Tag Archives: Korach

King Solomon on Feminism

This week’s parasha is Korach, recounting the rebellion instigated by Moses’ cousin Korach. The portion begins by telling us that “Korach, the son of Itz’har, the son of Kohath, the son of Levi took [himself], along with Dathan and Abiram, the sons of Eliab, and On, the son of Peleth, descendants of Reuben…” (Numbers 16:1). We go on to read how Korach, Dathan, and Abiram are all punished for their treason, yet On is never mentioned again! What happened to him?

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 109b) records that On – better known as On ben Pelet – was saved from Korach’s scheme by his righteous wife. She convinced her husband not to take part in the plot. However, he had already sworn to do so, and was unsure how to get out of it. Taking matters into her own hands, she seduced her husband and made him drink wine until he passed out. She then sat outside their tent with her hair loosened and uncovered. When Korach’s men inevitably came by to look for On, his wife’s immodesty made them turn away, so they left On behind. The Talmud insists that all of Korach’s co-conspirators were holy men of the highest degree. Their protest was indeed valid, and as we wrote in the past, Moses actually agreed with them! Nonetheless, their approach in sparking a rebellion and publicly confronting Moses was wrong, and they paid for it dearly. Thankfully, On was saved by his wise wife.

Meanwhile, the Talmud writes that the very source of the rebellion was Korach’s wife! She constantly taunted her husband, reminding him how Moses essentially made himself a king, and put his favourite people in positions of power. She even went so far as to say Moses was jealous of Korach’s beautiful hair – and this was why he had all the Levites shave their hair in their purification ceremony! The Talmud concludes with words from the Book of Proverbs (14:1), “Every wise woman builds her house, but the foolish one, in her hands it is destroyed.” A woman has the power to build a happy, righteous home, and at the same time, the ability to tear it down completely.

This duality brings about a contradiction within the teachings of King Solomon. In one place, he states that a man who “has found a woman, has found goodness” (Proverbs 18:22), while in another he states that he finds “the woman more bitter than death” (Ecclesiastes 7:26). How do we reconcile these verses?

The Woman

Rabbi Yosef Hayyim, the "Ben Ish Chai" (1835-1909)

Rabbi Yosef Hayyim, the “Ben Ish Chai” (1835-1909)

The Ben Ish Chai offered an amazing answer: In the first case, King Solomon used the word ishah (“woman”) while in the latter he used ha’ishah (“the woman”). Ben Ish Chai calculates that the numerical value of ishah (אשה) is 306. However, the value of ha’ishah (האשה) is 311, equivalent to the value of ish (איש), “man”. The woman that King Solomon finds bitter is the one that tries to be like a man! While women and men are of course equal, they are not the same. A women must not strive be like a man any more than a man should try to be like a woman.

In fact, this was the very philosophy of one the great feminists of our time, Simone de Beauvoir. She goes back all the way to Plato to point out where the flaw in feminism began. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy summarizes:

Plato, beginning with the premise that sex is an accidental quality, concludes that women and men are equally qualified to become members of the guardian class. The price of women’s admission to this privileged class, however, is that they must train and live like men. Thus the discriminatory sexual difference remains in play. Only men or those who emulate them may rule. Beauvoir’s argument for equality does not fall into this trap. She insists that women and men treat each other as equals and that such treatment requires that their sexual differences be validated. Equality is not a synonym for sameness.

Unfortunately, many feminists today make this same mistake by assuming that women should behave like men. The reality is quite opposite. King Solomon and de Beauvoir agree: women should not be emulating men, and doing so only brings about further conflict. This is particularly true within relationships and marriages. For a marriage to succeed, each partner needs to understand and fulfil their unique roles.

Eternal Feminine and Eshet Chayil

'Solomon Receiving the Queen of Sheba' by Gustav Doré

‘Solomon Receiving the Queen of Sheba’ by Gustav Doré

King Solomon might disagree with de Beauvoir when it comes to her concept of the “eternal feminine”. De Beauvoir believed that men have created a certain archetype of a woman needing to be modest, pure, graceful, and “angelic”. Society expects a woman to play a passive, supporting role, spent mostly in private, while the man is the primary subject and is out in the public eye. The lyrics of Eshet Chayil (Proverbs 31:10-31) – commonly sung before the Kiddush on Friday evenings – seems to fit right into this mould.

