June 2009


At the conclusion of the story of Korach’s rebellion, we find this commandment:

36 The LORD said to Moses, 37 “Tell Eleazar son of Aaron, the priest, to take the censers out of the smoldering remains and scatter the coals some distance away, for the censers are holy- 38 the censers of the men who sinned at the cost of their lives. Hammer the censers into sheets to overlay the altar, for they were presented before the LORD and have become holy. Let them be a sign to the Israelites.”

39 So Eleazar the priest collected the bronze censers brought by those who had been burned up, and he had them hammered out to overlay the altar, 40 as the LORD directed him through Moses. This was to remind the Israelites that no one except a descendant of Aaron should come to burn incense before the LORD, or he would become like Korah and his followers.

This is a fascinating denouement to a riveting story, raising a host of interesting questions: Why does God refer to the censers as holy? Why are they made into an overlay for the altar? Why is an object of the tabernacle allowed–demanded–to be changed?

Ramban offers an answer to the first question. Weren’t these censers used for nefarious purposes? Shouldn’t they be unholy for that reason? Ramban argues that they were in fact holy because they were used by Moses to demonstrate God’s supremacy. By answering Korach’s claims and asserting the rightful place of Moses and Aaron and their descendents, the censers became holy.

The Torah itself responds to the second question: The overlay for the altar is to remind the Israelites of what happened to Korach and his followers, and that they should therefore follow the established rules. This is the final line of the story, and forms one of its basic enduring messages.

The classical commentators do not comment on the third question, why is this object commanded to be changed? But an answer might come from a teaching of the Sefas Emes that I taught earlier this year. The teaching took up the question of why the altar in the Tabernacle was of different proportions than that in Solomon’s Temple. While some commentators attempt to harmonize the sources, the Sefas Emes instead highlights the difference, and uses the difference to argue that every generation experiences God in its own way; the way that Solomon experienced and related to God fit his time and place, just as Moses’s relation with God fit his era.

This is of course a potential source of instablility, particularly in the context of the Korach story, where the very roots of authority are at stake. Yet the Rabbis treated Korach and his group with ambivalence–while the dominant opinion was that they had no place in the world to come, the Tosefta records the opinion of Rabbi Yehudah ben Betera that says that they do. The midrash is likewise ambivalent, all of which leads to the thought that perhaps the story of Korach is grounded in greater subtlety than polemics. Perhaps its message is one not simply of cutting off, but simultaneously of the complexities inherent in a close relationship with the holy.

If that is the case, then we can read the story of Korach as telling us not that we should avoid asking certain questions, but that the context of those questions matters. There is a political reality to our question-asking, there are times and places for things. Knowing the right time and place, understanding the context, is as important as the question itself.

My Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Dov Linzer, offered this dvar Torah, which I think is particularly fitting for this week, which marks graduation at Northwestern.

In his instructions to the spies, Moses includes a potentially problematic phrase. In addition to the general strategic evaluation of the land, Moses asks them to make an evaluative judgment, namely to see “whether the land that they dwell in is good or bad.” (Num. 13:19) The medieval commentators generally explain this as part of the military evaluation. But, Rabbi Linzer argues, it in fact paves the way for the central difference between Caleb and Joshua and the rest of the spies. While the despondent spies emphasize only the strategic challenges, Caleb and Joshua included in their report the very words of goodness that Moses sought: “The land, which we passed through to spy it out, is an exceeding good land.” (Num. 14:7)

I find this observation an approrpriate one for Commencement because the story here is essentially about how we approach knowledge. It is no stretch to say that the spies become a paradigm for our engagement with the world–they interact with new phenomena and make judgments about them. The larger group of spies is unable to see the goodness in the land, or, by extrapolation, in the world. Perhaps more accurately, goodness for them would only come after the empirical facts are dealt with, if it ever comes at all; a moral orientation comes second, not first. Caleb and Joshua, however, approach their discovery with a sense that goodness is there, not in a way that blinds them to the facts, but in a way that sustains their covenantal relationship between the land and the people of Israel.

The Torah is thus instructive about our search for knowledge, which is life itself. In order for life to be meaningful, in order for us to avoid the pitfalls of the relativistic void in which there is no truth except the one each person makes up for him or herself, we have to engage the world with the notion that goodness is possible, that truth is there to be found if only we will look for it.

Samuel Freedman’s piece in the Jerusalem Post is important to read. The main nugget:

Obama… is seeking American Jewish cover for his very public dispute with the Israeli government. The one way in which he can get it is if American Jews, like their Israeli brethren, decide to make the settlement enterprise their defining issue. Counting on that internal argument is a big gamble…

But, Freedman continues,

You can feel the ground shifting. Yes, it’s predictable that J Street, the well-funded left-wing lobby, would back Obama on the settlement issue. What strikes me as far more revealing is that Ed Koch and Jeffrey Goldberg, a politician and journalist respectively who are centrist or even center-right on the American Jewish spectrum, have become so publicly critical of the settlement movement as an obstacle to peace.

