Shira Sohn
Shlichut Coordinator 5776


The Common-Sense Rebellion

If you don’t ask, the answer is always no.

Parshat Beha’alotcha recounts the story of members of Bnei Yisrael successfully taking initiative.

In Bamidbar (Chapter 9), a group of people approaches Moshe and Aharon and says that they’re tameh and therefore unable to bring the Korban Pesach. They famously ask, “lamah nigara?” “Why should we be excluded from bringing the Korban Pesach?” Moshe brings their query to HaShem, who surprisingly grants their request, creating a new holiday called Pesach Sheni to satisfy their demand. What happens in this story is pretty remarkable. Bnei Yisrael have a challenge and a request, and HaShem grants it by creating a new holiday.

If you think about it, almost all of the mitzvot were instituted because HaShem wanted them, but one mitzvah was instituted only after a group of Bnei Yisrael took initiative to ask for it. They could have not done anything; after all, did they really expect HaShem to institute a new holiday to give them a second chance? But instead they took action. They took initiative and advocated for themselves. Pesach Sheni teaches us that ‘If you don’t ask, the answer is always no.’

Korach’s rebellion is another famous story about initiative. Seemingly, in Korach’s rebellion, Korach and his followers are just asking Moshe for what they want, just like by Pesach Sheni. The beginnings of the stories seem similar, so why do the responses so sharply contrast? Why is the request for Pesach Sheni granted, but Korach and his followers get killed for their request?

In the case of Pesach Sheni, the individuals who approach Moshe approach him as a figure of authority. Before they even ask their question, they recognize that ‘anachnu tmeim’ – we are impure. Only then do they go on to challenge. In the case of Korach, he and his followers refuse to admit that Moshe has any more authority than the rest of the nation, believing that ‘Kol haEidah kulam kedoshim’. Additionally, the intentions of the questioners in the story of Pesach Sheni were pure and le-shem shamayim, whereas Korach’s intentions were self-centered and his cause was anti-Halachic and anti-authoritarian.

The Rav elaborates on both of these points in his article The “Common-Sense” Rebellion Against Torah Authority. Korach thought that mitzvot were based on common sense. Why would wearing an entire garment of tcheilet not fulfill the mitzvah if a pair of tzizit with just one techeilet strand does? Since Korach perceived mitzvot as being based on common sense, he therefore declared that all rational people have the right to interpret Jewish law according to their best understanding. There’s no need for gedolim or Torah authorities, since we could all be our own authority by just using common sense.

Korach’s approach is problematic, for it fails to understand the relationship between Hokhma, knowledge, and Da’at, intellegence, in Judaism. The Rav writes that:
“Korah’s appeal to common sense in Judaism was basically a claim that only da’at, and not hokhmah, is involved in the application of Halakhah… The halakhic legal system, as a hokhmah, has its own methodology, mode of analysis, conceptualized rationale, even as do mathematics and physics… 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 Halakhah 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 Halakhah need not make common sense any more than mathematics and scientific conceptualized systems need to accommodate themselves to common sense.”

The Rav notes that Korach’s rebellion was not quelled when he and his followers were swallowed by the ground as punishment for their actions. The common sense argument that was the rallying cry of Korach’s rebellion is still alive today. He explains that some people believe they can use their own common sense to decide the relevance and format of contemporary Judaism. They admit they don’t have formal training in Jewish texts and sources, yet like Korach, they still insist they have a right to decide major religious questions by exercising common sense, eliminating the need for religious authorities. They leave science to scientists and math to mathematicians, but they refuse to leave Halakha to Halakhic experts.

On Parshat Korach it is important to remember what the members of Korach’s rebellion did not – that we don’t know everything. We should always pursue knowledge and learning, have strong opinions, and take initiative, but all while recognizing that sometimes there are authorities we have to yield to since our common sense is not always enough.


For the Rav’s complete article: https://www.scribd.com/doc/13615801/Rav-Soloveitchik-The-Common-sense-Rebellion-Against-Torah-Authority