The hubris of Korach (Radical Torah repost)
Nava Tehila melody for psalm 27, verse 8

Korach: fruitful tension between paradigms (Radical Torah repost)

Here's the final post in a series of four back divrei Torah which should have been published in July! This was written in 2007 for the now-defunct blog Radical Torah.

This week, in parashat Korach, Korach dares to argue that all of the community is holy and therefore the Kohanim don't deserve a monopoly on their priestly role. In response, the earth opens up and swallows Korach and all of his followers. This is one of the most fascinating, powerful, and problematic stories in Torah. It draws me and repels me in nearly equal measure.

If you're looking for insightful commentary on Korach, allow me to recommend Rabbi Yehonatan Chipman's Korah and Determinism, which explores questions of predestination, awe of heaven, and free will by reading Korach through the lens of the Ishbitzer Rebbe. I brought that text to my weekly hevruta group, and after a close reading of Rabbi Chipman and the Ishbitzer, we wound up talking about how each of us sees the story of Korach, and how our understandings have changed over time.

I've long identified with Korach, who can be read as a proponent of democracy, of grassroots activism, of empowerment. The entire people is holy, he says; power shouldn't be consolidated in the hands of an élite; each of us should be able to draw near to God. We aspire to holy community, don't we? And what could be more holy than a community in which everyone takes responsibility for her or his own relationship with God? That's part of why I entered rabbinic school -- in order to learn how to empower people to fully inhabit their relationship with Jewish tradition and with God.

It's easy to read this story as a conflict between Korach -- the wild figure who finds holiness in all people and who insists people can relate to God on their own -- and Moses and Aaron, the staid and stodgy representatives of the status quo, promulgators of hierarchy and order. Given that dichotomy, I've always been more of a Korach type. (Except, of course, that Korach is ultimately swallowed up by the earth -- not exactly the kind of future I'm looking for.)

Funny thing, though. As I settle more firmly into rabbinic school, I'm starting to relate more to Aaron and to Moses. My inner Korach still calls out for an egalitarian commitment to the holiness of the whole community -- but now he's answered by the growing voice of my inner Moshe.

Look at this from Moses and Aaron's point of view. They're trying to lead a band of former slaves through the wilderness. The community is exhausted and freaked-out, overwhelmed by the challenges they face. And here comes this gadfly, arguing that power should be distributed rather than resting in the head honchos' hands. Suddenly the fragile structure cradling this community seems in danger of falling apart. How must Moses have felt -- to have descended from the spiritual heights of Sinai, and tumbled so quickly into this?

Maybe the people weren't ready to take responsibility for connecting with God on their own. (That's the implication of Rabbi Arthur Waskow's imaginative midrash From frozen Korach to flowering seed.) Maybe the brand of populism Korach espoused wasn't something that community could handle at that point in human development. (Or maybe he wasn't really talking about empowering everyone; maybe that's our contemporary take on his words, shaped by the high value our culture places on individualism and personal responsibility. Either way, it's possible Korach was agitating for something that just wasn't possible then.) Maybe Moses knew that, and Korach didn't. Korach was a dreamer; Moses was the guy actually responsible for keeping these people alive. I can imagine his frustration, even his fury, at Korach's blithe disregard for the status quo Moses was trying so hard to create.

So I identify with Korach, the holy rebel -- and also with Moses, this ragtag community's leader and primary pastoral caregiver. Of course, I also second-guess my attachment to each of these figures. Do I value Korach because I want justification for a dangerous kind of iconoclasm, and because I want Biblical role models for my own urges to subvert the dominant paradigm? Do I value Moses because I aspire to communal leadership -- and does that imply that I'm already being corrupted by the power of anticipated leadership, and am therefore in danger of betraying the communitarian impulses that led me to the rabbinate in the first place? This way of framing the story is distressingly binary, but these are the poles between which I oscillate.

After Korach and his followers are swallowed-up, a plague strikes the Israelite community. Moses quickly orders Aaron to make expiation offerings, and he stands between the dead and the living until the plague is checked. And then a peculiar thing arises: God tells Moses that the chieftain of each tribe should have a staff, inscribed with his name, and that those staffs should be left in the Tent of the Covenant. When this is duly done, Aaron's staff sprouts; it produces flowers, and bears almonds. This, the text tells us, indicates Aaron's rightful religious leadership.

The portion closes with a lengthy explanation of the responsibilities, and rights, of the kohanim -- the priestly class, the very religious order against whose hegemony Korach argued. It's certainly possible to read this as a narrative written by the powerful, explaining and cementing their position of power. But another reading is also possible.

Whether because he spoke out of ego, or because he proposed a new communal and religious structure for which the people weren't remotely ready -- Korach erred, and the earth swallowed him up. That's the plain meaning of this week's text, and it can't be elided. The resulting communal furor plagued the community, yielding grave casualties. What ended the plague was Moses and Aaron's willingness to step up and make expiation -- to smooth things over, to facilitate forgiveness for everyone. Only then did the staff, symbol of power-over, flower and bear fruit. Only when those in positions of leadership are able to rise above the conflicts of the community can leadership reach its fullest potential and flower-forth something remarkable and new.

I hope I always struggle with the tension between Moses and Korach, between responsible leadership and valuable subversion. Maybe it's the fertile tension between these two paradigms that has the capacity to change things; to bridge thesis and antithesis with synthesis; to move from barren deadness to something that can really bear fruit.