The Price of Redemption: Crafting a Moving Ritual (Parashat Korach)

For the second time in my life, I witnessed a baby being redeemed from a life of service in the priesthood at the Temple in Jerusalem. The first, I was that baby. At this, my second Pidyon haBen, Raffi Shane Wolfe, the grandson of our WUPJ Chair Carole Sterling, was redeemed.

As a staunch Liberal Jew, it was an incongruous experience to see an abandoned ancient rite in the heart of my Progressive synagogue.

The Pidyon haBen ceremony – the redemption of the First Born – was cast aside by our movement, along with other relics of the Priestly system that privilege members of our sacred community by dint of yichus – birth – rather than by learning or merit.

And yet, there I was, on a Sunday morning three weeks after Raffi’s Brit Milah, watching our teacher, my senior rabbi, Rabbi Yael Splansky, artfully bring together different camps within our people – the groom’s traditions and the bride’s – into a ceremony where one community expressed its hopes for Raffi’s future.

Our Parasha, Korach, is all about the intersection between the inherited priesthood and the divisions it has caused within our people.

Korach, for whom the Parasha is named, represents the camp of those who think that Jews are Holy just because we are Jewish. He looks at God’s teaching that we are a “Kingdom of Priests – a Holy People” as fait accompli and not, as the rabbinic interpretation understands it, a designation we must strive for.

God, through the words k’doshim t’hiyu, and through God’s subsequent actions with Korach, makes it clear that this isn’t correct. However, our Torah portion does clearly emphasise the supremacy of the line of Aaron both through the institution of this rite – the redemption of the first born – and through the holy blossoming of his staff.

Our Reform predecessors reinterpreted the role of the priest as a role for all Jews to aspire to. Read in Kaufmann Kohler’s teaching on the blossoming staff that the word priest means Jew:

So is the priesthood everywhere the first and foremost in unfolding the blossoms and the fruitage of the spirit. The priest is the heaven-chosen pioneer of religion. He is not a monopoly of divine knowledge and holiness. All are called upon to seek and know God and lead a life of purity and holiness, but the priest is the chosen keeper and watchman of the sanctuary. His lips are to guard knowledge, and instruction is sought at his mouth, for he is a messenger of the [God] of hosts. While the rest of [humanity is] bent upon increasing the material wealth of the nation with a view to their own profit the priest has the higher vocation to enrich the souls and win them with faith, courage and hope amidst life’s perplexities. He is to kindle all hearts with love of God and duty, and lift them into the realm of purer thought and loftier aspirations (A Living Faith: Selected Sermons and Addresses From the Literary Remains of Dr. Kaufmann Kohler. Ed.Samuel S. Cohon. Hebrew Union College Press. New York, 1948. p.147.)

While it is unlikely that the editors of the new CCAR Rabbi’s Manual’s Kiddush Peter Rechem ceremony knew of Rabbi Kaufmann Kohler’s words on this topic, they perpetuate this Reform concept that all of us are meant to serve as emissaries of God:

This is our firstborn {son/daughter},
the first issue of the mother’s womb.
In consecrating {his/her} birth,
we make a gift of tzedakah.
As it is written:
“Sanctify unto Me every firstborn,
the first issues of every womb
among the Children of Israel.” (Exodus 13:2)
May this act of justice serve as a symbol
of our family’s commitment to Torah,
to the Jewish people,
and to the values of dignity and peace… (L’chol Z’man V’eit For Sacred Moments:The CCAR Life Cycle Guide. Ed. Donald Goor. Central Conference of American Rabbis. New York, 2015. p.41)

While I still question the need for this ceremony – a celebration of the firstborn, linked to the priesthood – I know that there are others who find this an immutable part of their Judaism.

For Raffi Shane Wolfe’s Pidyon haBen, I celebrate that we were able to come together as one community. This reminds me of the end of the Parasha, when Aaron is afraid to walk amongst the Levites after their friends and family were killed following the Korach affair. God commands Aaron, “You shall also associate yourself with your kinsmen the tribe of Levi” (Numbers 18:2), an instruction our commentator Abarbanel feels was given to create unity amongst the People of Israel.

At the Pidyon haBen ceremony that took place at Holy Blossom Temple, different camps within the Jewish people came together, dedicated to the Jewish future. The ceremony was traditional – with silver Israeli shekels held over the Raffi’s head – yet also very progressive – with a gift of tzedakah given to Austin and Nani Beutel, selected not because of their birth, but because their good deeds have earned them a place in the communal leadership of our people. Different camps among our people came together for this moment.

And instead of saying that any of these camps have THE interpretation, as Korach did, everyone came together to celebrate – with the birth of a new child – the ever evolving future of our people.


About Rabbi Jordan Helfman:
Rabbi Jordan Helfman is the assistant rabbi at Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto, Ontario, Canada and a member of the World Union for Progressive Judaism (WUPJ) Executive Board. He is a former youth worker for Liberal Judaism in the United Kingdom, and enjoys visiting our WUPJ congregations when he can with his wife and three children.


Twitter: @helfmanj

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