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Was the biblical rebel Korach making "good trouble"?
We’re having in-person services again at our synagogue, but our rabbi (who will be retiring in a few weeks) is still running the Zoom-based services. So congregants have volunteered to do the weekly drash, or sermon (that’s not a perfect translation, but ‘twill serve). This week I’m up, and the parshah is Korach. And I have learned, to my considerable surprise, that there’s a whole strain in contemporary Jewish discourse that treats Korach as a democratic hero. Which to me is . . . puzzling. Korach is traditionally understood to be a manipulative demagogue out for his own power. Why would anyone want to claim him as a liberal, democratic or left-wing hero, instead of using him as a guide for the difference between a democrat and a demagogue?
For those who are unfamiliar with the story, Korach is a key leader of a band of rebels against Moses’s and Aaron’s authority who rise up in the immediate wake of the incident with the spies. (For those who are unfamiliar with that story: Moses sends a bunch of spies into Canaan to report on the land; they report that the land is rich and fertile but that the peoples living there are far too powerful to conquer, with only Joshua and Caleb dissenting and trusting in God’s ability to deliver; God gets furious and threatens to destroy the people before repenting; Moses castigates the people for their lack of faith and says that none of them will live to enter the Promised Land; the people repent and say they’re ready now to enter and conquer the land, but Moses warns them that God is not with them, and they are defeated.) Korach and his allies and followers complain that Moses and Aaron have elevated themselves above the people, all of whom are holy, and they criticize Moses for bringing the people out of Egypt, which they describe as a land flowing with milk and honey (language normally used to describe the Promised Land). In response, Moses calls for a contest between himself and the rebels for divine favor, and promises that the earth will swallow the rebels whole, proving he is the true prophet, which duly happens.
Now, I’m not going to argue that it’s wrong to reassess characters that the narrative calls villains. That’s not only something worthwhile, it’s even an activity with a place within traditional exegesis. My question is: why would anyone stand up for Korach as a proto-democrat or an egalitarian? Korach is, quite plainly in the text, the head of a rival faction of elites challenging Moses and Aaron for leadership — “princes of the congregation, the elect men of the assembly, men of renown.” (Numbers 16:2) He is from the tribe of Levi and demanding the privileges of the priesthood; his allies are from the tribe of Reuben, descended from Jacob’s firstborn, and are claiming privileges associated with their tribe’s seniority. Moreover, the rebels’ main explicit complaints revolve around excessive taxation, against which Moses defends himself by saying “I have not taken one ass from them, neither have I harmed any one of them.” (Numbers 16:15). If you want to argue for the democratization of prophecy, you’d do better to valorize Eldad and Medad, ordinary people who fell into a prophetic trance in the camp. But when Joshua suggested that they should be shut in, Moses replied: “Art thou jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would put His spirit upon them!” (Numbers 11:29).
If you want to valorize Korach, feel free to argue that he is not, in fact, a self-serving demagogue, but a sincere advocate of some kind of agenda. But what is that agenda? What’s interesting is that, if you dig down into the traditional understanding of what Korach was up to—which, in the typical manner of rabbinic exegesis, finds gaps or problems in the text so as to open up space to create additional narrative—you’ll find a pattern that, I think, illuminates a question that might be troubling for contemporary would-be good-trouble-makers.
The first words of the parshah, וַיִּקַּח קֹרַח, mean, “and Korach took.” But what did Korach take? There’s no object to the transitive verb in the sentence, and it’s usually translated as “betook himself” or, alternatively, “took men,” implying not very grammatically that the object of the verb is the princes mentioned in the following verse. But the last five versus of the previous parshah are about the mitzvah of tzitzit, fringes that are supposed to be attached to a four-cornered garment and worn as a constant reminder of one’s overall obligations to God. So a midrash interprets the beginning of this parshah by saying: what did Korach take? He took the tzitzit, the fringes that were being discussed in the previous five verses. And then he asks a question. A thread of the tzitzit are supposed to be dyed with t’chelet, a precious blue or indigo dye. So Korach asks: if a man’s four-cornered garment is dyed all over with t’chelet, does he still need to attach fringes with a single dyed thread for it to fulfill the mitzvah? Moses answers that yes, he does. And Korach mocks answer, saying: why should a single thread fulfill the mitzvah but an entire garment does not?
Korach then asks a further question. Another mitzvah is to affix a mezuzah to the doorposts and gates of one’s dwelling. What’s a mezuzah? It’s a document containing verses from Deuteronomy that specify that “these words” should be written on your doorposts and on your gates. There’s obviously a larger metaphoric meaning in play, but just as a with the mitzvah of tefillin, the mitzvah takes the words literally and thereby embeds the metaphorical meaning in ritual practice rather than just in text. (Whether this “works” or not is another story, but that’s how it’s supposed to work.) So, Korach asks, if a house contains many Torah scrolls, does the owner still have to affix a mezuzah to his doorposts? Yes, Moses replies, he does. And again Korach mocks: why should a handful of verses fulfill the mitzvah but a whole collection of Torah scrolls (which, of course, include those verses) does not?
