Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Korach: More Than a Feeling

by Neil Harris
Written in merit of a refuah shelaima for Esther bas Sara

If you were served a meal at someone's house and you knew you wouldn't enjoy what was prepared, could you just eat it without making a bracha because you were not at all thankful for what you were about to eat?
If it was Tisha b'Av and you decided that not speaking all day would be more meaningful to you than fasting, would it be ok if you didn't speak, but chose to eat?
Well, if your posek was Korach, then he would probably tell you that what you feel and experience is the basis for how your perform a mitzvah.
In discussing Korach, Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik explains that Korach's view was one that utilized "common-sense". Korach argued that each of member of Knesses Yisrael is holy and of equal status to Moshe Rabbeinu. It was a pretty good arguement, since 250 people joined him. However, his campaign was totally fueled by his own feelings that it was "unfair" that only Aaron and his sons were upgraded to the level of being Kohanim, while he, Korach, remained among the Leviim.
This exploration of Korach's thought process can be found in a lecture that was printed in Reflections of the Rav and also in Shiurei Harav (although the version there contains a slightly different summary of this lecture). The Rav states that "Korach was committed to the doctrine of religious subjectivism, which regards one's personal feelings as primary in the religious experience. The value of the mitzvah is to be found not in its performance, but in its subjective impact upon the person, its ability to arouse a devotional state of mind." This was how Korach thought. Rav Soloveitchik felt that "there are two levels in religious observance, the objective outer mitzvah and the subjective inner experience that accompanies it. Both the deed and the feeling constitute the total religious experience; the former without the latter is an incomplete act, an imperfect gesture. The objective act of performing the mitzvah is our starting point. The mitzvah does not depend on the emotion; rather, it induces the emotion. One's religious inspiration and fervor are generated and guided by the mitzvah, not the reverse. The goal is proper kavvahan and genuine devekus, but these can be religiously authentic only if they follow the properly performed mitzvah."
It's not just "how you feel" that gives meaning to the mitzvos we do. First we have to follow halacha, then we can, hopefully, feel something during or after the performance of a mitzvah. That's why there's a separate "reward" for performing a mitzvah and another "reward" for performing a mitzvah with simcha". Korach didn't quite get that concept. He was more concerned about how the person would feel prior to doing a mitzvah, just as he was concerned about himself and his own feelings. His emphasis wasn't on being a servant of Hashem, an Eved Hashem, but only serving himself.
Rav Shlomo Woble, in the second volume of his sefer Alei Shur writes about the concept of '"frumkeit". Usually defined as a term meaning high or superficial piety, it refers to a misplaced Avodas Hashem. It could be an attitude of arrogance or guy'vah about how one performs mitzvos. Frumkeit could also be externally taking on a specific chumra. At its core, frumkeit is simply a false image of our closeness to Hashem. I believe that this was the path that Korach was walking on. He was too focused on what he felt his service to Hashem should be, not what Hashem wanted from him. It was a very false sense of holiness. When a person chooses to be mevater, to put aside or give up his own will for what Hashem wants, then there is nothing that feels better!


  1. While there are false forms of frumkeit, I don't see "frumkeit" as automatically meaning the false kind.

  2. Agreed, perhaps "frumkeit" is the wrong word, but the point is still well expressed. Perhaps "false frumkeit" would work better.

  3. True, it might have been better to have written:

    At its core, frumkeit, as defined by R Wolbe, is an inate urge to get close to Hashem. If one does so to only serve his ego then his image of actually being close to Hashem is distorted, becuase it's not lishma.