Parashat Korach : The women behind the men emerge. Take a bow Ms On ben Pelet

The rebellion of Korach is a powerful and pivotal moment in Torah, as the leadership of Moses and Aaron is challenged by their cousin who proclaims that they have taken too much of the power for themselves, that all the people were holy, and Moses and Aaron are raising themselves up above the ‘kehal adonai’ the community of God.

With Datan and Abiram the sons of Eliav, and On the son of Pelet, all of them grandchildren of Reuben the oldest son of Jacob, Korach the great grandson of Levi, third son of Jacob and ancestor of Moses and Aaron, musters 250 men of stature – this is emphasised in the text: “n’si’ei eidah, k’ri’ei mo’ed, anshei shem – princes of the congregation, elect men of the community, men of renown”.

The testosterone level is so high in this story we can practically smell it. The clashing of antlers of the big beasts jousting for power and control. There might be a pretence about the need for all the people to be recognised as holy, but the reality is clear that this is a palace coup, and Moses doesn’t know what to do.

A great deal has been written about this, but I want to focus today on one of the more minor characters, On ben Pelet. Because while he is there at the beginning of the revolution he is missing from its denouement. And he doesn’t appear again.  The other rebels go down into the yawning pit as the earth opens, On ben Pelet however simply disappears from history.  Why?

The midrash provides a wonderful explanation. His wife gets involved. In this testosterone soaked challenge the men have essentially lost the plot. Where there are reasonable grounds for saying that Moses and Aaron have taken on too much of the leadership, there is no accountability and there is no transparency, the plotters went too far themselves, scenting regime change. It takes, in the view of the midrash, the calm and thoughtful intervention of the women we never really see (except as witnesses to the divine destruction of the hard line conspirators).

Talmud tells us this: (BT Sanhedrin 109b-110a)

“Rav said: On, the son of Pelet was saved by his wife. Said she to him, ‘What matters it to you? Whether the one [Moses] remains master or the other [Korach] becomes master, you will be nothing but a disciple.’ He replied, ‘But what can I do? I have taken part in their counsel, and they have sworn me [to be] with them.’ She said, ‘I know that they are all a holy community, as it is written, “seeing all the congregation are holy, every one of them. [So,]’ she proceeded, ‘Sit here, and I will save you.’ She gave him wine to drink, intoxicated him and laid him down inside [the tent]. Then she sat down at the entrance and loosened her hair. Whoever came [to summon him] saw her and retreated. Meanwhile, Korach’s wife joined them [the rebels] and said to him [Korach], ‘See what Moses has done. He himself has become king; his brother he appointed High Priest; his brother’s sons he made vice High Priests. If Terumah is brought, he decrees, Let it be for the priest; if the tithe is brought, which belongs to you [i.e., to the Levite], he orders, Give a tenth part of it to the priest. Moreover, he has had your hair cut off, and makes sport of you as though you were dirt; for he was jealous of your hair.’ Said he to her, ‘But he has done likewise!’ She replied, ‘Since all the greatness was his, he said also, Let me die with the Philistines. Moreover, he has commanded you, Set [fringes] of blue wool [in the corners of your garments]; but if there is virtue in blue wool, then bring forth blue wool, and clothe your entire academy with it.  And so it is written, Every wise woman builds her house — this refers to the wife of On, the son of Pelet; but the foolish plucks it down with her hands — to Korach’s wife.”

The Talmudic midrash sees the minor figure of On ben Pelet, notices his disappearance by the end of the story, and pins this on the even more minor figures of “the wives”.

The unnamed wife of On ben Pelet is a politician to her fingertips. She can see that her husband is of lowly status and is never likely to amount to much. Whoever wins in the rebellion, he will never be an important part of the hierarchy. He isn’t much of a catch, one gets the feeling, but he is hers and she would rather he were alive than dead. Whether this is love or not is irrelevant, his fate would have repercussions on her status, she does not want to be the widow of a dissident – that would make her even more vulnerable than she is now.

