by Professor Marty Lockshin
The dramatic story of Korach’s insurrection and its aftermath takes up much of this week’s Torah portion. A simple reading of the text leads to the cynical conclusion that the band of rebels was led by people on the periphery of power who wanted power to be in their own hands. (Historians suggest that rebellions are generally started by those close to power, rarely by the powerless and downtrodden.) Korach was from the tribe of Levi, the chosen tribe, but he was not from the inner circle of powerful Levites. He banded together with Datan, Aviram and On, three members of the tribe of Reuben (Numbers 16:1), the tribe that was descended from our forefather Jacob’s oldest son. In the ancient world it would generally have been expected that power would be in the hands of the eldest son’s branch of the clan. So the disappointment and disaffection of Datan, Aviram and On is not surprising.
But the rebels’ own stated claims, as reported by the Torah, were not that they wanted to rule. They offered a more sophisticated challenge to the leadership of Moses and Aaron: “You have gone too far! For all of the community, all of them, are holy, and the LORD is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the LORD’s congregation?” (Numbers 16:3)
The democratic nature of the rebels’ argument certainly appeals to us in the 21st century. Why indeed do we need a hierarchical leadership structure if the Jewish people are all “holy” and if God is among us?
The problem with the approach of Korach and his rebellious band might be better understood as theological, not political. Their understanding is that Jews are holy—that Jews have arrived at whatever spiritual level they are supposed to arrive at. But the message of the Torah is that Jews were commanded: “Be holy” (e.g. Leviticus 19:1). Holiness is a challenge that was presented to us, not a gift that was bestowed on us.
The Jewish philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz (1903-1994) argued that since the days of Korach there have been two competing views of Jewish uniqueness. The one that he says Jews ought to follow is Moses’ view, not Korach’s. It teaches:
The uniqueness of the Jewish people is not a fact; it is an endeavor. The holiness of Israel is not a reality but a task. “Holy” is an attribute that applies exclusively to God. It is therefore inapplicable to anything in the natural or historical domain. He who does so apply it . . . exalts something natural or human to the level of the divine.
Moses in fact is introduced to us by the Torah as the person who intervenes and tries to right whatever wrongs he can, who sticks up for the oppressed whether it’s a Hebrew slave being beaten by an Egyptian (Exodus 2:11-12) or Midianite women being harassed by Midianite men (Exodus 2:17).
Jews who wish to follow Moses should see themselves as trying to bring holiness into the world through religious actions, acts of kindness, and working towards perfecting this very imperfect world of ours. The danger involved in understanding our people as already perfected and holy should be obvious. It leads to self-satisfaction and an inward-looking attitude that is inconsistent with the message of Moses’ Torah. Leibowitz would have said that it is a form of idolatry, as it elevates something very human—the Jewish people—to the level of holiness reserved for God.