There’s a meaning to these exchanges beyond simply showing that Korach wasn’t just questioning Moses’s authority but also the law itself. What’s wrong with questioning the law, after all? It’s the nature of the objection that is important. Let’s take that indigo garment. T’chelet was a rare and precious dye. A man who could afford an entire garment dyed with it must be wealthy indeed. So what does it mean to say that he is exempt from the mitzvah of tzitzit? It is to say that his wealth exempts him. The point of dying the thread is to adorn the tzitzit with something precious, so that one is reminded of the preciousness of the mitzvot of which the tzitzit are a reminder. But for him a single thread is no big expense; he has a whole garment of t’chelet. For him the mitzvah has no meaning, and so, Korach suggests, he should be exempt. Now consider the house of many Torah scrolls. Someone with so many holy books must be very learned, and very devoted to religious study. Affixing the mezuzah to the doorpost is supposed to remind him of his obligations, but he is an expert in those obligations, as evidenced by the many Torah scrolls that he owns and reads. What does the mezuzah mean to him? Nothing, Korach suggests, and so he should also be exempt.
It’s not an obviously wrongheaded line of thinking. It’s Blake’s “One Law for the Lion & Ox is Oppression,” which is why I put Blake’s image of a grazing Nebuchadnezzar up top. But consider the social impact of those proposed exemptions. From the perspective of someone of modest means, seeing a man walk by in a splendid blue garment and no tzitzit would surely make him feel inferior. He can’t afford a splendid blue garment, so he needs to wear tzitzit. But the rich man is in a different class—and God apparently recognizes that. How else could that make him feel but inferior? So too with the learned man who lives next door. He does not put a mezuzah on his door because he has Torah scrolls inside. How should this make the less-learned neighbor feel? Quite plausibly, for him the mezuzah becomes a symbol of his own relative ignorance, and hence a badge of shame. What looks like an argument for equality—all the people are holy, so why should we all do as you command? let the mitzvot be available to all, and let those who find them meaningful follow them—winds up creating a world of profound social inequality and resentment.
The Korach story, then, can be read as revealing a tension between two kinds of equality: equality of right, and social equality. I would argue that the tension is to some degree inherent, and extremely relevant for liberals, who claim to value both. Liberals tend to center the meaning of an individual’s belief and practice in that individual’s experience; but they also value social equality, the sense that everyone has equal value and an equally legitimate say. It’s a commonplace of left-wing thinking in economic matters to say that liberalization leads to greater inequality, and a commonplace as well to say that extremes of economic inequality corrode social equality. But the same is likely true of other kinds of social liberalization and differentiation. Social conformity and social equality to a considerable degree go hand in hand. That doesn’t mean that social equality trumps social liberalization anymore than economic equality trumps economic liberalization. It just means that there is a tension between those goods, a balance that needs to be struck.
The deepest tension, therefore, is the dependence of social equality on some kind of robust authority that is, on its face, profoundly inegalitarian. And that’s where, I think, a liberal can use the text to more productively argue against those who would appeal to that authority to quell unrest in moments of crisis. What, after all, is the consequence of the earthquake that swallows Korach and his followers, and the fire that consumes the rebels who offered incense? The people are terrified, but not quiescent, and the next day they rise up en masse against Moses and Aaron, saying, “You have killed the people of the Lord!” (Numbers 17:6) This enrages God further, and a plague begins to ravage the people. Aaron then runs into the breach, offering atonement for the people from within their midst and, in the words of the text, “stood between the dead and the living.” (Numbers 17:13) After this, God performs another miracle to reaffirm Aaron’s authority, causing his rod to blossom while the rods of the other tribal leaders did not—implying that his authority is life-giving, and not destructive. But this miracle is no more efficacious than the destructive miracles, and the people continue to wail: “Behold, we perish, we are undone, we are all undone!” (Numbers 17:27)
When a miracle fails to convince, I can’t help but be reminded of the Talmudic story of the oven of akhnai. The story relates a rabbinic dispute about the ritual status of a particular kind of oven, whether it is pure or impure. Rabbi Eliezer took one view, and was outvoted even though he had comprehensively refuted all possible objections. So he called forth a series of miracles to attest to his rightness: a carob tree uprooted itself, a stream ran backward, the walls of the study hall fell in, and finally a voice from heaven declared that he was right. But the majority wouldn’t budge, citing scripture that “it [the Torah] is not in heaven” (Deuteronomy 30:12) and therefore they are not bound by a heavenly voice. The majority is sovereign.
That’s democracy, and the purpose of the story is to highlight the reason why democracy is a good system: not because it necessarily results in the most correct decisions, but because it means those decisions will be viewed as legitimate and binding on the community as a whole. What Moses faced, from Korach, was a crisis of legitimacy, and from that perspective it didn’t even matter what Korach was arguing for, nor whether he was a demagogue or a sincere reformer. His response—the resort to force—restored his power, but it failed to restore the legitimacy that could make his rulings accepted, and so provide a basis for social equality, and not merely obeyed, with rebellion continuing to simmer just below the surface.