Rabbi René Pfertzel, 28 June 2019
Korah, whose name was given to this weekly portion – a fact so rare that it’s worth mentioning – doesn’t have a good name in the Jewish tradition. He gathered 250 men and challenged Moses and Aaron’s authority, saying, “You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Eternal is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Eternal’s congregation?” (Num. 16:3). The Etz Hayim commentary describes him as “the arch-demagogue” in Jewish lore (860). Many commentators justify his punishment and object to any sort of dissent or rebellion. God’s response is swift and terrifying: “The earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up with their households, all Korah’s people and all their possessions. They went down alive into She’ol, with all that belonged to them; the earth closed over them and they vanished from the midst of the congregation” (16:32–33). Nothing of the rebellion remains.
And yet, Judaism has a tradition of dissent. The prophets of Israel challenged the people of their time and their leaders; Rabbis in the Talmud disagree and dissent. Modern Rabbis have often challenged the accepted status quo to fight against prejudice and injustice, and our movement has a strong social justice ethos.
I suppose the difference comes from the intention of the rebellion. There are dissenters whose goal is to create a fairer society, to advocate for minorities, and to expand the rights of the disempowered and disenfranchised. That is, according to the Pirkei Avot, a mahloket le’shem shamayim, a constructive disagreement for the sake of heaven’s name (5:17). Our Sages give the example of Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai who kept arguing about the best ways to serve God and humanity. But there is a mahloket that is not for the sake of heaven’s name, the argument of Korah and his congregation: they were self-aggrandizing trouble makers interested only in disrupting society for selfish goals.
For many centuries, we have read the story of Korah as the latter, but what are their real motives? According to Ibn Ezra, when they say, “You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Eternal is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Eternal’s congregation?” (Num. 16:3), Korah and his followers were contesting the fact that the election of the Levites as the only ones allowed to minister in the Tabernacle (Numbers 3) creates a group, almost a cast, that has exclusive rights over the others.
I like to read Korah as a hero who fought for the disempowered, against those who pretend to hold onto power, as someone who dares to challenge the status quo and allows things to change. Many dissenters were criticized and slandered at first, and then later were considered as heroes who created the conditions for change. Maybe it is time now to see Korah as the voice of dissent ingrained in our tradition, the voice of the marginalized and disenfranchised, and the one who saves the Jewish name.
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