Parshat Korach, Humanistic Judaism, and a Grand Reveal

This week, the traditional Torah reading cycle brings us to Parshat Korach, the biblical tale of a rebellion within the Israelite camp which included Korach, a member of the Levites, and 250 other leaders of the Israelites.

The short version of the story: Korach is angry that he and others didn’t have the priesthood opened up to them, he objects that the entire people is holy, and he challenges Moses and Aaron. Moses says, in essence, (1) Don’t be mad at Aaron, and (2) You would presume to challenge the divine plan!? As a Levite, you’ve been given privilege already–how dare you ask for more!?

Botticelli's Korach - Image obtained from Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Korach_%28parsha%29#mediaviewer/File:Korah_Botticelli.jpg)

Botticelli’s Korach – Image obtained from Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Korach_%28parsha%29#mediaviewer/File:Korah_Botticelli.jpg)

The result? Competing offerings are made near the Tabernacle, and the earth opens up and swallows Korach and his followers.

With no “good” deed going unpunished, the Israelites become angry at the punishment inflicted on Korach and his followers, and blame Moses and Aaron. Divine wrath is poured out upon the Israelites for their grumbling, this time in the form of a plague. Thousands more die until Aaron stands in the midst of the people and renders a sacrifice that stops the plague. Aaron is then again affirmed as the head of the priestly line, this time through a test involving the staffs of the various heads of the Israelite houses, and promises are made to the Levites for their support through tithes.

In short, a pleasant time is had by all. Or not. The traditional understanding of all this is that Korach was a rebel, that those who joined him were in the wrong, and that this episode pretty well established who the priestly line and benefits would belong to. Fine and good.

Except it’s one more episode in a long, vindictive streak the Torah displays against a number of things we value in our present time and place. Democracy and representative government? Petition for redress of grievances? The place of apparent merit? Complain and you’ll be swallowed up by the Earth, or devastated by a plague set up to show who’s really in charge.

On the Eish Zarah blog, the post expresses sympathy with Korach, and temporarily signs on with #TeamKorach. He reflects:

On the other hand, can I really talk in a positive light about rebelling against god while reading what so many consider the word of god, from the hand of Moses? Can parts of  the Torah really be a basis for rebellion against God? Am I really going to state that Torah can be the opening for rebelling against the status quo, a status quo which includes Torah? (An aside – The answer is yes, one day I will argue this)

Later, he says:

We can all access holiness.

And I hopefully won’t have to confront too many people as I declare myself – just for this week, just for this parsha – #TeamKorach.

I’m not a temporary member of #TeamKorach. I’m a Humanistic Jew, and I play for #TeamKorach.

I play for #TeamKorach because complaint shouldn’t be met with authoritarian dismissal or threat. I play for #TeamKorach because we all have a stake in the Torah–whether we believe in the divine or not, and whether we believe in the inspiration of the Torah or not.

Can the Torah open up a challenge to the status quo, even one that includes the Torah? Yes. Because like all historically-minded texts, it preserves the dissenting voices, though they may come to us “through a glass, darkly.” Those texts often obscure more than they reveal, and it’s important for us to treat those documents–with their texts and subtexts–with the integrity they deserve.

Did the authors of the Torah really think that Korach was in the wrong? Yes. Does it preserve a memory of resentment, revolt, and a desire to democratize what became centralized and bureaucratized? Yes. Was that memory minimized in favor of authority? Yes.

But we can treat that story with integrity and realize it’s a myth–a story that makes a bigger point, and one that favors an outcome that we, today, view with disfavor. We wrestle with the text–but we don’t have to agree, and we need not try to read in our own predilections.

Has there always been dissent in Judaism? Of course. Korach is but one reflection of this, though if we’re honest to a rational view of history we need to recognize that the story itself almost certainly didn’t happen–and certainly not in the way the Torah tells it.

And it is incumbent upon us, as thinking and engaged Jews, to see where we must dissent and shake off authority where it undermines our own values. We can remain within the stream of Judaism without remaining beholden to the legacy of those who would have crushed a Korach in their own time; to stand by pluralistic values, we may need to reject the authority of those would would reject Korach today as rebellious, as seeking to uproot Judaism and Torah. We need to claim our Jewish identities for ourselves.

Through a glass, darkly, the Korach myth can teach us about standing up and claiming our place without fear and recognizing that there are consequences.

My name is Jeremy Kridel. I’m a Humanistic Jew, a member of the Society of Humanistic Judaism, a rabbinical student at the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism,  and a member of #TeamKorach.

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4 thoughts on “Parshat Korach, Humanistic Judaism, and a Grand Reveal

  1. Pingback: Sometimes, the Truth Hurts. Can You Handle It? | A secular Jew in Indianapolis

  2. So glad to meet another member of #TeamKorach. I actually opted for the hashtag as a rather easy way to catch peoples’ eyes (especially since so many think so badly of Korach). After writing and posting and Torah study, I really have realized that my #TeamKorach status isn’t a part time thing either and that I may just have to claim it the same way I express my love for Nadav and Avihu.

    Thank you for this wonderful response!

    • I really hadn’t put words to where I was at with this issue until reading your post; it’s kind of difficult to explain to someone that you take a Howard Zinn-type view of Jewish history, because that’s not 100% right, and no one knows what you’re talking about. So your framing of it was just perfect, I think!

      But I have more or less come to the conclusion that it’s pretty impossible to genuinely do liberal Judaism without being able to be part of the team, or at least be a fair-weather fan. I think the more one embraces that approach, the “easier” or more internally consistent one can be about it. Different people will have different levels of comfort about it, of course, but I think we need some kind of positive model to energize around and bring ourselves forward from just being a reaction to “Orthodox” practice.

      Anyway–I really enjoyed the post!

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