Goldberg glosses on this, with this money paragraph:

Malcolm Hoenlein and the other grandees of the organized American Jewish leadership believe that masses of Jews will rise up against Obama if he forces Israel out of its settlements. They won’t. I believe the majority of American Jews want two things: A secure Israel, and a moral Israel that is a light unto the nations. Settlements make Israel insecure, and they make it seem immoral in the eyes of the world.

There’s a storm a-brewin, and we will likely see a big denominational divide if Freedman and Goldberg are right, with the Orthodox supporting the settlers and the non-Orthodox supporting Obama. Those of us who straddle the lines between these worlds will need to stand in the breach.

Michael Oren, soon to be Israel’s ambassador to the U.S., is first and foremost an historian. But his academic and diplomatic/political lives come together in this short piece in the current New Republic on the erection of a memorial to World War I deserters at Ypres on the French-Belgian border. Yes, with the last of the WWI vets dying off, the Europeans are putting up a pole to honor those who refused to fight at all.

Oren goes through the logic and the absurdity of this. If World War I was an insane war, then the sane thing to do was not to fight. And most people came to view the war as just that, so deserters look good. As Oren points out,

In contrast to the United States, fortunate to have fought most of its wars overseas, Europe was host to two twentieth-century apocalypses that left it depopulated and permanently traumatized. Torn between ravaging communist and fascist tides, many on the continent came to see war as an inherently no-win, illegitimate endeavor. Consequently, desertion could be conceived as logical, even honorable–and not only from the killing fields of Ypres.

But this has now gone further, as evidenced in a number of European actions that seem to indicate that virtually all military acts are problematic (Oren lists failed peacekeeping on the Israel-Lebanon and Israel-Gaza borders, and failure to fight the Taliban, as evidence, as well has Germany’s harboring of an American deserter from Afghanistan.) While American and European histories diverge over the violence known on our own shores, these ideas have a way of migrating. Oren closes his piece with the question: “It sounds far-fetched, but it is impossible not to wonder: Will visitors to Valley Forge someday see a single pole?”

Some additional reverberations: The current confrontation in Iran, and in my little blogging universe, the conversation around Roger Cohen. Cohen issued a small mea culpa in light of this week’s events: “I erred in underestimating the brutality and cynicism of a regime that understands the uses of ruthlessness.” (Full article here.) Iran does indeed practice violence, and that was on display for all to see on Sunday. Cohen, the most European of the NYT columnists, seems to have been awoken from a daydream, perhaps because of some deeply ingrained aversion to any form of violence. Iran may as well be Israel now.

Okay, that was a cheap shot. But it brings us to reverberation no. 2, which is Israel. It’s hard to imagine the Israeli police responding to a democractic protest the way the Iranians have. Cohen would have to grant that. Israel does exercise violence, but its record against its own citizens is pretty darn clean. And, as I have often argued before, if a mass Palestinian non-violence movement arose, it would bring statehood quicker than all the armed intifadas in the world. Why? Because no one could argue with it. As a non-violent movement, it would take away any of the moral ambiguity that comes with violence, and that leads ultimately to societies erecting memorials to those who fled military service.

Final reverberation: I think that Oren is on to something important here. As Americans become more aware of human suffering, through the Internet and through travel to the developing world, I imagine we will take on some of the European sensibility towards violence. I see this phenomenon all the time among the college students I work with. Violence is problematic for them. But violence is also linked to forms of particular identity, because so many wars have been fought in the name of maintaining religious or ethnic or national purity. “Let’s all be humanists” is the motto of many today, and would seem to be the European slogan too. Our challenge is to develop a language for talking about difference that does not lead to violence. (On this score, Jonathan Sacks’s The Dignity of Difference is the best book out there.)

I haven’ t had time to go through all of Bibi’s speech. But read between the lines of this response from Saeb Erekat:

Erekat said Netanyahu’s plan was unacceptable since it effectively imposes a solution on the core issues of the conflict.

”Netanyahu’s speech closed the door to permanent status negotiations,” he said. ”We ask the world not to be fooled by his use of the term Palestinian state because he qualified it. He declared Jerusalem the capital of Israel, said refugees would not be negotiated and that settlements would remain.”

Note: He rejects Bibi’s rejection of dividing Jerusalem, Palestinian right of return, and settlements. But what did Erekat not say (at least in this comment)? He didn’t reject the idea of a demilitarized state. Of all of the things Bibi talked about, to me that is by far the biggest one, at least in the realm of the non-apocalyptic. (The apocalyptic realm, in my view, still includes the very real bloodbath that seems inevitable when Israel either tries to evict Jews from the West Bank or gives them over to the state of Palestine. I have no idea how to work that one out.) Jerusalem, right of return, and major blocs can be worked out through land swaps. If the Palestinians are willing to accept a demilitarized state, Israel should go for it.

In the you-heard-it-here-first department, this from The New Republic:

Who knows where this is leading. But how ironic it would be if an attempted demonstration of phantom support for Ahmadinejad wound up severely undermining the country’s clerical regime.

From the creators of Nextbook, an excellent new site.

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