Thursday, 04 Jul 2024

Written by Dr. Hannah M. Altorf, LBC rabbinical student 

I might have voted for Korach.

Korach’s concerns are my concerns. He does not want the power to be in the hands of only one man, or only a few people. He wants democracy. He even has a prooftext to support his case.  ’All  the community is holy’, he tells Moses’, each and everyone of them.’ thus recalling God’s instruction to be holy. (See for instance Numbers 25: 40, Exodus 19: 6) Moses should not keep everything for himself. Rav lachem, Korach tells Moses, it is more than enough for you, you have gone too far.

Yet, the story is not on his side. Moses rebukes him with his own words, You have gone too far. It is not up to him, but it is up to God: ‘God will make known who is God’s and who is holy.’ God then enters the scene outraged and wants to destroy every single member of the community. At Moses’ and Aaron’s pleading destruction is limited to Korach and his people. The earth opens underneath them and they disappear alive into Sheol.

Our rabbis do not encourage a vote for Korach either. They hold him up as the counter-example of good controversy, machloket. ‘What is a controversy which is not l’shem shamayim, for the sake of heaven?’ it is asked in Pirke Avot. ‘It is the machloket of Korach and his people.’ It has been argued that Korach was only interested in having power for himself, that his people constantly fought with one another and that he did not just challenge Moses, he challenged God.

The most devastating comment comes from On’s wife. On, son of Peleth, is mentioned at the beginning of the story, but he escapes the fate of the other rebels. His wife, the rabbis explain, dissuaded him from taking part. She tells him that there is nothing in this fight for the little people. The big guys, Moses and Korach, do not really care about them. (b Sanhedrin 109b) (I am only paraphrasing slightly.)

In spite of all this, I am still with Korach. There is, after all, little in the biblical text to incriminate him, especially when one acknowledges that the text is a strange amalgamate of different traditions. What is more, I sense too much eagerness in all these attempts to convince me how bad Korach is. Moses evades Korach’s argument. God sets out to destroy in the most devastating way. The rabbis try all too hard to distance themselves.  In short, the protest is so loud that I suspect that Korach is not too dangerous. The problem is that he comes too close.

All that Korach does, after all, is start an argument. He wants to argue his case and arguing is not just in our DNA, but also in the rabbinic founding myth. As Daniel Boyarin has shown, ours it not the legend of the simple believer who silences the erudite philosopher. In contrast, we tell the story of the oven of Akhnai, when not even God’s voice can stop the rabbis’ argument. (Boyarin, ‘One Church; One Voice: The Drive Towards Homonoia in Orthodoxy’) Even when there is agreement, we have a tradition of preserving the defeated position, in case it needs more discussion.

Korach may have been swallowed by the earth, but the story and his argument are revisited time and again. Thus, it is puzzling that Pirkei Avot holds that a controversy like Korach’s will not endure. Ein sofah l’hitkayem literally means ‘the end is not to stand’. It will not endure, it will not be permanent. Does this mean that anyone engaged in a controversy like Korach will perish? He did not stand in the end, as he was literally taken of his feet. Yet, such an understanding would be an awkward criterion for deciding a disagreement. One would have to wait for divine intervention. Or does it mean the argument will not continue? Yet, this d’var is far from the only evidence against that explanation.

Perhaps it is not so much what Korach said, but how he said it. Korach did not just fail because he dangerously underestimated his opponent. He also failed because he did not want to give the other a leg to stand on. We are told that in a dispute between Hillel and Shammai – the exemplary dispute l’shem shamayim – for the sake of heaven, all are speaking ‘the words of the living God. Yet, halachah follows the house of Hillel.’ Why? ‘They were pleasant and modest … they put the words of the house of Shammai before their own words.’ (b Eruvin 13b; cp. Boyarin, ‘One Church; One Voice’) It may sound counter-intuitive, but the house of Hillel made sure all arguments stood firm, next to one another. Only then, they debated. They did not set up a straw-man that could easily be defeated. They built their opponent’s argument, just as they built their own. Korach, in contrast, never really regarded his opponent’s arguments or position. He wanted to crush it and he was crushed instead.

I am writing these words a few days before the general election that has been called for 4 July. You may be reading them when the results are in. The past few weeks have seen various disputes and debates. Not all of them have been l’shem shamayim, for the sake of heaven. It is tempting to side with On’s wife and be cynical about all politics and argument and stay away from it all. Or we could wish for a ruler, who is considered to speak with God’s voice, or for one who crushes his opponent. Yet, that is not what our tradition teaches. Instead, we should try and follow the house of Hillel and lead by example. In any disagreement, respect the opponent’s position so that it stands firm, while holding on to your own. It is not easy. It is l’shem shamayim.

Dr. Hannah M. Altorf, LBC rabbinical student

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.