In last week’s parsha, mutiny was in the air. “You have gone too far!”, calls out Korach, the leader of the rebellion:
“For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst. Why do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation?” (Numbers 16:3)
Korach questions the nepotism of Moshe’s appointments: Moshe, Aharon, Aharon’s kids and Miriam were all raised to positions of prominence. He questions the validity of certain mitzvot, and asks why members of other tribes cannot ascend to leadership positions as well.
For the Rabbis, Korach becomes the personification of manipulative demagoguery, personal greed, vicious envy, arrogance, and rebelliousness.
It is easy to label Korach as evil and dismiss his claims, for God defends Moshe and kills Korach, but let’s examine his arguments. At Sinai, God proclaimed, “You shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” (Ex 19:5-6) Korach asked: If we are all a kingdom of priests, what is the special prerogative of one who proclaims himself as the “spiritual leader”?
With regards to the building of the Mishkan/Tabernacle, God announced, “Let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.” (Ex 25:8) Korach wondered: If God already dwells among the people, who needs intermediaries and functionaries to reach God?
In Leviticus, God commanded: “You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy.” (Lev 19:2). Korach points out: Holiness, the quality we share with God, is within our reach. It’s not a goal for just an elite, select few, rather holiness is within us all. Shouldn’t this be the goal of us all? And shouldn’t those who do achieve it be rewarded?
Korach is a rebel, and his disobedience and questioning of authority resulted in his infamous demise. Yet a living community has questions and sees the need for change and progress. A living community of conscience and spirit needs a Korach.
Two weeks ago, a rabbi of great vision, Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie of LabShul, broke ties with the (Conservative) Rabbinic Assembly in order to be able to perform intermarriages and serve the needs of the majority of the Jewish people. The senior rabbi at Bnei Jeshurun in Manhattan, Rabbi Rolando Matalon, also followed his lead this week.
In the Orthodox world, over a decade ago, Rabbi Avi Weiss started a movement called “Open Orthodoxy”: open minded rabbis willing to do interfaith and interdenominational work within the Jewish community. He also established a seminary to ordain women Orthodox rabbis, even though he faced ostracism from his right-wing colleagues.
Two weeks ago at Mechon Hadar, an egalitarian yeshiva, two rabbis published a book written to appeal to Orthodox scholarship. It basically reiterates the same ideas expressed by the Conservative movement forty years ago on gender equality. Perhaps they feel that the time has come that these ideas will be accepted by a broader spectrum of Jews.
400 years ago, Baruch Spinoza questioned the authorship and modern relevance of the Torah. Like Korach, he was excommunicated for his heresy. Two hundred years later, his ideas were heartily embraced by Jewish and secular Biblical scholars.
The famed Kabbalist, Rabbi Yitzchak Luria, noted something unusual in a verse in Psalms (92) praising the righteous:
צַדִּיק כַּתָּמָר יִפְרָח
“The Righteous shall flourish like a Palm tree…”, the ending letters of the three Hebrew words are Kuf, Raish, Chet, which spells Korach. Luria says that Korach’s arguments were correct, but his timing was off. The world wasn’t yet ready for his ideas, and therefore, they were considered heretical in their time.
Eventually, things would evolve to Korach’s intentions. The caste system in Judaism is no more, and all Jews, even women, now have equal opportunity for leadership.
The Parsha of Korach taught rebels to hold their tongue, and not to question authority. Luckily, nowadays, we don’t kill our Korachs; if anything, perhaps we should open our ears and hear what they have to say.