This week’s Torah portion is Korach. Korach is a cousin to Moses and Aaron who challenges their leadership. The rabbis see Korach in a very negative light and portray his challenge as a selfish usurper’s rebellion.
In Pirkei Avot, the Wisdom of our Ancestors, we read, “A controversy for heaven’s sake will have lasting value, but a controversy not for the sake of heaven will not endure. What is an example of a controversy for heaven’s sake? The debates of Hillel and Shammai. And what is an example of a controversy not for the sake of heaven? The rebellion of Korach and his associates.”
We are people who question, who argue, who discuss. We don’t just accept things the way they are; we look at the world and attempt to see what could be, what are the possibilities. So we often challenge the status quo. Both Abraham at Sodom and Gomorrah and Moses at the Golden Calf challenge God and both of them win God over to their way of seeing things. If that is not a successful debate, I don’t know what is!
Korach, who does not directly challenge God, does not come out so well in his encounter with Moses and Aaron. The Biblical text is unequivocal in its rejection of Korach. In the end the earth swallows him and his followers; it is pretty clear that they are on the wrong side of the Divine. But the rabbinic process of interpretation is willing to take the text and stand it on its head to make a point.
When I was in rabbinical school at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in the 1990s, an article entitled, “Korach, the First Reconstructionist” sought to view him in a different light. Korach was portrayed as someone who represented the democratic ideal, someone who was willing to challenge the status quo, someone who wanted to elevate the people – all the people – in holiness and service to God.
This is not the typical way that Korach has been seen by our tradition, but it is really no different than the way Jewish feminists a few years before had claimed Lilith as a positive character despite her having been portrayed negatively throughout Jewish history. Lilith was renewed, reconstructed, and reinvented for a new age and a new perspective.
We live in a time where what worked Jewishly for our grandparents and perhaps even for our parents does not necessarily work for us. We have to recommit ourselves to the traditions that work for us and we also have to find ways to lay claim to the parts of our tradition that are more difficult for us.
We live in a world that is constantly changing and things we took for granted 10 or 15 years ago are not necessarily true today. Judaism can provide an anchor for us in this tumultuous sea of change, but it too must be reinterpreted as generations of rabbis have sought to do to keep Judaism and the Jewish people connected to one another. A process that was once slow and unconscious has become one that must happen in a rapidly changing world and must be done consciously by those of us who care deeply about Judaism and its future.
So before we write off Korach as an example of a bad guy, let’s see what it is that he has to teach us. Bring on the challenges, because we have a tradition that is up to facing them, and a rabbinate that is open to speaking to each new generation of Jews in the language that they speak. I’m willing to listen to Korach and to learn from his example and to try and insure that “all the people are holy” and that Judaism continues to thrive and remain vital.