May 22, 2019

An inconvenient voice

Moses buries him.

Literally – he opens up the earth, and Korah and his followers are swallowed alive.

The rabbis of the Midrash were more graceful. They only buried him literarily and morally – projecting upon him every evil motive and base intention.

For the rabbis, Korah becomes the personification of manipulative demagoguery, personal greed, vicious envy of power and position, exploitation, arrogance and rebelliousness; a rebel he is.

After the people Israel are condemned to wander the desert 40 years, Korah raises a revolt against Moses and Aaron: “You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst. Why do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation?” (Numbers 16:3).

It is too easy to label Korah evil and dismiss his claims. There is nothing in the pshat, the simple reading of the biblical text, to castigate Korah as the embodiment of evil. In fact, it is suspicious how ready everyone is to get rid of him. What are we covering up? What truth does Korah know?

At Mount Sinai, God proclaimed, “You shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:5-6).

Korah asks: If we are all a kingdom of priests, what is the special prerogative of one who proclaims himself “spiritual leader”? Instructing the building of the Mishkan shrine, God announced, “Let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them” (Exodus 25:8).

Korah wonders: If God already dwells among the people, who needs intermediaries and functionaries to reach God? In Leviticus, God commanded: “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God, am holy” (Leviticus 19:2).

Korah points out: Holiness, the quality we share with God, is within our reach. Not an elite, but holiness is within us all. Moses himself offered: “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord put His spirit upon them” (Numbers 11:29).

Korah responds: Shouldn’t this be our goal? Not to elevate another Moses, but to elevate the entire community to his prophetic vision?

Korah is a rebel, no doubt. But he is a holy rebel. He rebels in obedience to God. And Moses’ impulse to bury him represents a serious failure of leadership.

A healthy community needs holy dissent. A healthy community needs voices demanding a renewed commitment to ideals. A healthy community needs to be reminded that its moral compromises are just that, compromises – the best we could do under the circumstances, not the best we could do. Korah is an irritant, a source of aggravation, a challenge to authority and to accepted practice. It’s no wonder we want to bury him. But a living community of conscience and spirit needs a Korah.

Another great spiritual dissident, Martin Buber, taught that a spiritual community swings between poles of “religion” and “religiosity.” “Religiosity” refers to those rare ecstatic moments when the Absolute breaks into our experience and reorients our vision and values. These are moments of passion and insight. But they are fleeting. “Religion” is born when these moments are captured, organized and preserved in symbols, texts and rites. At the heart of spiritual life lives this tension: As “religion” settles into holy tradition, it loses touch with these original moments of ecstasy and revelation. It loses its creative energy. Religion needs religiosity.

“Religion is true so long as it is creative,” Buber wrote, “but it is creative so long as religiosity is able to imbue [it] with new and incandescent meaning. Once religious rites and dogmas have become so rigid that religiosity cannot move them, religion becomes uncreative and therefore untrue.”

One of the wonders of Jewish history is our continuing capacity to welcome and absorb holy dissent. We are a living community, held together by deep bonds of family and communal solidarity, and not just a church bound by dogma. Therefore, there has always been room to embrace dissent and rebellion without destroying the Jewish people. Prophets challenged Priests, and they were included in the Bible. The rabbis disagreed about almost everything, and the Talmud proclaimed: “These and these are the words of the living God.”

Mystics and Chasidim challenged rabbinical authorities, and their voices were added to the symphony of Jewish wisdom. The greatest Jewish rebellion in Modernity was Zionism. And today, we are all Zionists. We are a creative people because the voice of Korah lives.

We are committed to teach our children the Torah of Moses – Jewish continuity, faithfulness to the Jewish past, loyalty to tradition and ancestors. Their curriculum must also include the Torah of Korah – holy rebellion, spiritual dissent.

Alongside continuity, let us celebrate the creative overturning and reinvention of Jewish life and vision.

That, too, is our holy tradition.

Ed Feinstein is senior rabbi of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino. He serves on the faculty of the Ziegler Rabbinical School of American Jewish University (formerly the University of Judaism), the Wexner Heritage Foundation, the Whizen Center for the Jewish Family and the Synagogue 3000 initiative.