So, in time honoured fashion, she gets him drunk. We think of Boaz and Ruth, of Noah and his daughters, of Yael and Sisera – when a woman wants to get a man pliant and to do her bidding it seems, the answer is to ply him with intoxicants. The drunken On ben Pelet is ushered into the tent to sleep it off. But this is still not enough to ensure he doesn’t rouse and put himself – and her – into danger. So she sits at the entrance with loosened hair – immodest, sexually charged, a terror to the scouts who may come to demand his presence. Like Rachel she uses her body to prevent anyone coming to search. And her husband slumbers on all unknowing.

On ben Pelet is, in the story, a nudnik, a schlemiel, scion of a great family maybe, but incompetent and easily led. He needs all the skills of his competent wife to survive. And it would be lovely if the midrash ended there. But no, the Talmud having decided on a verse in Proverbs (14:1) feels the need to explicate the other half of it.

“Every wise woman builds her house; but the foolish plucks it down with her hands.”

The wise woman here is clearly aligned with the wife of On ben Pelet, but who is the foolish wife? After all, 250 men joined Korach, Datan and Abiram in the failed rebellion.

It is interesting to me that the midrash decides that the parallel is with the wife of Korach – the main protagonist in this affair. And more than that, they give her great knowledge and legalistic reasoning – this is an educated woman able to debate and hold her point.

She begins first with the nepotism: Moses has made himself king. He has made his brother the High Priest, he has made his brother’s sons vice High Priests – something that is new to this text. Then when the Terumah offering is brought, it is immediately taken up by his own close family. This food (or oil or wine) can only be eaten by the Cohanim. Korach being only a Levite, is not permitted to have use of it.

Then she points out the tithing which would go to the Levites – Moses had set a limit of a tenth to go to the priests.

Then she moves on to the cut hair done as part of the purification rites. Before her husband can object she layers meaning over it – Moses was jealous of Korach’s lovely hair. He now laughs at him once the hair is cut off and Korach is, presumably, less attractive. No matter that Moses also had his hair cut according to Korach, his wife clearly believes that the impact on Moses was much less than that on her husband. Moses comes out the winner.

Now she moves onto ritual grievances. Moses had told them to wear blue threads on the fringes of their garments, but this is simply tokenistic in her eyes – if blue is to be worn as a mark of honour, then the whole garment should be blue. Otherwise, her reasoning seems to be, there is no real honour, just pretence, a token and perfunctory nod to the status of her husband; Korach is damned by faint praise and his wife notices.

She is painted as an intelligent and ambitious woman. Curiously she too seems to have the upper hand in the relationship – and she gives Korach the intellectual underpinnings for his challenge.

But her ambition for her husband is too much. He is not a strategist, not really a leader. Having made his alliances his own thirst for power comes through – why else would On ben Pelet feel uneasy having agreed to join the alliance? Korach cannot deviate from the path he is on. He doesn’t seem to realise that the atmosphere is changing, that his leadership is doomed.

His wife too is given no more voice. Who knows whether she had she would have been able to persuade her husband to reverse his challenge. Instead we see from the text that Datan and Abiram, their wives and children, stand at the doorways of their tents; And we see the earth opening and everything that pertained to Korach was swallowed up alive into the pit. The 250 men who were offering their own incense were destroyed by divine fire. Yet curiously Korach and his wife are not mentioned in the text as explicitly as Datan and Abiram were. Did Mrs Korach have one last trick up her sleeve? Did they melt away from the scene of destruction they had caused, in the hope of living to fight another day?

Parashat Emor: the importance of knowing our boundaries.

And the Eternal said to Moses: Speak to the priests the sons of Aaron, and say to them: None shall defile himself for the dead among his people”(Leviticus 21:1)

Judaism likes the idea of boundaries and separations, of creating different categories in order for the world to work properly. From the moment the Torah narrative begins with the chaos of primeval creation, God first creates the earth and the heavens and then begins to separate everything out – light from darkness, dry land from the sea, the firmaments from the earth, day from night.   The psalmist tells us that God gave the earth to people to live on, while the heavens belong to God. They are different and separate domains.