In this song, the ideal woman is described as a diligent, devoted mother and wife. She is doing all the work while her husband is by “the gates, where he sits among the elders of the land…” The husband is the subject, out in public discussing important matters with the elders, while she quietly takes care of everything back at home. It isn’t surprising that many feminists are not very fond of Eshet Chayil.

Having said that, it is also possible to look at this song from another perspective. The woman described in Eshet Chayil is not sitting at home all day; she is out and about like a “merchant ship” (v. 14), dealing with real estate (v. 16), and volunteering her time with the needy of the community (v. 20). She is not at all docile or passive, but strong (v. 17) and fearless (v. 21). She is wise (v. 26) and well-known in those same “gates” where the elders sit (v. 31). Whether she has grace or beauty is irrelevant (v. 30). Most importantly, she is happy, and “laughing to the last day” (v. 25).

While Judaism does indeed conceptualize an ideal woman, this is certainly not to make her a second-class citizen. It is instead meant to inspire and motivate. Moreover, it isn’t just the woman that is idealized, but the man, too. Men are held to the same standard of being modest, pure, and “angelic”, together with a host of other lofty traits. Both men and women are meant to strive towards greater righteousness, holiness, and wisdom. And Jewish history shows that it is usually the women that surpass the men in these qualities anyway. The Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni, Ruth 606) states that it is only in the merit of the women that the Jewish people are redeemed. Based on this midrashic passage, Rabbi Eliyahu Kitov wrote:

In the nation of Israel, throughout history, the primary source of virtue and goodness has been righteous Jewish women. Sara was the mother of prophecy; Miriam, the mother of redemption. The Jewish women who went out of Egypt were the mothers of loyalty to G-d, and strong, pure faith in Him. Devorah was the mother of heroism; Ruth, the mother of royalty; Esther, the mother of salvation; Chana, the mother of martyrdom. There also were the mothers of brave rebellion – Mattisyahu’s daughter and the women who followed her, and the heroic Yehudis. Who will be the mothers of the light of the Redemption to Come? These same women, and the righteous Jewish women of today.

Abraham on Intermarriage

לעילוי נשמת פאינה בת אוג’ול, תנצב”ה

This week’s Torah reading is Chayei Sarah, which begins with the narrative describing the passing of Sarah, the first Matriarch of Israel. In the past, we’ve written of Sarah’s spiritual make-up (see ‘A Mystical Journey through the Lives of Sarah’ in Garments of Light). We’ve explored the significance of Me’erat HaMachpelah, the Cave of the Patriarchs where she was buried, as well as the nature of death and the afterlife in Judaism.

'Eliezer and Rebekah' by Gustav Doré

‘Eliezer and Rebekah’ by Gustav Doré

Following the passage of Sarah’s death, the bulk of the portion’s remaining narrative deals with the marriage of Isaac, her only son. Abraham commissions his trusted servant Eliezer to find Isaac a proper wife. He makes Eliezer swear to bring a woman from his own home and extended family back in the land of Charan. Abraham cautions his servant not to bring a foreign woman under any circumstances, and to ensure her willingness to move to the Holy Land of Israel. If Eliezer cannot find such a woman, Abraham absolves his servant of his oath.

Eliezer goes on his way with a caravan of ten camels. He prays that God will give him a sign to find the right one, and God doesn’t disappoint. Rebecca comes forth and provides the weary Eliezer with a drink. She then fills the troughs for his camels, too. On average, a typical camel will drink over 100 litres of water in under 10 minutes. Rebecca had to draw over 1000 litres of water from her well to quench Eliezer’s ten camels! Not surprisingly, the Torah tells us Eliezer was simply astonished (Genesis 24:21). He knew immediately that God had answered his prayers, and Rebecca – so kind, patient, and strong – is undoubtedly the one. Eliezer introduces himself and follows Rebecca home. At this point, it becomes quite clear why Abraham specifically wanted a daughter from his own family back in Charan.

