Korach: Challenger of the Status Quo?

Peace_Parsha_LogoBarbara Green has been a volunteer for Americans for Peace Now for many years. She lives in Washington, DC.


Korach gathers 250 ‘princes of the assembly’ and confronts Moses and Aaron: “You take too much upon you…seeing that each of us is holy.”   Moses, abject, tells his challengers to bring offerings to the sanctuary the next day so that God can determine who is holy.   God’s punishment is swift and violent.   He immediately kills Korach and his followers; the 14,700 souls who stood with them are swallowed by an earthquake.   Imagine a 13-year-old having to deconstruct this parsha for his/her bar or bat mitzvah!

            What are we modern readers to make of this tale and what relevance does it have for us today?  The answer is that it depends on the way one views Korach.   Was he a jealous competitor, miffed because Moses passed over him, a first-born son who lost the priestly leadership to Aaron, the younger son of his uncle?   Or was his a legitimate challenge to Moses’ perceived failures of leadership?    Was he rebelling against God who made the choice? Did Korach posit a more democratic form of leadership? If everyone is holy, each person can decide for himself how to act.  No supreme leader is needed.

            Commentators have argued throughout the ages about whether Korach was a villain simply out to usurp power for himself, or a legitimate dissenter. Which leads inexorably to questions about dissent:  Is it always allowable in a democracy? What are its limits? Its consequences? How timely is this parsha after all!

            Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote: “Dissent is indigenous to Judaism.”  We Jews come from a long line of dissenters and challengers: Abraham argued with God several times in the Torah.    Spinoza challenged doctrine in 17th Century Amsterdam.  Mordecai Kaplan took on the concept of chosenness 300 years later. Yet today, in the State of Israel, dissent is suppressed in ways the founding generations never envisioned. The so-called NGO bill takes aim at every civil society organization which serves as watchdogs of the society.  The media are increasingly controlled by fewer sources which are tied ever more closely to the government. A bill to exclude duly-elected Members of Knesset who express attitudes hostile to the prevailing “wisdom” is close to enactment.

            Back to Korach for enlightenment. Many commentators note that Korach’s rebellion comes very quickly after the incident of the spies (link to parshah about the spies) in which those tasked to scout out the land promised by God report that it can’t be conquered by mere mortals. God punishes this loss of faith by condemning the Israelites to wander in the desert for 40 years.  This generation is destined to die there; it will never see the promised land. Seen in this light, Korach’s rebellion is an attack on Moses’ leadership skills.    He has taken his people far from the safe haven they remember as Egypt with an uncertain future and possibly even death in the wilderness.

            Were the commentators on to something? Sometimes leaders are wrong and they take us down the wrong path.  Should we follow blindly because ‘they are our leaders’? I would argue that the current right-wing government in Israel – the most right-wing ever – is taking that country down a path to disaster, and at the heart of it all is the Occupation. Last month marked the start of year 49 of the Occupation. The euphoria of June 1967 has given way to despair of ever ending the conflict, of halting the threats to democracy which accompany the continued suppression of another people, of the coarsening of the moral fiber of Israelis who are forced to be complicit in the occupation project.

            And so we as American Jews must ask: What, if anything, should we do about it?   We’re not passive bystanders. In the grand Jewish tradition of dissenting and challenging, there is much we can do. First, learn everything possible about the conflict, its history, its complexity, some of the efforts to end it. Read about the Arab Peace Initiative (API) of 2002 in which 22 Arab states offered Israel full peace and normalization of relations in exchange for withdrawal to the 1967 borders (then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon never deigned to reply).   The API was slightly revised and re-issued in 2007.    How many Israelis and Palestinians would not have been killed if Israel had responded 14 years ago?

            And after learning about the API, speak up and tell others; write your elected officials and the Israeli Ambassador; join the APN fall study tour to see Israel behind the headlines..., and above all, spend part of each day devoted to ending the occupation. Leaders are not always right.