Some arguments are petty affairs between small people who feel the need to assert their perceived status. Other arguments are honest differences of opinion between people of stature, in which each has an opinion worthy of consideration. We need to be able to discern the subtleties beneath the surface of any debate before we can know what sort of argument it is.
The 16th chapter of the book of Numbers tells the story of the mutiny led by Korach, a cousin of Moses, who challenged Moses’ authority. In the end, Korach and his henchmen were swallowed by the earth in a divine display of unearthly justice.
The Midrash reveals some of the behind-the-scenes dialogue between Korach and Moses. Korach was no pushover. Besides being of noble lineage, he was clever, wealthy and charismatic. One of the questions Korach put to Moses was this: Does a house full of holy books still require a mezuzah? Moses answered that it did. Korach scoffed at the idea, ridiculing Moses. The little mezuzah contains the Shema—only two chapters of the Torah. A whole houseful of books with the entire Torah won’t do the trick, and a little mezuzah will? It doesn’t make any sense, argued Korach.
Why was Moses correct in opposing Korach’s claim? What indeed is the significance of a small parchment on a doorpost in comparison to a library inside? The Lubavitcher Rebbe explained that it all depends on location. The books are inside. The mezuzah is outside. When there are Jewish texts inside our study and living rooms, this indicates that the home is a Jewish home. This is good and as it should be. But what happens when we leave the comfortable confines of our home? Do we leave our Jewish identity behind?
The mezuzah is at the threshold of our homes, at the juncture and crossover between our inner and outer lives. As we make the transition from private person to public citizen, we need to be reminded of who we are, and that we take our identity with us wherever we may go. There is only one G-d and one truth, says the little scroll, whether in our private domain or in the big, wide world.
One of the many works by the well-known, prize-winning author Herman Wouk is an autobiographical novel called Inside, Outside, in which he portrays his own inner struggles between these two worlds. His pious Talmudist grandfather had a profound influence on him, but so did Broadway and Hollywood. It took him a long time to find his way and settle into an observant Jewish lifestyle while still writing bestsellers. He was a remarkable exemplar of how one can reconcile the contradictions of contemporary Jewish life.
Being Jewish “inside” is relatively easy. It’s when we hit the “outside” that we encounter tension and turmoil. The challenge we all face is to remain proudly Jewish even in the face of conflicting cultures, curious looks, and sometimes, plainly hostile attitudes.
In the German-Jewish community of old, there was a slogan that has been long since discredited: “Be a Jew in your home and a human being outside.” It meant: Don’t look “too Jewish” outside. Keep your Jewish observances out of the public eye. It was discredited because the Nazis did not distinguish between Jews who looked Jewish and those who had removed any visible identifying marks. How utterly devastated and distraught were those Jews who were proud Germans, many of whom served in the Kaiser’s army, when they were rounded up and deemed subhuman. Their whole persona unraveled in an instant.
Today, traditional dress reflecting a national character is common, accepted and respected—from Scottish kilts to Arab keffiyehs. The outlandish hairstyles of sportsmen and celebrities are not only accepted but mimicked mindlessly by millions of wannabes. Is it too much to expect a Jew to assert his Jewishness in unfamiliar corporate territory or to keep the kippah on his head even when he walks out of shul?
Moses rejected Korach’s argument with good reason. The mezuzah does not replace the need for Jewish libraries, but it serves as a perennial reminder on our doorways. As we step out of our homes to enter the outside world, it beckons us to take our G‑d, our Torah, our values and our traditions along with us.
Rabbi Yossy Goldman is Life Rabbi Emeritus of Sydenham Shul in Johannesburg and president of the South African Rabbinical Association.