Making Souls

Jewish texts tell us that Abraham was a passionate educator from a young age. His life’s mission was waking people up to God’s existence, to end their idolatry and immorality, and to inspire others to take upon themselves a higher sense of responsibility and righteousness. Abraham and Sarah were very successful in this task, so much so that the Torah describes them as having “made souls” (Genesis 12:5). Rashi explains that this refers to their role as spiritual parents, as if Abraham and Sarah themselves brought all those people to life. The Torah specifically says this occurred in Charan, and the message was evidently taken up by his own extended family.

After Eliezer explains to Rebecca’s father and brother what had transpired, the two answer: “This has come from Hashem… let [Rebecca] be a wife for your master’s son, as Hashem has spoken” (24:50-51). The family was one that recognized God and His greatness. They were moral and good people, too, welcoming Eliezer into their home, and even offering Rebecca the final choice on whether to go with Eliezer or not (as opposed to forcing her into marriage, as was common in those days). Rebecca herself decided to go with Eliezer immediately, and not wait another year as the family suggested. When the caravan finally returned to Israel, we see that the righteous Rebecca instantly recognized Isaac’s holiness (see Rashi on v. 64). In her modesty, she quickly veiled herself. The two were happily married, monogamously, and symbolize a most perfect bond and love, unlike any other described in Scripture. (We have explored this in more depth in the past; see: ‘Isaac and Rebecca: the Secret to Perfect Marriage’ in Garments of Light.)

Kindness, modesty, faith – these are central traits embodied by Rebecca, as the Torah so thoroughly describes, and traits that are found deep within the hearts of all Jewish women that descend from her. This is ultimately the reason why Abraham was so strict about Isaac not intermarrying with the locals. To ensure Isaac would be able to maintain the divine covenant, and to continue in the holy work of tikkun olam, and of spreading truth, morality, and righteousness, it was absolutely essential that Isaac had a partner that was equally up to the task. After all, it is well known (and repeated countless times in Jewish texts), that all the power lies within the woman.

It was Rebecca that ensured the divine blessings would pass on to the righteous Jacob, and not the wayward Esau. It was the wife of On ben Pelet who saved him from joining Korach’s rebellion against Moses and God, while Korach himself was brought down by his own spiteful wife (Sanhedrin 109b). It was Zeresh that stood behind Haman to annihilate the Jewish people, while Esther prevented a holocaust. And when Abraham worried about what to do with his unruly son Ishmael, God told him: “Everything that Sarah tells you, listen to her voice” (Genesis 21:12).

Intermarriage Today

It is therefore not surprising that Jewish law is unequivocal on the fact that the spiritual heritage of Judaism is passed on through the mother, and never through the father. Having said that, fulfilling God’s covenant requires two partners, which is why intermarriage from either direction is spiritually so tragic. (Just like every Jewish woman has the traits of kindness, modesty, and faith, the Talmud tells us that every Jewish man, too, has three traits embedded in his soul: empathy (or mercy), modesty, and kindness. The Rambam famously goes so far as to say that one who does not show these traits should be suspected of not really being Jewish!)

The latest statistics show that the rate of intermarriage is now at 58%, and among non-Orthodox Jews, it is an astounding 71%. Since the year 2000, 80% of Reform weddings were intermarriages. Together with their low birth rate of just 1.7 children, Reform Judaism (which is still considered the largest denomination in America) is dwindling. Only 4% of Reform Jews regularly attend religious services, and a meagre 29% believe in God. Jews that are totally secular and unaffiliated are not even on the map or in the statistics.

Abraham, the one who started it all, history’s first Jew, cautioned us so explicitly about intermarriage. The Torah spends a whopping 67 verses to describe this narrative in detail, making it among the longest chapters in the Torah. It goes without saying that we should all be doing everything we can to prevent intermarriages (including to inspire proper conversions where necessary). And Abraham gave us all a blessing to do this, just as he blessed Eliezer, who wondered how he would accomplish this seemingly difficult task: “Hashem, God of the Heavens… will send His angel before you…” (24:7).

