent to that of tzitzit? Because Korah took a tallit that was entirely blue and asked, “Is it exempt or is it required [to have tzitzit]?” The matter here, is that the color blue (tekhelet) signifies fear, and orah argued that the fear of God, may He be blessed, is understood by him with great clarity, and he understands that all is in the hand of Heaven, even fear of God. Hence how can a person come and do anything that is against God’s will, since [human] will and acts are all from Him, may He be blessed? How then can he do anything against His will?

A central concept of Mei Shiloah is that human free will is illusory, and that everything that happens is ultimately predestined. Hence, carried to its logical conclusion, the idea of a person consciously acting out of “fear of God” is logically impossible: whether or not a person will be God-fearing is itself in God’s hands. This, in a nutshell, was Korah’s argument: the blue thread, which symbolizes and is intended to remind people of “fear of God,” is superfluous. Here, the Izhbitzer carries the notion of quietism, found in early Hasidism, to its extreme conclusion.

And for this reason he argued that it is exempt from tzitzit, because tzitzit allude to fear. And in truth, God’s will in this world [potentially?] visible to human eyes. And this is what is stated in the Talmud [Hagiggah 13b], that Ezekiel prayed concerning the face of the ox, and it was turned into a cherub. For the ox alludes to greatly clarified wisdom; for in depth all is in the hands of Heaven, and man’s [free] choice is no thicker than a garlic skin, and is only according to his own perception. For God has hidden His way from human beings, because He seeks man’s service, and if all were revealed to him there could not blossom any service from it.

The aggadic passage alluded to here (which, incidentally, is from that chapter of the Talmud which deals most extensively with esoteric wisdom) tries to resolve a contradiction between the description of the “four faces” of the Divine chariot: in Ezek 1:10 these are described as having the faces of “a man, a lion, an ox, and an eagle”; while in Ezek 10:14 they bear the faces of “a cherub, a man, a lion, and an eagle.” The transition from ox to cherub is explained as a result of Ezekiel praying for mercy for him (that is, to turn it into a figure who would intercede to bring mercy upon Israel—thus Rashi). The ox is assumed to symbolize Judgment, perhaps because of his enormous brute strength. In any event, this is interpreted by the Izhbitzer as equivalent to “clarified wisdom”: that is, knowledge of the inner workings of the Divine economy, of the lawfulness and fixity of the cosmic order and of God’s dealings with human beings, leaving no room for transformation, for free will, for teshuvah, or for appeals to love and intimacy between man and God.

In general, the Izhbitzer’s answer to Korah is peculiar: though there is predestination, it is hidden from humankind, and people think that they have free will, so that they can serve God with a feeling of genuine choice. (But if this choice is ultimately unreal, how can God take pleasure from such predetermined “service”? There seems something a bit illogical in this position.) This view, we might add, is a minority one in Jewish thought. For example, in a famous passage about how God could have hardened Pharaoh’s heart, Maimonides struggles to reconcile the principle of Divine omniscience with human free will (Hilkhot Teshuvah 5.5). The notion of predestination seems particularly at odds with a movement like Hasidism, which so much emphasizes man’s inner life and the cultivation of religious emotion and kavannah, service of the heart and not just of the limbs. If it all depends upon God’s arbitrary will, why bother? Moreover, Mei Shiloah here opens a very controversial door, more explicit in some other of his teachings, for providing justification for transgressions. “A person who removes himself from the Evil Urge, and guards himself from sin with all his strength, until he cannot guard himself more than this: when his lust then overcomes him and he performs an act, he may know for certain that this is God’s will” (!!; Pinhas, p. 165). This seems to me an extraordinarily dangerous doctrine. And, some cynics might add, perhaps it is passages such as these that are one of the more problematical and less pure sources for his popularity in this, our anarchistic and undisciplined age.

