Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Korah 5766/ June 24, 2006

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible, gottlii@mail.biu.ac.il

 

 

Korah and Modern Values

 

 Dr. Ronen Ahituv

 

Jordan Valley College and Western Galilee College

 

This week’s reading describes a rebellion against the leadership of Moses and Aaron.   The rebels, led by Korah son of Izhar, the cousin of Moses and Aaron, were joined by many assorted interest groups, but all of them accepted Korah as leader, at least in the initial stage.   The uprising was put down by force, by divine intervention, and the rebels were put to death in a variety of ways, some being swallowed up by the earth, others being consumed by   fire, and yet others dying in a plague.

Champions of liberalism and freedom of thought are likely to feel discomfort upon reading this story.   The rebels being put to death gives the impression of suppression of free thought and presents a threat to those who express unconventional views.  Such a response is not considered legitimate in the Western world, which prefers to resolve political and moral disputes without shedding blood.   Indeed, at the end of this week’s reading, after Korah and his followers died, Moses adopts tactics of persuasion in the test of the staffs (Num. 17:16-24).   Yet even in this test, which did not involve people dying, there is an implicit threat – “so that their mutterings against Me may cease, lest they die.”  Thus when the people say, “Alas, we are doomed to perish!” (Num. 17:25-28), their fear for their survival is well-justified.

Korah’s primary, although not sole, claim is:    “You have gone too far!   For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst.  Why then do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation?” (Num. 16:3).  This argument is aimed at reducing the gap between the rights of the leadership and the rights of individuals, and at placing at least some of the authority of political and religious leadership in the hands of the public, amidst whom the Lord dwells, as it is written:  “that I may dwell among them” (Ex. 25:8).  This argument can be supported by citations from many verses of the Torah, and it is also in line with western liberal principles; however, this argument receives no answer with accompanying justifications in this week’s reading.   The wondrous signs may prove by show of force that the Lord did indeed choose Moses and Aaron, but that does not provide an answer to Korah’s reasonable request.

Many biblical commentators relate either directly or obliquely to the issues that we have raised.   Their responses can be categorized according to three strategic approaches taken by the commentators:

The First Approach

One approach rejects liberalism and maintains, on the basis of this week’s reading, that criticism of the leadership is indeed out of place.  In this approach a distinction is drawn between human government, where there might be room for discussion and dissent, and the Israelite theocracy, which is not to be criticized.  The following homily illustrates this approach (Numbers Rabbah 18.9):

Thus Moses said to them:  If my brother Aaron had seized the priesthood for himself, your complaints against him would have been well-put.  But since it was given him by the Holy One, blessed be He – to Whom belong greatness, might, and majesty – is not anyone who rises up against Aaron rising up against the Holy One, blessed be He?  Therefore it is written, “For who is Aaron that you should rail against him?”

Aaron and Moses rule as the representatives of the Holy One, blessed be He, on earth, and therefore they do not owe an accounting to any human being.    It suffices for them to prove that they were chosen, and that dismisses any argument against them.

This approach essentially signifies that in a world without miracles, where it is impossible to prove unequivocally and objectively who is the Lord’s emissary delegated to lead the public, there is room for challenging the leadership.  However, as Aaron proved his being chosen miraculously, there was no room to question his authority. Nevertheless, in later generations the argument of divine election re-emerged as justification for the authority of rulers, even if they did not always take the trouble to prove they had been divinely chosen.

The Second Approach

The second approach, most popular in the past few centuries, distinguishes between Korah’s words and his true motives.   This approach acknowledges Korah’s argument as being justified in principle, but expresses reservations about the character of the person advancing the arguments and claims that he was not speaking sincerely.  Some of the advocates of this approach describe Korah as power-hungry and not wishing to give rights to the broader public, rather wishing to rule the people high-handedly himself, and using righteous liberal rhetoric to cover his true intentions.  Others describe Korah as a wicked sinner, irrespective of the rebellion he led.   The flaw lay not in the argument, but in the person making it, and therefore the uprising was handled not by dealing with the argument itself, rather with the person of Korah.

An example of this approach is provided by the following homily (Numbers Rabbah 18.2):

Korah betook himself—what was it that made him divisive?  It was Elizaphan, son of his father’s brother, who became chieftain of the family – “The chieftain of the ancestral house of the Kohathite clans was Elizaphan son of Uzziel.”   Korah said:   My father was one of four brothers – “The sons of Kohath:  Amram, Izhar, Hebron and Uzziel.”   Amram was the oldest, and his son Aaron received greatness and Moses, kingship.  To whom did it befit to receive the second honor?   Not the second brother?   As it is written (Ex. 6:18), “the sons of Kohath:   Amram and Izhar”   I, the son of Izhar, ought to have been made chieftain of the clans, but he made the son of Uzziel chieftain!   Shall the younger of my father’s brothers be greater than me?  I shall challenge him and do away with all that he has done.   Therefore it says, “Korah betook.himself.”