May God’s angels help us all find our true soulmates, and give us the strength and wisdom to fulfil our divine task in this world.


Moses and Korach, Abel and Cain, Water and Ice

This week’s Torah reading is named after Moses’ cousin, Korach, and describes his rebellion against the leader of the Jewish people. Rashi’s commentary quotes a number of Midrashic texts to explain Korach’s motivation. Korach was a very wealthy and very wise man. Yet, despite being a distinguished member of the community, and Moses’ cousin, he was not appointed to any prominent roles. The high priesthood was bestowed upon Aaron, while the leadership of the Kohatithes (one of the major divisions of the Levites) was given to Elitzaphan, who was younger than Korach.

Upset by these developments, Korach gathered 250 others and protested: “…the entire congregation, all of them, are holy, and God is in their midst, so why do you raise yourselves above God’s assembly?” (Numbers 16:3) Korach essentially accused Moses of nepotism: putting his own favourites in holy positions to rule over the people, when in reality all the people should be on a high and exalted level, as they are all equally part of God’s assembly.

This was a very good argument, and many were swayed by Korach. After all, God had said to the people that “… you will be a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6). Amazingly, Rashi writes that Moses himself agreed with Korach! Moses said:

“Among the nations, there are many forms of worship and many priests, and they do not all gather in one temple. We, however, have only one God, one ark, one Torah, one altar, and one High Priest, but you two hundred and fifty men are all seeking the High Priesthood! I, too, would prefer that. Here, take for yourselves the service most dear [to God] of all: it is the incense, more cherished than any other sacrifice, but it contains deadly poison, by which Nadav and Avihu were burnt, so be warned…” (Rashi on 16:6)

The Incense Offering

The ketoret, or incense offering, was the greatest of Temple services, and could only be performed by the High Priest. It is said that anyone else who attempted it (including the High Priest if he was not in the highest state of purity) would die immediately. The Torah already relayed the story of Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aaron who tried to bring their own incense, and perished.

"Death of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram" by Gustave Doré

“Death of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram” by Gustave Doré

So, Moses told Korach and his supporters that he would have loved for everyone to be at the level of high priesthood. This is how God had originally intended it after all, and one day in the future it would be so. At the present moment, though, the people were simply not ready for it. If they indeed thought they were all capable of being the High Priest, Moses suggested for them to each bring their own incense. He warned them, though, not to forget what had happened to Nadav and Avihu.

The narrative continues with Korach and his supporters bringing their own incense offering, with the result being utter failure, and every one of them losing their life for it (16:35). Korach himself, together with his main supporters Datan and Aviram, was given a more severe punishment: they were swallowed up by the earth. Interestingly, this specific punishment was decreed by Moses. Why did Moses specifically want Korach to be swallowed up by the earth?

Cain and Abel

The Arizal explains that Moses and Korach were reincarnations of Abel and Cain (Sha’ar HaGilgulim, Ch. 29 and 32). Cain had risen up against Abel, argued with him, and then murdered him. The text states that the earth had “opened its mouth” to receive Abel’s blood (Genesis 4:11). This time around, Cain’s soul (within Korach) again rose up against Abel’s soul (within Moses) and quarreled with him. Now, to complete the spiritual rectification, measure for measure, it was Abel that buried Cain in the earth, with the text once again saying that the earth had “opened its mouth” (16:32).

Water and Ice

Practically speaking, Moses and Korach represent two types of people, indicated by their names. Moses, Moshe, was a name given by the Pharaoh’s daughter, who said ki min hamayim mashitihu, “For I drew him out of the water.” Korach, on the other hand, has the exact same Hebrew spelling as kerach, ice. Moses represents water; Korach represents ice. The latter is cold, hard, and unyielding, expanding ever larger as it freezes, symbolic of an inflating ego. The former is fluid, life-giving, and always flows to the lowest possible point, symbolic of humility. The lesson here is for each person to emulate the watery traits of Moses, and not the frozen qualities of Korach.