Biblically the Jewish people were divided into the Levitical priesthood (descendants of the tribe of Levi) and the rest of the Israelites; and the Levitical priesthood itself was divided into the Cohanim (the priests who were direct descendants of Aaron), and the Levi’im – the priests whose work was to service the Cohanim in their duties. Different and separate domains.

Creating categories and boundaries is what we do. We filter and we sort, we include and exclude, we oblige and prohibit.

In the case of the priesthood there are rules which separate them from the rest of the Jewish people. So, for example, even today someone whose family tradition is that they are Kohen will avoid going too close to a dead body – Jewish cemeteries will have rooms and paths to allow the Kohanim to approach in an halachically acceptable way. Whatever we Reform Jews may think about the division amongst the Jewish people which still puts an extra load on the families of the Levitical priesthood, (the Reform response takes into account both the reality that whatever you may believe about your family the hereditary priesthood cannot be a status you can be certain about; and also has moved away from laws specifically to enable Temple ritual, so given that there are substantial disabilities in Jewish law for people identified as Cohanim, we have decided that this category is no longer of importance to us and have effectively removed this particular boundary), we are aware of its ramifications.

 Why must a priest not come into contact with a dead body? It may be a matter of chukkat ha’goy, of copying and assimilating the traditions of the people with whom we live until we are indistinguishable from them, blurring the boundaries of our identity. Egypt we know had a cult of death, with huge tombs and sarcophagi in which the embalmed bodies of the dead were prepared for the afterlife. The rich would stay rich; the poor would stay poor even after death. Torah most certainly is reacting to some of this cult as it reacts to many of the practices of the people amongst whom the Israelites were living. Our whole imperative rejects the cult of death for the cult of life and living, with Moses reminding us in parashat Nitzavim to “Choose Life”.

It may be that the ritual impurity is less to do with the problem of being in a fit state to offer a Temple sacrifice as keeping in a fit state a very important boundary. The separation boundary between life and death is the most powerful that we experience and it must be kept as tight and impermeable as possible. The verse that ended last week’s portion Kedoshim, (Lev 20:27) reminds us “a man or a woman that divines by a ghost or a familiar spirit shall surely be put to death… their blood shall be upon them”

We must keep our focus on this life, in this world. We must pay attention to how we live here and now, rather than make assumptions about, or even try to make forays into, whatever exists outside of our own domain.

Parashat Emor reminds us of the importance of operating within our own world, and within our own time. It contains the laws around sanctifying time – the festivals are given within this sidra, Shabbat, Pesach, Shavuot, Sukkot, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. All of these not only set aside time for particular worship, they also remind us of the boundaries of nature, the limits of our behaviour, the importance of stopping the everyday and mundane and remembering the reason for our being.

We are known as an Am Kadosh – often translated as a holy people. But Kedushah is not about holiness in the sense that we are specially sacred and righteous and blessed. We are an Am Kadosh because we follow the rules of Kedushah – of separating out and making (and keeping) boundaries. The root of the word k’d’sh means to make different or separate – hence when we marry (Kiddushin) we make that relationship a different one, we separate our partner for a unique relationship. When we think about our dietary habits, eat certain foods and not eat others, separate milk and meat products and so on, we are forcing ourselves to think about what we consume, rather than mindlessly devouring anything presented to us. When we give a proportion of our income to help others as a matter of principle rather than viewing all our income as being rightfully only to be spent on ourselves; When we choose not to automatically adopt the customs of the surrounding culture but to think about our own identity and absorb the best of what we see around us BECAUSE it is the best of what we see; When we keep in place these boundaries we may find we are able to negotiate the world with more clarity. I am not suggesting that we pull down the defences in order to protect any notional purity or to keep out the modern world, but that knowing who we are and in what area we should focus our energies will give us a greater chance in partnering with God in the work of completing the creation.

Parashat Emor reminds us of the importance of knowing our boundaries. It reminds us that to be Kedoshim – the imperative of last week’s sidra – we have to clarify our context and so to understand it and be able to work within it.

