The hubris of Korach (Radical Torah repost)
September 16, 2009
Here's the third in a series of four out-of-season divrei Torah, originally written in 2006 and published at the now-defunct Radical Torah. (I should have posted this in July, but I was on the road and forgot!)
This week's Torah portion is a doozy (surely that's the technical term) -- parashat Korach. Korach, whose challenge to Moses' authority resulted in the earth opening to swallow him and his followers. In the whole Torah only five portions are named after people, and this is one of them.
For many contemporary Jews, this is not a comfortable story. It's uncomfortable because it seems to suggest that a behavior with which we are intimately familiar -- criticizing religious authority, and agitating for the increased ability to participate fully in shaping religious life -- is abhorrent to God. Of course, that's a simplistic reading, and it's far from the only message we can derive from this tale.
In Who has the authority to change Judaism?, Rabbi Richard Hirsch notes:
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?
I like Rabbi Hirsch's wry nod to the major denominations (naturally I'd add "renewing" to his list, myself.) And I agree with him that Korach's challenge can prove useful in our process of individual and communal soul-searching, egardless of where we each of us falls on the denominational spectrum.
Rabbi Lawrence Milder takes a different tack in his d'var Torah, asking:
Just where are they going, these rebels whom the earth swallows up?
You might think that Sheol means hell. After all, it's down there. It would appear that the shortest way to get to Sheol is just to fall in if the earth opens up. So most people assume that it must be the same as hell. And we all know what it’s like down there.
The only trouble with that explanation is that it is an anachronism. When the Torah was written, there was no idea of hell, at least not among the Jews....
I like Rabbi Milder's point that our unconscious assumptions implicitly revise the story, showing it through the lens of a philosophy about life and death which developed well after this text was written.
But this week, the most useful thing I've read has been the work of Nehama Leibowitz (z"l) in her Studies on Bamidbar. She writes:
Note that they do not say: "All the congregation is holy" -- as a unit -- but: "All the congregation are holy, every one of them" -- each one taken individually. The assertion of individual, selfish ambitions outweighs their group feeling as a "kingdom of priests and holy nation." They interpreted the mission of holiness, the role of "chosen people" with which they had been charged by God, in the sense of conferring upon them superiority and privilege, rather than as constituting a call to shoulder extra duties and repsonsibilities.
For Leibowitz, the error of Korach and his followers was falling prey to the hubris of believing that their individual holiness trumped the holiness of the collective. That each of them, alone, was special enough to outweigh the needs and aspirations of the community. As tantalizing as that notion might be to us today, grounded as we are in a culture that prizes individualism, it's arguably a profoundly un-Jewish point of view.
There's a fabulous story in Talmud, tractate Bava Metzia, about a disagreement between several sages. Rabbi Eliezer, seeking backup for his point of view, proclaims that if he is right a carob tree will uproot itself -- and it does. But the other sages argue that we do not build legal arguments on carob trees. So he proclaims that if he is right, a given stream will flow backwards -- and it does. But the other sages note that water currents are not proof of halakhic legitimacy! The contest of opinions continues until a voice from heaven proclaims R' Eliezer's rightness...and the rabbis still refuse to agree with him, because "the Torah is not in heaven" -- because Torah belongs to the community, and even if God wrote it, once God gave it to us it became ours to interpret as best we can.
In the end, because his ego gets so in the way of his community relationships, R' Eliezer is excommunicated. Like the story in Bava Metzia, Parashat Korach shows us a headstrong Israelite who pays an extreme price for placing his own opinion above the good of the community. Korach is guilty of the misdeed of excessive ego. Any one of us may be charismatic, well-intentioned, even wise -- but if we fall into the trap of believing our personal excellence qualifies us to act unilaterally, we risk losing connection with the community which roots us...in which case maybe we shouldn't be surprised if those roots fail to sustain.