The Jewish community in the United States of America is pleased and proud to live in a democracy. What is a democracy? It is often described as a society in which all are equal. But this description falls short of the mark. Because obviously we all are not equal. Some of us are stronger, some wiser, some wealthier, than others. We are not equally endowed with talents at birth, nor do we all partake in equal sets of circumstances as we grow and develop.
A more precise and useful definition is this one from the Webster’s dictionary: “Democracy is the principle of equality of rights, opportunity, and treatment, or the practice of this principle.” The dictionary makes it quite clear. We are not equal, but we are entitled to equal treatment and to equal opportunities. Whether we take advantage of these opportunities is a matter of personal will, and not a reflection of the justice or injustice of the society at large.
The above definition helps us understand that while we are all equally entitled to be members of a democratic society, we are not all equally qualified to fill all of the roles necessary for that society to function. We are not all qualified to be leaders, we are not all qualified to be teachers, we are not even all qualified to be soldiers.
In the Torah portions which we have been reading the past several weeks, we have been observing a society in the making. Not a democratic society in the contemporary sense, but one which was designed to be fair and equitable and to allow for the fullest possible spiritual expression of every individual within it.
In this week’s Torah portion, Korach, we learn of the first challenge to this society in formation. Korach, a close relative of Moses and Aaron, challenges their roles as leader and high priest. He also advocates what might be mistaken for a democracy, if we are to understand democracy in the fashion outlined in the first few sentences of this essay.
This is Korach’s understanding of the nature of the Jewish community in the desert: “All of the congregation is holy, and God is in their midst.” Korach is, in the eyes of some, the arch democrat. He sees all in the community as being holy. All are equal in holiness, and all are equal in the eyes of God.
He is thus protesting the hierarchy represented by a tribe of priests, a tribe of Levites, a group of elders. He is calling for radical equality, for utter sameness.
There is a line from Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Gondoliers” which is never far from my mind and lips. It reads:
“When everyone is somebodee,
Then no one’s anybody!”
Korach is advocating a society in which everybody is somebody. Can that work?
I will not even attempt to answer that question in terms of political philosophy. But I will venture to speculate about the possibility of a society in which all are equally spiritual, in which everyone is a spiritual somebody.
For you see, much earlier in the Torah, such a society was indeed foreseen. Back in the Torah portion of Kedoshim (Leviticus 19:2), the entire nation was told, “You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy.” We were enjoined to be a “kingdom of priests”. Is Korach so far off, then, with his claim that all of the congregation is holy?
It is as an answer to this question that the dictionary definition of democracy is so helpful. We are not all equal; we are certainly not all holy. But we all have the opportunity, the equal opportunity, to become holy through our actions and the way we live our lives.
Sociologists draw a distinction between two types of status, “ascribed” and “achieved”. Ascribed status comes with birth. Achieved status must be earned. There is no doubt that ascribed status plays a role in the biblical community, if not in a modern democracy.
Let us translate the biblical term “kedusha”, usually rendered “holiness”, as “spirituality”, often a more apt definition and certainly a more acceptable one to the contemporary reader. Then, we must argue that “kedusha” must be “achieved”, not merely “ascribed”.
The “kingdom of priests” ideal is to be the product of our spiritual endeavors; not a hereditary honor. No person, in this sense, is born “spiritual”. We are not equally holy from birth. But we all have the equal opportunity to dedicate our lives to the achievement of holiness, to the attainment of spirituality.
Korach is wrong when he proclaims that the entire community is holy. He would have been correct to say that we all can achieve holiness.
Judaism teaches us that although we are all equally endowed with the capacity for holiness, with the potential for spirituality, the achievement of those objectives is not easy. Spirituality is not obtained by a moment on a mountaintop, or by fleeting inspirational experiences. Spirituality, Jewish spirituality, can only be attained by hard work and painful self-sacrifice.
The leadership positions of Moses and Aaron were earned by the virtue of their life-long dedication to the Jewish people. Korach is indeed wrong when he says that we are all equally capable of supplanting Moses and Aaron. We are all potentially leaders, we all have the opportunity to develop leadership skills, but we are not automatically leaders just because we are part of the community.
The mitzvah back in Parshat Kedoshim does not imply, as Korach does, that we all are kedoshim. Rather, it calls upon us to do what we can to become kedoshim.
And so, this week’s Torah portion teaches us an important personal lesson; one of special relevance to those of us who have absorbed a deep belief in democracy. We are not all spiritually equal. There are those of us who are more spiritual, and those who are less so. But we all have equal opportunities and equal possibilities to develop the levels of spirituality, which God himself foresaw when He asked us to become a “kingdom of priests.”