Chancellor's Parashah Commentary
Parashat Korah 5758
Numbers 19:1 - 22:1
June 27, 1998 3 Tammuz 5758
Ismar Schorsch is the chancellor of The Jewish Theological Seminary.
The Talmud condemns the rebellion by Korah and company against Moses as the prime example of "a controversy not for Heaven's sake." Tarnished by impure motives, his challenge brings no lasting benefit. And the Torah confirms that reading. Korah is a Levite bent on leveling the religious hierarchy set up by God to govern the Tabernacle. He rejects the special status accorded his clan to service the cult "You have gone too far," he declaims to Moses. "For all the community are holy... Why then do you raise yourself above the Lord's congregation (Numbers 163)?" Behind the facade of democratic rhetoric lurks a grab for power.
But the talmudic criterion for a legitimate controversy is less than fool–proof, because of the inherent ambiguity in the human understanding of God's will. What God wants of us is by no means static. Even if the State of Israel enjoyed the power to repossess the Temple Mount and to construct a Third Temple, the overwhelming majority of Jews today would be aghast at the reintroduction of the ancient sacrificial system of worship.
I raise this prickly subject because I wish to put the controversy at Yale between the university and four Orthodox undergraduates over its housing policy into a larger Jewish context. Since I first broached it in the early fall (parashat No·ah), my sympathy for the students has evaporated, the reason being that the grounds for the dispute have clearly shifted from privacy to separation. At the outset, it appeared that what the students sought was more privacy than a single–sex dormitory floor with common bathrooms (occasionally frequented by male visitors) could assure. Modesty in attire and behavior (zeniut in Hebrew) is a cardinal Jewish value. To Yale's credit, it responded quickly with a suite that would have spared them the use of such a common facility (a fact tellingly omitted by Samuel G. Freedman in his article "Yeshivish at Yale" in The New York Times Magazine, May 24, 1998).
What Yale was not prepared to forgo, for valid educational reasons, was its requirement of all unmarried first– and second–year students to reside in its residential colleges. By their decision to reject Yale's offer and to go to court, the students signaled that their goal all along had been to minimize social contact with all students unlike themselves. But their unprecedented demand in the name of Judaism has unsettled Jews across the religious spectrum, and rightly so.
For much of this century, Jews struggled to gain admission to Ivy League schools. Today the American university is a Jewish power base. In terms of students, faculty, donors and senior administrators, Jews are to be found at the best colleges and universities in numbers far exceeding their proportion in the general population. The history of Yale embodies that remarkable achievement. In 1958, Yale hired Professor Judah Goldin (who just passed away) from the Seminary to become one of the first full–time professors of Judaica at an American university (Harvard and Columbia had preceded it) and the first to teach rabbinic literature. Forty years later, Yale offers one of the finest programs of Judaica in the country with a cluster of strong professors, two of whom again came from the Seminary. In addition to its first Jewish president in Richard Levin, Yale can also boast of an exquisite Jewish center with a superb Hillel rabbi and a kosher dining hall. For decades now thousands of Orthodox Jews have attended Ivy League colleges without demanding the right to live apart. Whence the sudden claim that Judaism requires separate housing, a principle so sacred that it brooks no compromise? I submit that it derives from the escalating power of ultra–Orthodox values over those of modern Orthodoxy and thereby on the totality of Jewish life. The far right has effected a quantification of piety that steadily ups the religious ante for all Jews. Thus any observer of the Jewish scene can attest to ever more products at Passover with special certification; ever higher mehitzas separating men and women in the synagogue; the growing demand of candidates for conversion to observe every single commandment of Judaism; religious authority measured by years of study rather than quality of mind; the infallibility of policy decisions rendered by a council of Torah sages (daas Torah, an innovation of the 20th century) and the triumph of glatt kosher in America after World War II (an animal with no adhesions on the lung). Though Yeshiva University may still be animated by the lofty synthesis of Torah u–Madda, sacred and secular wisdom, its religious heartbeat, the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, is surely no longer led by rabbonim who adhere to that ideology.
The confrontation with Yale is symptomatic of the breakdown of that synthesis. The mind set of the four students is ultra–Orthodox. The point of coming to Yale is utterly utilitarian, to attain its vaunted sheepskin while incurring the least amount of harm. One young woman consults with a rabbi before selecting her courses, a typically ultra–Orthodox behavior pattern, and shields herself from disagreeable material presented in class. Such a doctrinaire attitude where there are no questions but only answers is the very antithesis of a liberal arts education whose purpose is to expand the mind.
Most discordant of all is the plea for self–segregation as if gentiles and non–Orthodox Jews were an unremedial source of contamination. A midrash on our parasha wonders how Dathan and Abiram, descendants of Reuben, came to be entangled with Korah. The answer is proximity both the tribe of Reuben and the clan of Korah were encamped alongside each other when the Israelites traveled, from which the midrash learns "Woe to the wicked and woe to his neighbor." But surely all Yale undergrads are not to be stereotyped as dangerous and decadent? Can any polity of hermetically sealed ghettos long endure?
The case of the Yale plaintiffs is frivolous because unwarranted. Nothing is at stake except their misguided notion of God's will. But the very novelty of their claim is its best refutation. The thousands of Orthodox Jews who successfully passed through the college experience before them without insisting on separate housing did not share their sense of God's will. For those unable to handle integrated residence halls, there was always a Jewish alternative available. Unfortunately, not only will the intransigence of the "Yale four" place the admission of Orthodox students to Yale in jeopardy in years to come, but it also deprives non–Orthodox students of a role model predicated on inner conviction rather than external barriers and buffers.
Shabbat shalom u–mevorach,