Not Kohens nor Levites, but all the people are holy

It is shocking to read in sidra emor about the particular physical qualifications which must be met by the hereditary priesthood, in particular the restrictions which the bible describes in this week’s sidra. “No man among the offspring of Aaron the priest who has a defect shall be qualified to offer the Lords offerings by fire.” we are told, “he shall not enter behind the curtain or come near the altar, for he has a defect. He shall not profane these places sacred to Me, for I the Eternal have sanctified them”

The defects are described in the text – blindness, lameness, hunchback, cataracts – all of them physical and external, all of them beyond the control of the individual. Indeed we are told in later rabbinic commentary (on Bechorot 45a) that an internal defect does not disqualify one from priestly service, only external defects do this.

The priests were a group apart, their status protected and hedged around with strict regulations. They could not touch a dead body except that of an immediate blood relative. They could not shave their heads nor cut the sides of their beards. They could not marry a divorced woman- their wives had to be above any suspicion and come from families that also were seen to be pure. In return for their work in the Temple service they were given special privileges and obligations. To this day in Orthodox Judaism the person who considers themselves to be of a priestly family is called to the Torah reading first, is privileged to do the duchenan (the priestly blessing) on festival days, and will perform pidyon haben – the ritual of release of the firstborn son. Reform Judaism does not make such people more special than others in the community. We do not aspire to a third Temple so the role of priest/ Kohen, is defunct. The disbenefits for a Kohen are real, and can complicate their lives, which, given the reality that we have no real way of knowing who is actually a descendent of the Aaronide family can cause problems that do not need to be caused, and anyway Reform Judaism understands that religious leadership is no longer in the hands of the hereditary priesthood, but has passed into the hands of rabbis and scholars and is now embedded in Rabbinic Judaism.  

It is often a surprise to Jews from a traditional orthodox background to find that we do not accord any special privileges to the Cohens and the Levites in our services; that we have no difficulty with them attending funerals like other Jews; that we perform their marriages to proselytes. It is sometimes a shock to them that we have taken for ourselves the wonderful “priestly blessing” formula, and that we use it at the end of most of our services to invoke the blessing of God on the community on a daily or weekly basis. I have occasionally overheard complaints about what is seen as our lack of respect for the priesthood, yet I do believe that this particular reform was one of the most powerful and significant for us. Far from rejecting our history, I am certain that by making all Jews equal within our liturgical practise we are proclaiming that we are a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. Instead of defining holiness within the confines of the ritual of the Temple service, we are opening it out into the lives of all who are looking for it. By rejecting the notion of a priesthood whose holiness or lack of it is expressed in terms of physical defect or perfection, we are free to become a people whose holiness or lack of it is expressed in more inner terms, in our prayers, our hopes and intentions, our yearnings, as well as in the actions which result from our inner lives.

The priesthood described in the bible is a complex structure designed to contain purity and holiness as it was understood then, and shows, I believe, clear signs of having accepted concepts from outside societies as well as creating new forms and ways of being. The notion that physical perfection was required in anything which came near to the place of the sacrifices was taken on board in the biblical tradition, but that doesn’t mean it was divine, nor that it was right. Today one can argue that we know much more about physical disability and are less afraid of it, But more than having a different approach to disability, we have developed a different approach to holiness. Maimonides tells us that the sacrificial system was a necessary step to the more religiously sophisticated and satisfactory practise of prayer. His argument could be extended to communal holiness – we no longer need a special group of people to be holy on our behalf, the professional liturgists and holders of ritual power. We have graduated from such a need and now the special privileges and obligations are the property of the whole Jewish people. It means that we must all take on the work of attending to God’s service, rather than leave it to the people who were born to it, or who are the heirs presumptive. We all have the job of seeing to it that holiness is part of the practise and the being of the Jewish people, that it is expressed both internally and externally, that we truly work together to become a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. If we don’t do that now, then we will be, in the words of sidra Emor, “profaning Gods holy places”, for the holy places of God are always found within a community of people.