Parashat Korah 5779

Korah: Idealist or Demagogue?
A D’var Torah for Parashat Korah
By Rabbi Len Levin

Korah’s words resonate with modern egalitarian sympathies: “For the congregation are all holy, and Adonai is among them; and why do you exalt yourselves over the congregation of Adonai?” (Numbers 16:3). In a previous Dvar Torah (AJR archive 2014) I explored the challenge that this presents for Jews faithful to the Torah narrative. If we are sincere in our commitment to egalitarian principles, we must at least examine if Korah’s arguments have merit.

The biblical narrative does not look on Korah’s protest kindly. In that narrative, Korah’s rebellion against Moses’s authority is punished by his being swallowed up by the earth, together with all his followers and their property. If such punishment was deserved, then Korah’s arguments must have been insincere, crafted with the sole purpose of serving his personal ambition—a classic ploy of demagogues from time immemorial.

For the most part, the rabbinic commentary on this story follows this standard biblical line. But every now and then, we are led to wonder: was there perhaps some real substance in Korah’s position? Are his arguments worth serious consideration?

The Talmud narrates that on the advice of his wife, Korah questioned the rule of tzitzit, that the Israelites should place fringes on their garments, with each fringe containing a thread of blue. What if one wore a garment entirely of blue—would it require a blue thread? (BT Sanhedrin.110a)

The medieval commentator Bahya ben Asher pointed out a parallel between this argument and the biblical argument “for all the congregation is holy.” Each is an argument from egalitarian principles. If the entire congregation of Israel is holy, what need is there of a hereditary priestly class that stands above the congregation? If an entire garment is blue, what need is there of a single blue thread that uniquely fulfills God’s command? (Rabbenu Bahya on Numbers 16:1)

The midrashic literature goes even further. The Midrash on Psalms (1:13;see Bialik-Ravnitzky, Book of Legends, pp. 91-92, § 94) relates that Korah protested against the extensive taxation of the people by the system of priestly dues. Korah told of a widow who owned a field, but who was impoverished by the successive obligations of gleanings, corner, heave offering, first and second tithes.[1] She sold the field and bought some sheep, but was again confronted with the demands of contributing the first-born offspring and first shearings. She slaughtered the sheep but then had to contribute the shoulder and other choice parts. In the end she was rendered destitute, having been fleeced by the priestly class at every step. Even though the midrash contextualizes this by calling it an example of Korah’s “mockery,” one wonders if the author of this tale was himself implicitly criticizing the unjust privileges of the priests under biblical law. Similar arguments led the revolutionaries in France in 1789 to repeal the longstanding laws privileging church property.

Even though these arguments are rejected by the tradition, they cannot be dismissed as entirely frivolous. If their proponent were someone other than Korah, the rabbis might even have honored them with a substantive refutation.

The official rabbinic argument against Korah is an argument ad hominem. The standard narrative contrasts Korah’s ambitious, envious character with Moses’s humility. The ideal leader does not pursue power but flees it, accepting the duties of leadership reluctantly when there is no alternative. But these are the perceptions of the biblical narrator, whose loyalties are with Moses. A narrative from the standpoint of Korah’s followers might have reversed these judgments.

Another argument could be advanced from the nature of human society, requiring a leadership cadre. On a charitable reading of Korah’s argument, he sounds like a philosophical anarchist: all the people are holy, with God in their midst, so why should one man exalt himself as leader over the people? Experience shows this does not work in practice. People are a mixture of good and evil, so they require rules and structure, including a leadership group to enforce the rules when transgressions occur. There is credibility in Moses’s counter-argument: you, Korah, may be preaching for a leaderless society, but in reality you want to be the leader. The demagogue lurks in the anarchist’s arguments.

The tradition’s final verdict on Korah is predominantly negative, but it leaves room for redemption. Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Eliezer disagree on Korah’s ultimate fate. According to Rabbi Akiva, Korah and his followers will not arise from the pit even in the end of days. But Rabbi Eliezer applies to them the verse: “The Lord confers death and life; He sends down to Sheol but brings back up,” implying that Korah will be resurrected at the end of days (Mishnah Sanhedrin 10:3: I Samuel 2:6).

Finally, Korah leaves a legacy, at least symbolically, in the “sons of Korah,” who are mentioned in the titles of thirteen psalms (see Psalms 42–49, 84–88). Modern scholars point out that a choir of Korahites is mentioned in the period of King Jehoshaphat, approximately 400 years after Moses (see II Chronicles 20:19). But tradition posits a closer relation; Rashi relates that as the camp of the rebels was sinking into the earth, the sons of Korah were miraculously spared and broke into song (see Rashi on Psalm 42:1).

In these days of counter-narrative, we may even see in the near future a memoir of the years in the wilderness, written by Korah or one of his lieutenants. I would find such a narrative fascinating. Maybe we should not pass final judgment until we have read his side of the story.

Rabbi Len Levin teaches Jewish philosophy at AJR. He is the editor of Studies in Judaism and Pluralism.