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RABBI ASHER BRANDER

2 Tammuz 5772 
Parshat Korach
By: Rabbi Asher Brander, rabbi@kehilla.org

Un-Common Sense

 

In a classic piece of "Rav" (Soloveitchik) Torah, Korach engages in a "common sense" rebellion - where those who lack of formal training in Jewish texts and sources, nonetheless insist on their right to decide fundamental religious questions on the basis of "common sense." Herein, key excerpts:

 

Korach publicly challenged the halachic competency of Moses and ridiculed his interpretations of Jewish law as being contrary to elementary reason. [Midrashim cited by Rashi]

 

What did he do? He assembled two-hundred and fifty distinguished men and women ... and he attired them in robes of pure blue wool. They came and stood before Moses and said to him: "Does a garment that is entirely blue still require tzitzit or is it exempt?" Moses replied that it did require tzitzit. Whereupon, they began to jeer at him: "Is that logical? A robe of any other color fulfills thet zitzit requirement merely by having one of its threads blue. Surely a garment which is entirely blue should not require an additional blue thread!" (Rashi, Num. 16: I).

 

"Does a house which is filled with Torah scrolls still require a mezuzah on its doorpost?" Korach asked. Moses replied in the affirmative. Korach retorted: "If one brief section of the Torah placed inside the mezuzah [the Shema and vehayah im shamo'a] satisfies the mitzvah requirement, most certainly a multitude of scrolls which contain many portions should! Such halachic decisions do not emanate from God but are fabrications" (Num. R. 18). Korach insisted that to require a mezuzah under such circumstances violated elementary logic.

 

The rallying cry which Korach chose was "common sense." He proclaimed that all reasonable people have the right to interpret Jewish law according to their best understanding: "For all the community are holy" (Bamidbar, 16: 3). In down-to-earth logic, the lowliest woodcutter is the equal of Moses. This appeal to populism evokes considerable support because it promises freedom from centralized authority; it flatters the people's common intelligence and it approves the right of each Jew or group of Jews to follow their own individual judgment.

 

He conceded that the legal aspects of Halacha require expertise, technical and academic. But he maintained that there is also a psychological and emotional aspect in the practice of Halacha and the observance of mitzvot. In judging the utility, relevance, and beneficial effects of the mitzvot, all intelligent people are qualified to render judgment on the basis of close and informed observation. ...

 

Korach was committed to the doctrine of religious subjectivism, which regards one's personal feelings as primary in the religious experience. God requires the heart. Rahmana liba ba'i (Sanh. I 06b), and it is in the mysterious recesses of his personality that man meets his Maker. ...

 

On the basis of Korach's theory, the mitzvah would have to correspond to the mood that prompts it. The value of the mitzvah is to be found not in its performance, but in its subjective impact upon the person, its ability to arouse a devotional state of mind. Tefillin would be justified, according to Korach's theory, only for their elevating and inspirational quality.

 

Korach argued, using the mitzvah of tzitzit as an illustration of his point of view, that the blue thread of the tzitzit was meant to make us think of distant horizons, of infinity, and of the mysterious link between the blue sea and the blue sky. The mezuzah, he argued, is intended to increase our awareness of God and to invoke His protection over our homes. Why, then, is it necessary to limit this symbolism to one thread or to the doorpost? Why not extend it to the whole garment and to the entire house? If blue, in the case of tzitzit, is able to evoke feelings of Godliness, then total blueness of the garment should certainly be able to do so. The same reasoning applies to the mezuzah. The mitzvah is thus reduced to the level of an inspirational means and not an end in itself. From the standpoint of religious subjectivism and common sense,

 

Korach's argument seems quite cogent. In response to Korach, we feel it necessary to reaffirm the traditional Jewish position that there are two levels in religious observance, the objective outer mitzvah and the subjective inner experience that accompanies it.

 

Both the deed and the feeling constitute the total religious experience; the former without the latter is an incomplete act, an imperfect gesture. We can easily demonstrate that the Halacha values both. In the observance of keri'at Shema, of tefillah, of avelut, of simkhat Yom Tov. We recite fixed and standardized texts and we perform precise ritual acts. Yet, the real consummation, the kiyyum, is realized in the experience, belev. The objective Halacha recognizes the emotional response as an essential part of the religious experience.

 

However, we do not regard the qualitative and subjective experience as primary. Rather, the objective act of performing the mitzvah is our starting point. The mitzvah does not depend on the emotion; rather, it induces the emotion. One's religious inspiration and fervor are generated and guided by the mitzvah, not the reverse.

 

The goal is proper kavvanah and genuine devekut, but these can be religiously authentic only if they follow the properly performed mitzvuh. .... In teaching the Halacha and its proper application, the hokhmah dimension of knowledge is decisive; da'at , common sense, is insufficient. This was Korach's error, for in the realm of the Halacha only the Torah scholar is the authority and common sense can be misleading. Why cannot the Emotions be Trusted? .... Why does it not consider devekut, religious fervor, a more genuine and authentic experience than the outward act of performing a mitzvah? It is because there are three serious shortcomings in making the religious act dependent on human emotion and sentiment.

 

First, the religious emotion is volatile, ever-changing and unstable, even within one individual. To correlate the outward act to the inner emotion would require regular adjustments. The mitzvah would continually have to be modified and, at times, nullified in favor of new symbolic acts that would correspond to the person's emotional state. The format and identity of the mitzvah would be destroyed and no continuity of identifiable performance would be possible.