In other words, the true motive for Korah’s dispute was lust for power and jealousy of Elizaphan son of Uzziel.

Finding Flaws

This ad hominem approach necessitates finding personal flaws not only in Korah himself, but also in all those who joined him.  Indeed, the claims of Dathan and Abiram, who wished to return to Egypt, indicate to us how evil they were, but the two hundred and fifty people who offered incense are described in the midrash simply as fools who were not careful with incense and assumed an unnecessary risk.  It is a burdensome responsibility to prove so many people wicked and thus justify their deaths, yet those who choose this line of interpretation have to do so.

This also opens the way for those who wield power in our times to justify their haughtiness, being deaf to the criticism of their opponents, and to exempt themselves from answering explicit claims against them, by arguing that their actions are being opposed on the grounds of who they are and not on the grounds of substantive examination of the issues, or that their critics, because of who they are, have no right   to their claims.

Substantively, this approach does not provide any answer to Korah’s justifiable claims.  The centralized structure of Moses and Aaron’s leadership is not presented as a correct and justifiable model, rather as a local and temporary solution for a situation in which there was no fitting alternative, since Korah was not fit to be ruler.  However, the day that a fitting and proper person might arise and repeat Korah’s arguments, only not with motives that are not germane, that day there would ostensibly be place to change the structure of the government and the leadership.

The third Approach

The third approach to resolving the difficulties we have raised involves a subversive reading of the parasha, and this is its primary weakness.  According to such a reading, Korah was justified in his claims, and they were essentially accepted, important sections of halakhah being set according to them.  Such an approach was brought up fifteen years ago by Aviah Ha-Cohen, [1] following Rabbi Tzadok Ha-Cohen of Lublin. [2]   These are its main points:

1)      In several rules of halakhah we find that the generality of the Jewish people are related to in terms that originally were reserved for priests alone.  For example, in the matter of forbidding shaving the head, it is written:   “Speak to the priests ... They shall not shave smooth any part of their heads ... or make gashes in their flesh” (Lev. 21:1-5), as against which it is written, “You are children of the Lord your G-d.  You shall not gash yourselves or shave the front of your heads because of the dead.   For you are a people consecrated to the Lord your G-d:  the Lord your G-d chose you from among all other peoples on earth to be His treasured people” (Deut. 14:1-2).  The commandments of the second tithe (Deut. 14:22-23), in which the owners eat the tithe, generally thought to be the portion given the levites and priests (see this week’s reading, Num. 18:24-28), provides another example of reducing the gap between the people and the priestly and levitical leadership. An especially notable comparison is the passage of tzitzit, presented immediately before the story of Korah (Num. 15:37-41), and the commandment to make a fringe of blue on the corner of one’s garment, resembling the cord of blue in the headdress which is part of the garb of the high priest (Ex. 28:36-37).  In both instances – the fringes and the cord – the garment involves sha’atnez – combining wool and flax; indeed, the Sages interpreted that one is permitted to make tzitzit using wool and flax in the same garment, just as the clothing of the priests had sha’atnez in it (Menahot 43a).   Thus the tzitzit is like a priestly garment but is worn by every Israelite.

2)      The Torah is not clear about Korah’s end; was he burned up with the two hundred and fifty Israelites who offered incense, for he was one of them, or was he swallowed up by the earth?  There are two views about this:  “Rabbi Johanan said:  Korah was neither among those swallowed up by the earth, nor among those who were burned up...  but in the baraita it says:  Korah was both among those burned up and among those swallowed up” (Sanhedrin 110a).   According to Rabbi Johanan’s view, Korah must have survived, not died.  In Deuteronomy (11:6) and in Psalms (106:16-18), the uprising against Moses and Aaron is described, but Korah’s name is not mentioned, only the names of Dathan and Abiram.  In light of this we can suggest another explanation for the instruction given to use the incense pans of those who were consumed by fire, “let them be made into hammered sheets as plating for the altar – for once they have been used for offering to the Lord, they have become sacred” (Num. 17:3).   All who enter the Temple are faced with a memorial to Korah and his followers, who consecrated themselves and died in sanctity.

A reading of the text that finds sanctity and positive sense in Korah’s arguments solves the difficulties which we raised at the beginning of our discussion and makes it possible to reconcile the biblical narrative with the values of justice and morality that we seek in our own time.



[1] Aviah Ha-Cohen, “Le-Shitat Korah,” Mishlav 14[Tevet 5750/1990], pp. 22-40.

[2] Pri Tzadik, first sermon on parashat Korah.