On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah: Rebel With (or Without) a Cause - Parashat Korach

As we learn this week, sometimes our past rituals don’t match our present values. Join Rabbi Rick Jacobs as he discusses Parashat Korach, and what it means to challenge a decision for the sake of the ego... versus what it means to challenge for the sake of a greater purpose.

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[URJ INTRO] Welcome back to On the Other Hand, Ten Minutes Of Torah, a podcast presented by ReformJudaism.org. Each week, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, shares a little bit of teaching about the Torah portion of the week. This week, Rabbi Jacobs teaches us about Parashat Korach, and he asks us, how do you make legitimate choices that feel rooted in tradition?

[Rabbi Rick Jacobs] This week, we focus our attention on Parashat Korach from the Book of Numbers. Korach is the person who obviously is at the center of the drama of this Parashat. Korach, the rebel without a cause, as I like to say.

Korach obviously talks about the limits of you know, proper, I would say rebellions and differences of opinion. There is a machloket l’shem shemayim, an argument for the sake of heaven. And then there are the arguments that are the arguments of Korach that don't have merit at their core. They simply are an argument in a sense for one's ego, or for some other narrow purpose.

But tucked into this parashah in chapter 18 of the Book of Numbers beginning with verse 13 is this notion that the first fruits of everything, says the Torah, are what you shall bring to the eternal. The first fruits of the land. The first fruits of trees. The first fruits of your womb belong to God. It's a notion that we are meant to be eternally grateful for all the blessings in our lives. And particularly, to become aware of that first fruit. That one who in a sense really stuns us with the experience.

And then the very next section of Numbers 18 talks about the first issue of the womb of every being, man or beast, says the Torah, is offered to the Lord. But you shall have the first born of man redeemed.

This is the tradition of a pidyon haben, the redemption of the first-born child. But it's actually not the first-born child. It's the first-born boy. And it is a tradition to this very day, for those who observe it, that on-- in the case of someone whose son is born as the first-born. Not by cesarean, but the one who literally opens the womb-- where it hasn't been preceded by a miscarriage, and the father or the grandfather is not a kohein or leivi then it is an obligation to have a ritual, a ceremony to redeem that child.

And it's a very simple ceremony. It happens at the end of one month of the child's life and involves a kohein-- someone who is a descendant from the priestly class-- who is, in a sense-- you interact with that priest, and then you present five silver coins as a symbolic buying back of your child from the eternal. Now I have to say, there are a lot of reasons why close friends have observed a pidyon haben. If you're a very observant family, if you're more in the Orthodox circle, a pidyon haben is a great opportunity. It's not every day that a family-- your first-born is a beautiful daughter. If the first-born is born of a C-section, it's not every day that you have the opportunity. And for many people, the eighth day for a boy, for the b'rit milah is a time when mom may not be feeling so strong. But a month, well, there's more opportunity maybe for a celebration.

I remember, we actually had our first-born 29 years ago. And it was quite an event. I could so sympathize with this notion that you feel simply overcome with gratitude. And I remember after the b'rit milah-- which I have to say was both very powerful, and quite overwhelming in all respects-- my wife and I were discussing, did we want to have a pidyon haben.

Now, in a traditional community it would have been, oh, you qualify. You definitely want to have a pidyon haben. But we thought about it, and we researched it. And here are the things that-- again, I'm not suggesting that our wrestling and our vision are right for everyone, and not even for all Reform Jews. Because I think there's some Reform Jews who find it very meaningful, and I applaud and celebrate that.

But as we thought about it, the idea of it's gender bias wasn't comfortable. If we were going to do this for our son, we would then have wanted to do it for our daughter. And the idea of a pidyon habat is not a ritual. And it's not something necessarily that I would want to create.

For a bat mitzvah, we created obviously an accompanying ritual for girls along with bar mitzvah. And I'm all for creating more opportunities for equality. But then we asked the question, what actually are we doing in this ritual?

Well in some ways, it's an anachronism. Because for us as Reform Jews, priests and Levites don't really have any roles remaining. They had roles in the ancient temple. In some traditional synagogues, they bless the community around-- lead us to the Torah. But the Reform movement really made a level playing field and said, you know what, we're all in this together. So a pidyon haben would be to, in a sense, preserve something that felt very anachronistic. And at the same time, to give gratitude to God all in, terrific. But to do it in a way that was so gender specific and so much about an ancient form of Judaism that is no longer.

