Numbers 16:1 to 18:32
Korach states that “all the community are holy” and that leadership and decisions should be open to all. As a result of Korach’s actions he was punished by God. However, today these statements may be the direction of Jewish thought.
And the kvetching continues … It almost seems as if the national pastime of the Israelites led by Moses is complaining.
In this week’s parsha, Korach son of Levi rises up against Moses together with two hundred and fifty prominent Israelites and tells Moses, “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)
Korach may have reasoned that Moses was appointed leader because of his lineage …. Moses was the son of Abram, eldest son of Levi. Korach was the eldest son of Izhar, also a son of Levi. Because Izhar next in line after Abram – And as the eldest son of Izhar – Korach reasoned that he should be granted the position of High Priest because of his lineage … instead of Aaron.
Nahama Leibowitz (Noted 20th Century Bible Scholar, Professor at Hebrew University of Jerusalem) sites the Pirke Avot which states that “there are two kinds of disputes: one that is pursued for a ‘heavenly’ or good cause and one that is pursued for selfish reasons. As an example of the first, rabbis cite Hillel and Shammai, which were always over matters of ethical or ritual principle. On the other hand, the chief example of ‘selfish’ and unworthy controversy is that of Korach and his followers.”
“Leibowitz writes that Korach and his followers ‘ were simply a band of malcontents, each harboring [individual] personal grievances against authority, animated by individual pride and ambition, united to overthrow Moses and Aaron, hoping thereby to attain there individual desires…. They deserve punishment, argues Leibowitz, because all their motives were self-serving, meant to splinter and divide the Jewish people,” (N. Leibowitz, Studies in Bamidbar/Numbers, p. 182-5)
Also by challenging Moses and Aaron, Korach is challenging the Eternal because both were placed in their positions by God. Thus, Korach is also challenging the decisions of the Eternal.
But if we look at the argument of Korach with a 21st century viewpoint, we might come to a different conclusion. For a contemporary perspective, here are the thoughts of Rabbi Richard Hirsh as expressed on the Jewish Reconstructionist website.
“Raised in democracy, trained to believe that all are entitled to vote, American Jews often resonate to the words of Korach, notwithstanding the fact that they may have no idea who he is. Translated into contemporary terms, Korach’s challenge implicitly asks: what is the role of the community in formulating (or, to be more precise, “reforming”, “reconstructing”, or “conserving”) the Judaism of our time?”
“Put differently, to what degree is the authority to interpret and adjust Judaism to be reserved for rabbis trained in and conversant with the Jewish legal tradition (the “Halakha”, or Jewish law), and to what degree is that authority to be shared with reasonably informed and involved Jewish laypeople?”
“Orthodoxy, asserting the divine origin and binding nature of Torah and Halakha, reserves the right for rabbis only. Conservative Judaism affirms the binding nature of Halakha, while believing in the right of rabbis to make changes within the Halakhic system. The input of laypeople, however, is considered important in determining which changes the community is prepared to accept, or needs to have enacted on its behalf.”
“Reform Judaism, which in fact traces its origins to the modernizing actions first of laypeople and later on of rabbis in several congregations in Germany in the 19th century, has always allowed a voice from the community to inform its policies and platforms.”
“Reconstructionist Judaism has perhaps most enthusiastically embraced the idea of a lay-rabbinic partnership in formulating a modern interpretation of Judaism, with its recent liturgy, platforms, and policies being the result of such collaboration.”
“Inherent in the tradition’s abhorrence of the rebellion of Korach was the concern that, once empowered, the community as a whole ran the risk of distorting, even destroying, Jewish law and Jewish tradition. Rabbi Riskin gives this perhaps exaggerated example: ‘If tomorrow, five million American Jews would vote that circumcision by a mohel is no longer necessary…would that vote change the law?’”
“The legitimate concern raised by those who resist the participation by laypeople in the formulation of Judaism is that a majority, acting out of ignorance, expediency, or antagonism, might well overturn sacred foundations of Judaism.”
“The legitimate concern raised by laypeople who resist the privatization of Judaism in the hands of rabbis is that such a model proceeds from assumptions no longer shared — i.e., divine revelation — and is in opposition to the way in which they have been raised to participate in the larger society — i.e., by being informed, involved, and, as it were, ‘voting’”…..
“There is a sharp and important difference between a reform from within the system and an attack upon the system. Some contemporary Jews often angrily confront rabbinic tradition and contemptuously challenge rabbinic authority. Other Jews thoughtfully and respectfully approach Jewish tradition with an eye both to reshaping it and maintaining its essential integrity, seeking a partnership with rabbis rather than their displacement.”
“Writing in the early part of the twentieth century, Rabbi Solomon Schechter argued that will of Klal Yisrael, the Jewish people in their entirety, needed to be taken into account by rabbis in the reformulation of Jewish law.”
“Rabbi Robert Gordis, writing but a few decades later in the middle of the twentieth century, saw the necessity of redefining Schechter’s formula, suggesting that only the opinions of those Jews who were educated, observant, and involved should be considered. Knowledge and commitment are appropriate criteria by which those who seek to participate in the reformulation of Jewish life should be admitted to the discussion.”
The rebellion of Korach was dispatched by a display of supernatural pyrotechnics; the challenge he articulated is not so easily dismissed today. The crisis of Jewish continuity is the responsibility of all concerned Jews, rabbis as well as laypeople. Notwithstanding our differences, the story of Korach teaches us that for our discussions to be productive, we must strive for them to be “for the sake of Heaven”.(Rabbi Richard Hirsh writing on the Jewish Reconstructionist website, http://www.jewishrecon.org/resource/who-has-authority-change-judaism )