 

Second, each person feels an experience differently. Rituals would continually have to be reformulated to correspond to the feelings of different individuals at different times. What was inspiring to one person might not affect another at all. No community(Kehillah) service of God would be possible, since group worship presupposes a unifying constancy. This kind of ever-changing worship, which responds to varying sensations, is basically idolatrous.

 

Third, we have no reliable gauge to differentiate secular types of response from the genuinely religious experience. There are many non-religious reactions which claim transcendental qualities of holiness. The love impulse, the aesthetic quest of the artist, and, nowadays, the indulgence in potent mind-transforming drugs, can easily be confused with the religious experience. But in fact they are inherently secular and do not reach out beyond the stimulated sense to God. They never transcend man's finite limitations. ... The great religious romance of man with God, the emotional transport, follows one's observance of the mitzvah, not the reverse. realm of the Halacha only the Torah scholar is the authority and common sense can be misleading. Why Cannot the Emotions be Trusted? Why does the Halacha refuse to give primacy to the emotions to the inner feelings?

 

The halachic legal system, as a hokhmah, has its own methodology, ... even as do mathematics and physics. An analogy with science would be helpful here. Aristotelean physics, which dominated the ancient and medieval world, was in some instances faulty precisely because it relied on common-sense experiences. It maintained that an object falls because it has weight, which seems outwardly reasonable but which Galileo and Newton showed to be wrong. They replaced common-sense, surface judgments by scientific laws, a picture of reality which differs from surface appearances.

 

Similarly, the Oral Law has its own epistemological approach, which can be understood only by a lamdan who has mastered its methodology and its abundant material. Just as mathematics is more than a group of equations. and physics is more than a collection of natural laws, so, too, the Halacha is more than a compilation of religious laws. It has its own logos and method of thinking and is an autonomous self-integrated system. The Halacha need not make common sense any more than mathematics and scientific conceptualized systems need to accommodate themselves to common sense.

 

When people talk of a meaningful Halacha, of unfreezing the Halacha or of an Empirical Halacha, they are basically proposing Korach's approach. ...This da'at approach is not tolerated in science, and it should not receive serious credence inHalacha. Such judgments are pseudo-statements, lacking sophistication about depth relationships and meanings.

 

The approach of Moses prevailed. The survivors of the catastrophe which befell Korach's group later conceded that, in the words of our Sages. "Moses is truth and his interpretation of Torah is truth-and we are liars" (B. Bat. 74a). This judgment is still valid.

 

The Rav's words stand on their own as a brilliant rational defense for halachic objectivity and as a bulwark against faddish Judaism.

 

Perhaps, a non rational notion to eliminate common sense as an arbiter of halacha may also be evinced, for the common sense world speaks of statistics and percentages, of cost/benefit analysis and reckons with tools of utter pragmatism. Common sense then, is the lingua franca of the one who operates within the confines of the natural world.

 

The halachic system while very much a part of this world, stands apart: [Berachos 8a]

 

Raba said to Rafram b. Papa: Let the master please tell us some of those fine things that you said in the name of R. Hisda on matters relating to the Synagogue! - He replied: Thus said R. Hisda: What is the meaning of the verse: The Lord loveth the gates of Zion [Ziyyon] more than all the dwellings of Jacob?  The Lord loves the gates that are distinguished [me-zuyanim] through Halachah more than the Synagogues and Houses of study. And this conforms with the following saying of R. Hiyya b. Ammi in the name of 'Ulla: Since the day that the Temple was destroyed, the Holy One, blessed be He, has nothing in this world but the four amos cubits of Halachah alone.

 

Four amos [cubits] is the classic minimum significant space. It is a part of this world - but apart from the world. As befitting the Jew, Avraham and Sarah are a part of and apart from: [Rashi, Berishis, 15:5]

 

And He took him outside: According to its simple meaning: He took him out of his tent, outdoors, to see the stars. But according to its midrashic interpretation, He said to him,"Go out of your astrology," for you have seen in the signs of the zodiac that you are not destined to have a son. Indeed, Abram will have no son, but Abraham will have a son. Similarly, Sarai will not give birth, but Sarah will give birth. I will give you another name, and your destiny will change (Ned. 32a, Gen. Rabbah 44:10).

 

It is not only Avraham. The supra common sense people are alive and well. A personal vignette (for me) drives home the point poignantly

 

In the year 2000, we visited Frankfurt Am Oder - a very small community of Jews [about 200 Russian Jews émigrés] where the Pri Megadim once held court. Minyanim just don't happen there, even as there is a fairly large and simple community center. One Shabbos the Lauder Yeshiva (of Berlin) - brought their boys for a Shabbatonto make the first communal Shabbbos in over 50 years - but could not spare their only sefer Torah. Rabbi Yossi Levine [Rabbi of The Jewish Center of New York], apprised in advance, expected no sefer Torah - until upon arrival, the community head brought Rabbi Levine into a room with a very old and worn sefer Torah and a very proud gaze: A curious Rabbi Levine inquired: "From where did you get this Torah?" . "I am friendly with the curator of the Jewish museum [set up with artifacts after the war]. In that museum is Torah and I asked the curator if we can borrow it for Shabbos; she agreed - and you are looking at the Torah that emerged from behind the museum cabinet glass.

 

There are no comeback players in history, except for the Jewish people - who again and again defy natural logic and unlock a future in spite of those who relegate them to behind the glass case [museum] relics - to revivify in a most dramatic way. Common Sense would dictate that we should long be gone - but we the people of God's Torah and halacha, operate on a different plane.  

 

May our exquisite uncommon sense history - guided by Halacha and the Master of the World who operates within, lead us to our glorious culmination.bimheira b'yameinu

 

 

Good Shabbos,

Asher Brander 


 
   
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