By Rabbi Douglas Goldhamer, Torah columnist
Torah Portion: Korach (Numbers 16-18)
I came to Chicago in 1972, and started a congregation of the deaf because of the unique vision of a Christian televangelist. When I was studying to be a rabbi at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, I heard an evangelical Christian minister announce on television that there was a large community of Jewish people that had no rabbis serving them. He encouraged students studying to be ministers to work with Jewish deaf across America and bring them to Jesus Christ. I knew then and there that this would be my rabbinic calling.
I moved to Chicago, and together with 18 deaf Jewish families, we established Congregation Bene Shalom as the first full-time Jewish deaf congregation. Over the years, many people who could hear joined our synagogue. Most of them commented on the beauty of our services, where prayer became a three-dimensional experience, because of the use of American Sign Language in addition to Hebrew and English. The mysticism of the experience inspired many Jewish people, without any connection to deafness, to join our shul.
We became a liturgically bi-lingual congregation that spoke the ancient prayers in Hebrew and signed them in American Sign Language. For the most part, there was wonderful cooperation and harmony between deaf and hearing.
Eventually, the number of hearing people outnumbered the deaf, and pressure mounted from a small group of vociferous members who wanted to eliminate our tradition of using sign language at services.
I and several of our leaders were challenged by a committed minority of wealthy and prominent members, who were annoyed that we “catered” to the deaf, even though their numbers were in the minority. The deaf and I did prevail, but when I look at this week’s Torah portion, I am once again inspired to see that the Torah of ancient Israel is as relevant to modernity as it was in antiquity.
There is a text in our Torah, found in the Holiness Code of Leviticus, which underlines the sacredness and holiness of the deaf community. “Do not curse the deaf,” which Rashi teaches as “don’t talk about the deaf behind their back. “ Don’t take advantage of the deaf community because they can’t hear. This injunction, written in the Holiness Code, embraces the idea that the deaf community is a holy community.
Our text in Korach this week teaches that Korach and his family and 250 wealthy, very influential men gathered together to challenge Moses and Aaron. “You assume too much, because the full community is holy, each individual of them, and the Lord is among them; why do you then elevate yourselves above the congregation of the Lord?” (Num. 16:3) We see two Hebrew words that appear to be synonyms, that are used in this text to signify “congregation.” There is the word “edah” and “kahal.” Edah has the significance of meaning “a congregation,” according to its natural organization, whereas kahal signifies the congregation according to its Divine calling. The use of the two words in the same verse signifies that the rebels are appealing to all Israel to be the Holy Nation of the Lord, with all people able to hold the priesthood.
The rebels felt that the full congregation was already holy, because G-d had called all of them to be a holy nation (they forgot the condition attached to their calling, “if you will obey My voice and keep My covenant.” Exodus 19:5)
The rebels could not accept that Aaron had received the High Priesthood, and that Moses was the religious and political leader. Korach fiercely preached to the people that Moses and Aaron did not have a monopoly over holiness, or kedusha. We read in Midrash Tanhuma that Korach challenges Moses. “Does a tallit that is made completely of techelet (blue dye), exempt the mitzvah of one thread of blue in the tzitzit, the fringes themselves.” (Tanhuma, Parashat Korach, 2) Moses answers that one is still obligated to tie the holy thread of techelet in the tzitzit.
Moses teaches that even if the tallit is completely blue, you still need to tie one blue thread on each of the corners. Moses teaches a community needs a holy thread running through it. Of course, the techelet is only one thread, but it brings kedusha into the complete garment.
The techelet elevates the garment. It channels kedusha into the tallit. Korach championed the idea that kedusha was the possession of the whole nation. His actions demonstrated this as did his use of the Hebrew word kahal. Moses championed the concept of hierarchy within the nation–that is, the sanctity of the priesthood. The Midrash sees this as a thread of holiness running through the nation. The thread of holiness can be explained by techelet.
When I was challenged by a group of lay congregants to diminish the “deafness” of our congregation, so that all people would participate in a community of equality, they were advocating that there should be complete equality within the nation. On the face of it, their suggestion sounded reasonable, but it was flawed. They failed to recognize that the deaf community is our techelet. The deaf community is our blue thread of holiness which runs through the congregation. G-d called Bene Shalom to be a congregation, recognizing that the kedusha of deafness with its deaf culture, deaf language, informs and inspires our congregation to be sensitive to the many ethnic communities in Judaism. The deaf community in our congregation has given us notice that there are many minority Jewish communities in the world, and that each Jewish community is sacred. Our congregation is predominantly hearing, but the sacred thread of techelet that runs through our synagogue inspires us daily to recognize the holiness of the deaf community and all minorities within our synagogue.
Several years ago, I read the story of Alysa Stanton, the first Afro-American woman to be ordained by the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. She was asked what inspired her to convert to Judaism. She said that the attraction was almost mystical. She said, “A thread of Judaism was always there.” I believe that when we read the story of Korach in our Hebrew Scriptures, we learn that there is a thread of holiness in every community and in every family. This is G-d’s doing. But it is our responsibility to find this thread and to recognize its kedusha.
Rabbi Douglas Goldhamer is the senior rabbi of Congregation Bene Shalom, Skokie. He is also the founder and president of Hebrew Seminary, where he is also Professor of Jewish Mysticism.