So why, nevertheless, did the Izhbitzer adopt such positions? After all, we must remember that he was a very pious Jew; it was he, and not the Hiddushei ha-Rim, who abruptly left his beloved rebbe, fleeing as if from fire, after that strange Shabbat when the Kotzker performed a shocking, possibly non-halakhic act. My own reading is that the central axis in the Izhbitzer’s thought is simple, total faith in God. For him, the faith that everything comes from God, and that we are like passive tools in His hands, somehow strengthens faith in God’s greatness, in our dependence upon Him, etc.

And it was concerning this that Ezekiel prayed. And it [the ox] was changed to a cherub, so that the way of God should be hidden, and that it seem to human beings that they have free will. And through this the service [of God] enters into their hearts. And this is the meaning of “the cherub is the small face.” The Talmud’s explanation as to how Ezek 10:14 can include both a cherub and human being alongside one another is that one is “the great face” and “the cherub is the small face.” But the “small face,” in Kabbalistic thought, is also Ze’ir anpin, that Divine configuration which epitomizes “mercy of mercies.”

One Shabbat Korah some years ago, I happened to daven at a rather anti-establishment, bohemian sort of minyan. The rabbi–teacher–preacher began his talk on that occasion with the words: “Korah, you are our brother!” He went on to state that the Hozeh of Lublin —a focal figure in early 19th century Hasidism, who bridged between the tradition of the Maggid and the emergent school of Pshyshcha-Kotzk—used to refer to him as der Zeidey Koirakh, “Grandfather Korah.” He added that anyone with commonsense refrained from taking sides in the great controversy between Moses and Korah; it was only after the Divine verdict was issued, in the dramatic form of the earth swallowing Korah, that it became clear that Moses’ position was correct. What is the meaning of this underground tradition that turns everything most of us have ever learned about Korah upside down? Is there in fact ground for a sympathetic, even positive reading of Korah?

A number of the best-known, almost canonical midrashim (Num. Rab. 18.3) about Korah show him challenging several basic halakhic institutions. Thus, he ridicules the mitzvah of tzitzit, in which one thread suffices to make an entire garment kosher, parading before Moses with 300 followers, all dressed in pure blue robes. He similarly ridicules the mezuzah, the small container with two brief parshiyot from the Torah that is a sine-qua-non upon the door of every Jewish home, by asking whether a house “full of books” still needs a mezuzah. Yet a third midrash relates the story of an unfortunate widow whose meager financial resources are depleted by Moses’ relentless demands: first by the ordinances requiring tithes from field crops and fruits, then by the first-born of the flocks, the first sheering of the sheep, etc., etc. Several contemporary Rabbinic scholars have suggested that these midrashim may have served as an outlet for the Sages’ own doubts and qualms about certain aspects of the legalistic, formalistic mind-frame of the halakhah—safely projected onto Korah, the arch-heretic of early Biblical history.

In seeking an answer to these questions, I turned to the arch-master of paradox in the proto–modern period—the Hasidic teacher R. Mordecai of Izhbitz, author of Mei ha-Shiloah. The Izhbitzer has two interesting things to say about Korah: First, that Korah debunked tzitzit because they symbolize yirat shamayim, whereas Korah held that, in a certain sense, yirat shamyim is immanent in every Jew. That is, a person cannot help but do the will of God, because everything that a person does in life ultimately comes from God—even his own personal will. What Korah overlooked, says the Ishbitzer, is that we are nevertheless given free will, even if no more than the “size of a garlic peel,” because God desires that man serve him with at least the illusion of free will.

At first blush, this doctrine seems perilously close to determinism, emptying of meaning the dictum of Hazal, “Everything is in the hands of Heaven except for the fear of Heaven” (Berakhot 33b). But one expert on Izhbitzer Hasidism explained to me that this does not mean that man has no freedom but that, on the contrary, he has radical freedom: so much so, that at times the “religiously correct” choice is to be found, not through a conventional halakhic-legalist approach, but by seeking “the will of God.” And indeed, when confronting the truly significant choices in life, the crossroads, the major ethical nexuses, the halakhah is inadequate to show the way a person must walk. At times, God may show him the path: if a person looks deep within his own soul, with absolute honesty and integrity, striving to eliminate any ulterior motives or self-interest, he may merit to hear the voice of God.

