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Parashat Korah

June 21, 2012

My synagogue is presently undergoing seismic change. We will be leaving the building we have owned and occupied for about the last four years. We will be seeking to move to a more urban location, a move that bucks the persistent trend of local congregations in my hometown to move further out into the suburbs; a trend that either is driven by the desire for shuls to go where the Jews are, or, a somewhat self-fulfilling prophecy of Jews going where the shuls are built… or not. Add to the mix my own entry into the kehilah (community) about one year ago with my pluralistic (read, AJR) sensibilities.

This change has precipitated some modicum of turmoil, and fairly strong push-back. Some have resorted to personal attack. In moving the shul forward I continue to ponder what it is those who are fighting these changes are fighting against. Likewise with this week’s parashah I ask a question that has posed a great challenge to our Sages and exegesis: against what or whom was Korah rebelling against?

Ostensibly, Korah’s challenge to Moses and Aaron that “since the entire congregation is holy and God is in their midst, why do [they] raise themselves above the assembly of God” (Numbers 16:3) is an argument in favor of a small “d” democratic kehilah. This would seem like a just, pro-community stance, and play to the present sensibilities of the community. Indeed, Nehama Leibowitz asserts that Korahwas playing on the present discontent of the community. In a somewhat more pro-Korah stance, Gunther Plaut observes that Korah’s argument did not go away with the drastic Divine response, and that his family continued to serve with high distinction.

In the Mei HaShiloah, the commentary of Rabbi Mordekhai Yosef of Isbitza he retorts with a verse from Proverbs (20:26), “A wise king scatters the wicked…” This points to the necessity of differentiating the wicked from the remainder of the kehilah. By doing so one is actually taking steps to strengthen rather than diminish the community.

The first verse in the parashah begins with the words vayikah Korah,”Korah took…” (Numbers 16:1). Rashi relates that Korah took himself to a different side. He essentially disassociated himself from the community, and cast aspersions on the community, all in order to maintain his dispute with Moses and Aaron. Nahmanides gives greater emphasis to the insidiousness of Korah’s behavior, suggesting that the timing of his rebellion against Moses and Aaron, after the incident of the spies, was done at a time when the people were in a more likely psychological position to join in an attack on Moses and Aaron. In other words this was not an impulsive response by Korah to a perceived injustice committed by Moses or Aaron, but a methodically planned rebellion with malice forethought.

Jane Rachel Litman in the commentary Torah Queeries points to a much different tact taken by our Sages. There is a conflict for the Sages given their own experience with authority, i.e., Roman authority which colored their view generally on authority, and the need to uphold God’s will which sides with the authority figures in the dispute, Moses and Aaron. Also, adding to the conflict is their view that Korah’s assertion that all are holy is essentially correct. So, back to the original question: What was Korah rebelling against?

Litman cites to the response of the Sages (Talmud Sanhedrin 109b) which rewrites the conflict from one in which the issue is authority and power, to a conflict over values and personal character. The Rabbis show Moses as anything but an authoritarian authority figure. The Rabbis according to Litman show in stark contrast a Korah who is scheming and possessed of unethical personal character.

In my own situation I would never dare go to the extreme descriptions employed by the Sages to describe either the goodness properly ascribed to Moshe Rabeinu (Moses, our teacher), nor to the harsh treatment given to Korah. I would suggest that, much like this famous Torahitic dispute, the issue is not one of authority, but rather of shifting values. Those who support change see it as a means to uphold what is best about the community; a continually inclusive, welcoming community. Those who oppose the change cannot see that their opposition comes at the price of upholding the values of welcoming and inclusiveness upon which lies the foundation of the kehilah. Their personal attacks do further damage to those cherished values, and, while their arguments may have merit they still come at a steep price.

Rabbi Doug Alpert serves Congregation Kol Ami in Kansas City. He also works with Congregation Beth Shalom in Kansas City.