My mother often asked me, “how might the uninformed layperson know which rabbi’s opinion is correct?” One rabbi rules that “ mixed gender seating at weddings is fine,” but others disagree. After hearing all sides, we remain beside ourselves. How might we measure who is correct? What can we cull from the Korach/Moses conflict?
There are actually three questions here:
- What can we learn from Korach’s challenge to Moses’ authority?
- What can we learn from Moses’ response?
- What might contemporary Orthodox Jews learn from the Korach narrative to examine which view is correct?
What can we learn from Korach’s challenge to Moses’ authority?
Korach challenges Moses’ person in order to undermine Moses’ authority. Sometimes Orthodox rabbis refer to non-Orthodox or contending Orthodox challengers to be “Korach” types.
Through Korach’s and Moses’ actual words, the Divine Narrator reveals the moral fiber that differentiates between the two. While Korach is politically clever, his egotistic motives are manifest in his words. Were Korach as morally anchored as he is politically driven, Korach’s challenge would be worded differently.
Now Korach son of Izhar son of Kohath son of Levi, along with Dathan and Abiram sons of Eliab, and On son of Peleth—descendants of Reuven—took two hundred and fifty Israelite men, leaders of the congregation, chosen from the assembly, well-known men,* and they gathered themselves over Moses. They assembled (themselves) over Moses and over Aaron, saying to them, ‘You have taken too much (for yourselves)! The entire congregation are holy, every one of them, and the LORD is among them. So why then do you lift yourselves over the LORD’S assembly?’ [Numbers 16:1-3]
For Korach, religion is the instrument that justifies acquiring and maintaining power. Rashi astutely observes that the verb “take,” usually transitive, here appears without an object. Our translation is smoothed for readability. In fact, Korach is a usurper, taking and imposing himself as the great priest who rules Israelite religion. Dathan’s and Aviram descend from Jacob’s first-born Reuven’s children, claiming the right to rule over the Israelite polity. They present themselves to be the leaders according to protocol. Talent, merit, or record go unmentioned because, for the usurper, they are not relevant.
Korach, Dathan, and Aviram usurp power by any means, however mean. They assemble and present themselves as an ‘edah, a sacred community, as if their intentions were pure. The Divine law given to Israel by Moses prescribes a social meritocracy that does not tolerate legal inequalities or privileged elites. Tellingly, the usurper leaders repeat the preposition ‘al,´ meaning “on” or “over,” thereby revealing their lust for hierarchical power to the attentive reader. Their accusatory question [a] flatters the gullible mob, [b] excludes Moses and Aaron from Israel [“the LORD is among them”], and [c] accuses Moses and Aaron of usurpation [“why do you raise yourselves over the LORD’s assembly?”
These opportunists cannot conceive of a God Who chose Moses rather than them. By portraying Moses and Aaron as usurpers, they unwittingly reveal their real ideology:
- There is no Judge and there is no judgment.
- The leader has the right to do what must be done to become and stay as leader.
- The leader is the Superman.
- Right is might.
- The law is the leader’s pleasure.
- Power is expressed hierarchically.
- Social inferiors are instruments are used at the leader’s pleasure.
What can we learn from Moses’ response?
In contrast, Moses kills an Egyptian taskmaster, intervenes when one Israelite assaults another, and defends female Midianite shepherds from male oppressors.
People who believe that God is real and just “place God before them always.” [Ps. 16:8] Moses is willing to die in order that his people live. [Exodus 32:32] Assuming that service is a commission for doing, Moses questions Korach, “is it beneath you that the God of Israel distinguished you to serve in the Lord’s sanctuary, standing before the Congregation to serve them?” [Numbers16:8-9]
Moses’ response teaches that:
- There is a Judge and is judgment.
- The ideal leader is moved by principle, not ego.
- The leader is a servant and not exploiter of the people.
- When challenged by evil, the authentic leader is a ferocious opponent.
- The leader is subject to and not above Torah law.
What might contemporary Orthodox Jews learn from the Korach narrative to examine which view is correct?
- Real religion is not social religion. Ultimate concerns trump social standing. What really motivates us: doing good or looking good?
- God requires commandment compliance, not mere virtuoso gestures that indicate status.
- There is an Orthodoxy encoded in Torah books by which claims and claimants to Orthodoxy are assessed.
- Korach and Moses embody two images of Torah. One sees office as an instrument of power and the other views office as the means to do good. For Korach, leadership is an entitlement, for Moses it is a mission. For Korach, religious language is a political tool, for Moses, it is a sacred and sanctifying medium. Korach’s god is founding the narcissistic mirror; the most modest Moses’ God is revealed in the Torah book.
Rav Alan Yuter, a member of Beit Hillel, is currently teaching at Torat Reva Yerushalayim, and CJCUC, Ohr Torah Stone, Efrat, Israel. He is Rabbi Emeritus from B’nai Israel, Downtown Orthodox synagogue of Baltimore, MD, USA, and taught at University of Maryland and Anne Arundel Community College. He received Semicha from Yeshiva University, Rabbanut ha-Rashit, and Rav David Halivni, Dayyanut. Rav Yuter also has a PhD from New York University in Hebrew Literature
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