Second: Korah was a radical democrat. His basic charge against Moses was that “the entire congregation is holy, and God is in their midst; why then do you lift yourselves up above the congregation of the Lord” (Num 16:3). Korah is portrayed by Mei ha-Shiloah as anticipating that great day, portrayed inter alia in the aggadah at the very end of Ta’anit, in which the righteous will dance in a circle, each one pointing with his finger at the Holy One blessed be He, who stands in the center of the circle, saying: “This is the Lord for whom we have waited and who will save us; this is the Lord for whom we have waited, we will rejoice and be glad in His salvation!” (Isa 25:9). Korah’s error, according to the Izhbitzer, was not in assuming radical equality among all people, but in seeing it as something imminent in his own day rather than as an event that would have to wait for the End of Days.

These two issues—determinism vs. free will, and egalitarianism vs. hierarchy— are central issues in the modern world. Many scientists, in studying the functioning of the brain, will argue that most of our rejections and behavior patterns are “hard-wired” into our physical nature, and that our conscious control and choice regarding our response to various situations is far less than we would like to believe.

One concrete example: the controversy regarding homosexuality, viz. same-sex marriage and ordination of homosexuals as rabbis, which recently rocked Conservative Judaism both here and in the United States, is closely related to the widely-accepted assumption that homosexual orientation is in some sense predetermined, involuntary, and thus not subject to free will in any meaningful sense. Yet in the hundreds of pages of discussion by the best minds of the Conservative movement (at least those major positions that I have read), the issue of free-will vs. determinism is barely mentioned, even though shogeg karuv la-anus, the exemption from liability of one who acts through error tantamount to external compulsion, might have served as a more plausible basis for a permissive position, rather than the dubious heter by Dorff et al. for non-penetrative erotic acts, based on a rather cavalier disregard of Rabbinic and, per Rambam, even Torah prohibitions (but more on that another time). It seems to me that the issue of how to deal with people who seem to be forced by their genetic makeup to behave in ways forbidden by the Torah is a basic one, with far-reaching theological implications, deserving of serious discussion.

The second issue raised by the Izhbitzer, invoked by the image of all Israel dancing in a circle, is that of democracy, of the innate equality of all human beings. There is hardly need to elaborate upon the fact that this is a basic element of the contemporary cultural mood or mentalit√©; the post-modern reluctance to make any unequivocal moral, aesthetic, spiritual or other value judgments may be traced to the feeling that “Who am I to say that my opinion is truer than that of anyone else?” This is diametrically opposed to the traditional view of Judaism, which accepts the obvious differences between human beings in terms of intelligence, learning, talents and abilities of various sorts, and even moral sensibility. Moses is seen as the true teacher and prophet, the exclusive conduit for conveying the divine Torah to Israel, and as the paradigm for the authority of Sages in later generations. And yet, as the Izhbitzer observes, in the End of Days all will be equal in their direct experiencing of the immanent God. Korah’s “only” error was in “jumping the gun.”

I will conclude, very briefly, with a comment on the haftarah. What is implied by the choice of this particular reading (1 Sam 11:14-12:22)? On the face of it, it seems diametrically opposed to the message of the Korah story. Rather than the “populist” tendencies of Korah, here the people had practically begged Samuel to appoint a king, a centralized, authoritarian leader, “like all the other nations” (8:5)—to which Samuel is adamantly opposed, reminding them here that “the Lord your God [alone!] is your king” (12:12). Perhaps this haftarah was chosen for precisely that reason: that they must not give up on the messianic, utopian vision in which all stand directly before God as king; that the ideal of an egalitarian society, expressed davka through the mouth of Korah , is not a bad thing per se.


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