So sometimes we reinvent a ritual like bat mitzvah, and sometimes we create things that just provide an equal version. And sometimes I have to say, as a Reform Jew-- not just as a Reform rabbi-- there's things I say, you know what, it's not about someday, maybe. This is something that does not claim our loyalty and our observance.

So we decided not to have a pidyon haben. And traditional friends already were doing their calculations. You know, what time is the pidyon haben going to be? And sort of sent out word in the pre-Facebook age that there wasn't going to be a pidyon haben.

And I think in a liberal setting it wasn't such a dramatic decision. But for us, it really emphasized what it means to be Reform Jews, in that we don't do anything automatically. We don't automatically accept a responsibility. We don't automatically reject a responsibility. But rather, learn about it. Think about it. Wrestle with it. And then make a decision.

And I think that is really kind of how we might want to approach all parts of what it means to be Jewish. What are the things that really do have meaning? And I think of the great teaching by Franz Rosenzweig, the 20th-century Jewish philosopher-- German Jewish philosopher-- who really came to his Jewishness later in life and through a serious exploration.

And when people asked him about certain mitzvot, like the mitzvah of tefillin, of the phylacteries, he said, you know what, not yet. I don't yet have a understanding that would make that a part of my practice, but it might come to be one day. I love the not yet philosophy. And yet, there are certain things that you make a decision, and it is a decision that you don't go back on.

We're not going to have a pidyon haben for our 29-year-old son, Aaron. And there's no regret about that. But I do like the idea that the Jewish canon, that the texts of Jewish tradition, and the canon of Jewish practices as reform Jews is open. And we go searching, and looking, and experimenting, and trying on, and taking that which adds meaning and depth to our lives.

But we're not hesitant to say at times, not this. There are parts of the daily liturgy that we changed, or in some cases eliminated. And I think as the reform rabbi and someone privileged to lead the reform movement, I think we need to own and be proud of the ways in which we, as a leader of the Jewish community, have been willing to let go of certain practices and beliefs in favor of things that we would embrace. And that the Jewish tradition will continue to evolve, and change, and grow, and not be frozen into one moment or one iteration.

I love Parashat Korach starts with Korach's challenge to Moses and the leaders saying, all the people are holy. That's their contention. Kol Ha'adam Kud Lum Kushim All of the people are holy, they cry out.

And the great Orthodox philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz said that the Torah's position is that all the community is challenged to become holy. It's not a pre-existing condition. It's what we aspire to by the choices that we make, by the lives that we lead.

And I love this is the opening frame of Korach. We need to find ways to make our lives more sacred, more meaningful, more purposeful. That we live more gratefully.

And some of those teachings are given to us in Torah, and in Talmud, and in codes and some of the modern practices. And some of them no longer speak to us. Let's have the courage of our reformed convictions. Let's have the courage to embrace something very traditional, and let's have the courage also to let go of something that no longer has validity, or relevance, or importance for us today.

So pidyon haben, maybe you're listening and saying, oh, we did that, Rabbi Jacobs. We found it very meaningful. Kolha Kavod, Wonderful.

Maybe you are going to face the same decision in the coming days, or months, or years. I wouldn't say take my view or my wife's view for this. Explore. Explore it, and think of it for yourself.

And see if it doesn't have meaning for you. If it does, embrace it fully. If it doesn't, do not feel the weight of the tradition in that regard in a sense compelling you to do something that is no longer meaningful.

So Korach, he challenged the leadership then. The pidyon haben is not technically part of the Korach narrative, but it is part of our Jewish traditions narrative. And we tell the story of Korach, and we think about our tradition, we think about our own lives. And we think about the ways in which we will shape the Jewish tradition going forward. That's our responsibility because we are called to lives of holiness.

[URJ OUTRO] Thanks for joining us on this week's episode of On the Other Hand-- Ten Minutes of Torah. Want more? You can download a new episode each Monday on Apple Podcasts, or Google Play, or Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts. And if you like what you hear, write us a review or share the podcast with a friend. For daily ongoing conversations about Jewish holidays, pop culture, rituals, current events, and more, visit ReformJudaism.org and follow us on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest. You can also follow Rabbi Jacobs on Twitter at @URJPresident.

On the Other Hand-- Ten Minutes of Torah is a project of the Union for Reform Judaism, a leading voice in the discussion of modern Jewish life.

And until next week, L'hitraot!