Most interpretations of Korah’s rebelliousness say that he was not justified and that he was a power hungry revolutionary. But, what evidence do we have that this is really true?
In the parshat, Korah actually only utters 3 sentences.
“You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation?”
Rabbi Elizabeth Bolton says that Korah’s traits sound like components of an excellent character profile to describe the kind of person one would want working within a large organization…someone with a mission to prod at complacency, call attention to issues, and, at the risk of censure and punishment, call the authorities to account.
But, Korah’s courage was not rewarded. God open’s up the earth and has Korah, his men, their wives, and their children swallowed up. Then a fire consumed 250 men offering incense, and then 14,700 people die of the plague. If anyone else was thinking of speaking out against the leadership, chances are they were now keeping their ideas to themselves.
Rabbi Bolton tells us that Whistle-blowers like Korah don't tend to fare too well these days, either. Those who call our attention to endemic racism still suffer economically through lack of promotions and other limitations; corporate truth-sayers find themselves challenged with personal lawsuits; others are ostracized from their communities, and within their families.
Perhaps the story of Korah’s rebellion, complex thought it may be, offers a simple teaching about our basic freedom to challenge authority and redress injustice wherever we may find it.
But, I think that there is another perspective to consider. We can also look at Korah’s story as a metaphor for the evolution the Jewish people. It is possible that, at the time of the Israelites wandering through the desert, they were not yet ready for democracy. Korah may have been the voice of a distant future that would bring a Judaism with a more egalitarian focus. Fast forward to 1920 in America and we find Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan introducing the idea of Judaism as the evolving religious civilization of the Jewish people. And, controversial even today, he felt that the people Israel should no longer be conceived of as supernaturally “chosen” people, but as a naturally evolving social group whose unique identity exists solely in relation to its unique culture.
Kaplan pushed for the removal of liturgical phrases like "He has not made us like the pagans of the world, nor placed us like the heathen tribes of the earth…" from the Aleinu prayer. He felt that concepts like these were not conducive to the fostering of intergroup goodwill which his philosophy, Reconstructionism, maintained should be a goal of all religions. Doesn’t sound too far from Korah’s statement that “all the community is holy” does it? Ironically, in 1945, on the occasion of the appearance of the Reconstructionist Prayer Book, and around the Shabbat when Parshat Korah is read, Moredecai Kaplan was formally excommunicated by a group of Orthodox rabbis.
When I was working for the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation, I traveled all over the Midwest visiting Reconstructionist congregations. One of the unique characteristics of Reconstructionist synagogue buildings is that there are no names on rooms, no public declaration of differing levels of giving and no special privileges for Cohen’s or Levites. The whole community is equal when it comes to recognition for contributing to the congregation.
Mordecai Kaplan also understood evolution on a personal level. “The only way to change the world is to change yourself into what you want others to be, he wisely said.” Maybe if he could have counseled Korah, he would have told him that his influence on the Israelites may have been greater if he had introduced his ideas in a more subtle manner. Actions speak louder than words, afterall.
May we each consider how, in our own lives, we can make an impact on the injustices of the world without being swallowed up by the forces that are less ready for change.