Home > Divrei Torah > Parashat Korach

Parashat Korach

June 23, 2011

By Rabbi Jo David

Korah Wasn’t Wrong?

For the last six months I’ve been teaching a comparative religion course – “The Religious Experience” – at Berkeley College in Manhattan. The student body at Berkeley is predominantly black, Hispanic, and Christian, with a large number of foreign students, many from Africa. There are very few Jews on staff. Few students have ever met a Jewish person, not to mention a rabbi or a female rabbi! This is my ideal rabbinate – putting myself in settings where “no Jew has gone before” and introducing Judaism to people for whom Judaism is an unknown quantity.

This is challenging territory. Inevitably there are a few religious Christians in my class who are eager to show off their knowledge of Judaism and to bond with me over our “shared” faith. It’s a tricky business to explain without disenchanting those who “love” Judaism that while Judaism is the “mother” religion to both Christianity and Islam, one who is a Christian, is not also a Jew. In each of my classes there was at least one student who didn’t buy my explanation that one can’t be both Jewish and Christian. Thinking about this fluid idea of “who is a Jew,” and who has the authority to decide who is a Jew led me to reflect on the story of Korah, Dathan and Abiram, an extremely problematic section of the Torah, which we read this week.

This story has always bothered me.  Korah, Dathan, and Abiram are not really wrong when they state, “…all the community are holy, all of them” (Numbers 16:3).  After all, in Exodus 19:6, God says to Moses, “…you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”  If we believe what God says, then all Israelites, not just the Levites and the tribe of Aaron, are priests. Therefore, Korah’s statement is correct. God seems to be suggesting in Exodus that priestly power should be shared within the Israelite community.

This is a problem, of course, because the biblical narrative must support Moses’ stature as God’s intimate and non-ritual leader of the Israelites. Aaron’s position as ritual “rav” and leader of the priestly class must be preserved. After all, the “winners” get to write history.

I’ve always thought that the narrative that follows Korah’s challenge for shared power is over the top. Did the wives and children, as well as the men in Dathan and Abiram’s tribes really have to die in such a dramatic way, swallowed up by the earth? And was a subsequent plague truly necessary?

The plague killed an additional 14,700 people who believed that Korah, Dathan, and Abiram were right (Numbers 17:14).  Such a large number should catch our attention. It tells us that Korah was not a nobody. There were many people who believed that his challenge of Moses and Aaron was just. Did his followers deserve to die for their belief in their leader?

Thus we have the story of Korah, Dathan and Abiram in which what is perceived as necessary to stabilize the Israelite community – the creation of very clear boundaries about leadership and community – trumps what might be actually right and just. We are living in a time when questions about the stability and continuity of the Jewish People are very alive in Israel and in the Jewish Diaspora. Some voices say that we must “circle the wagons” to protect Jewish identity and the Jewish State. On the other end of the spectrum are those who believe that anyone who wants to be Jewish should be accepted as Jewish without any sort of ritual admission to the community. What is right? What is just? What is necessary for our preservation and stability?

As a rabbi who works in the multi-faith and interfaith arenas, I’m constantly juggling the issue of which Jewish boundaries are flexible and which Jewish boundaries need to be reinforced or even defended. This is not a comfortable or easy process because it requires a commitment to constantly reflect on what is necessary, right, and just. I’m not always comfortable with the answers.

We Jews have always been a questioning people. This week’s Torah portion presents a particular solution to the “problem” of Korah. A literal approach to the Torah’s view of this situation is not the only way to look at the issue.  The text raises many questions about what happens when a community sets aside what is “right” and “just” for what may be perceived as “strategic or necessary.” This question is one which is vitally important today, not only in the Jewish community, but in America and throughout the world. There is no easy answer, but the ongoing quest to understand choices and consequences is vital to creating more peace in the world.


Rabbi Jo David is a “rabbi without walls.” Her rabbinate is focused on interfaith and multi-faith issues and unaffiliated Jews. She is currently an Adjunct Professor at Berkeley College in Manhattan where she teaches “The Religious Experience,” “Bio-Ethics,” and “Ethics.” Her daily blog – healingandhope2011.com is a count down to the 10th anniversary of 9/11.