With the advent of the conservative and reform movements over the past century, and the more recent rise of liberal activists including the Women of the Wall, one of the newest and biggest questions in Judaism is that of equality. Why is that men and women have different mitzvot in Judaism, we ask ourselves. Why shouldn’t our rabbanim and chazanim be rabanot and chazanot? Why should there be any restrictions on geirut? Why do men have any more right to be community leaders than women? Doesn’t Judaism stand for equality?! I believe that if we look in this week’s פרשה, we will discover that this contemporary question is much more ancient than we think.
In our פרשה, we read of one of the first attempted rebellions in Tanach; where קרח and his followers rebel against משה, אהרון and the rest of the Jewish leadership. The main premise of their uprising is:
כִּי כָל-הָעֵדָה כֻּלָּם קְדֹשִׁים, וּבְתוֹכָם ה’; וּמַדּוּעַ תִּתְנַשְּׂאוּ, עַל-קְהַל ה’
All of the people are equally holy in front of G-d- why would you (Moshe) raise the nation of G-d by leading them? (במדבר ט”ו:ג’)
Korach’s argument against Moshe’s leadership was that all of the Jewish People were equally holy, so why would anyone have a right to lead them (Moshe) or be closer to G-d (Aharon and כהנים) than other Jews. While this argument was as attractive to בני ישראל then as it is to עם ישראל now, there is one problem with this argument, one that is so fundamental that it forces us to reject this entire question; Judaism is not a religion of equality. Equality is a western ideal which only became popular over the past 200 years, but before that, women and people of other racial backgrounds were definitely not equal to the white males, lacking very basic rights, such as representation and voting. Judaism, while less “equal” than contemporary western culture, has been consistently “separate but equal” since the Torah was given, having set aside special מצות for men and special מצות for women, without there even being a question of this arrangement not being equal enough. Only as we’ve become more assimilated and western society has become more liberal have the decently even standards of Judaism suddenly become not equal enough.
Returning to Korach’s claim of “כל העדה כלם קדשים,” we are left asking whether this is actually true. It is taught in many places in Judaism that בני ישראל are a holy nation- maybe this could mean that each and every Jew are equally holy?
Rav Soloveitchik answers our question by teaching that קרח’s claim was, at least, partially correct- “כל העדה כלם קדושים”, all of the Jews, from the lowest street cleaner, to the highest Rav, are inherently holy because of their ancestry and shared heritage. However, there is more to spirituality than this communal holiness- there is also a degree of personal holiness, where one can reach higher levels of קדושה through personal growth and self-improvement. In terms of formal religious responsibilities and oppurtunities, קרח was completely wrong- all Jews are not equal, they just have equal opportunities to reach greatness. Korach preached that there should not be any leaders, because everyone is equal. But, the Rav concludes, in order to attain the level of greatness to become a leader, one must try to work on himself to become more holy- he cannot just rely on the קדושה of the קהל to boost himself as קרח did.
If we take this back to our modern question of equality, we can learn an important lesson. While it is very easy sometimes to look at our fellow Jews and see the differences in our situations and complain about them instead of focusing on our own responsibilities, we must remember that each and every one of us is different and special in our own ways, and this is reflected in our עבודת השם and personal spiritual growth as well. Every Jew has equal potential to grow in holiness, but there are inherent limitations to how we can do this. Men and women each have special מצות that only they can do, and it is important to focus on doing the מצות that we are commanded to do instead of complaining about the ones that we weren’t. Everyone has personal frameworks within which to grow, but sometimes, the frameworks are just not the same. Once we realize and appreciate this, we can turn our focus back to excelling in the עבודת השם that we are supposed to be doing instead of kvetching about those that we can’t. With G-d’s help, through the זכות of our increased proper עבודת השם, we will see more אחדות amongst Jews of all backgrounds, and through this, the coming the גאולה very soon. Shabbat Shalom.