KORAH: A BAD GUY OR THE FIRST REFORM JEW? (Numbers 16: 1- 18:32)


(Numbers 16: 1- 18:32)

By Rabbi Corinne Copnick

Close your eyes and imagine for a moment that what you see on a movie screen are two stags, one older, one younger, each with an impressive rack of antlers, and the younger one is challenging the elder with all the vigor of his newfound strength. Invariably, the older stag is defeated, and the young stag replaces him as leader of the herd. This is part of the natural order in the animal kingdom. It is not so different with human beings, as we witness in the media on a global scale every day.

And it was not so different in biblical times, with Korah, the young contender, perhaps 19 or 20 years old, challenging Moses, the autonomous leader, for a greater role in the leadership of the Jewish people.  Normally it is healthy for the community, for young adults to have a say in how they are governed. They are full of energy and brimming with new ideas, like — in the case of Korah — having prayer shawls made that were completely blue in color, so that the new law mandating blue fringes on prayer shawls – tallitot — was unnecessary halakhah. Gotcha, Moses. An unnecessary law we don’t have to observe!

In that sense, Korah was the first Reform Jew. He wanted not only religious reform, but reform of the entire leadership system too, he wanted to change it from an hierarchical and autocratic leadership style to a more democratic system that allowed for representative government of the Jewish people. Thousands of years before our United States of America had a War of Independence over the issue of “No taxation without representation,” Korah was arguing something similar. He was ahead of the curve, a Democrat before democracy was invented in the way we know it today. And because he was young, he was impatient. He was not going to wait around for the Messiah to come to take individual responsibility. He wanted a change in leadership style. Now.

And perhaps one could even argue, as Jonathan Schraub does (in his article, “Our Holy Grandfather: A Reassessment of Korah”) that with his attention to “priestly perogatives,” access to the ark, and democratization of rights, Korah was the first precursor of the rabbinic movement many centuries later (78).

So one could argue that the controversy between Moses and Korah was a matter not only of disparate leadership style but of precedent. As Schraub further points out, “Korah was neither the wicked Pharaoh nor the Haman that many commentators make him out to be, nor merely an ego-driven, demagogic rabble rouser. Rather, his rebellion was an “intellectual insurrection” (70). And we should also remember that Korah did have a responsible position in the community. Now he was giving “a legitimate voice to a ‘disenfranchised’ majority, one that had lost confidence in Moses and feared they would all die wandering in the desert, but who still wanted to abide by the laws of the community – and God.  

According to medieval commentators, Ibn Ezra and Rashbam, this incident took place in the wilderness of Sinai “at a time when the Levites replaced the first born. The Israelites were upset…that the Levites had taken their positions, while the Levites themselves were upset that the priesthood was reserved for Moses’ brother Aaron and his sons” (Carasik, The Commentator’s Bible, JPS 115). So there was plenty of upset and jealousy to go around.

At first, Korah did all the right things for a politician. His grass roots, populist appeal was recognized by the sages (71). He went from tent to tent gathering allies, kol ha eidah, 250 chieftains who were men of repute in the assembly. It is true that the chieftains felt that had been overlooked in property division, and personal interests were at play. But their grievances had some justification. They needed to be heard.

Traditional Interpretation

Although Korah and his followers are usually presented as the bad guys, they were not, in my view, a band of malcontents, as Nechama Liebowitz and a host of other noted commentators with traditional orientation suggest. In fact, in her essays on Bamidbar, she devotes three chapters to a negative but precise analysis of Korah’s actions, amazing when you consider that Korah’s story in the Bible is told in a brief two chapters, in which he is given only two lines to say in the entire dramatic action. Traditionally, the rabbis believed that he suffered from the fatal flaw of jealousy. He too had been passed over by Moses in favor of his younger cousin, Elitazaphan, as chief of the Levite division of the Koahites – of which Korah was a senior member (Straub, 74). And that he waited until the morale of the Jewish people was low: there had been the incident of the Golden Calf, the punishment of Miriam for gossiping (lashon hora) against Moses’ wife, the disastrous episode of the spies, the murmuring of the people who remembered the good old days in Egypt through rose-colored glasses. Therefore Korah decided the time was ripe to take calculated action.

Both the Tanhuma and Ramban link Korah’s actions with opportunity and timing. The Tanhuma connects “Korah’s timing to the preceding [Torah] passage dealing with the laws of fringes and portrays Korah as a schemer lying in wait for the opportunity to incite the leaders against Moses’ leadership. But Ramban states it a little differently. He thinks that Korah deliberately chose this time because he thought the people would listen to him seriously now (“Korah and His Gang,” p. 137).

In my opinion, Korah’s message was progressive. What Korah was saying, in essence, is that the Covenant was not only contracted with the collective of the Jewish people, it was made with the individual as well. “Moses, you have gone too far!” Korah chastises Moses for taking too much power. “For all the community are holy, all of them, and Adonai is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourself above the Adonai’s congregation?” (Numbers 16:3).

Later Moses echoes the same warning to Korah when Korah attempts to take the fire pans with incense into the Holy Ark, something only Moses was allowed to do.  “You have gone too far,” Moses says. Viewed this way, Korah’s conduct was not only an attempted coup d’etat, it was also a grave offence against God.

So Korah started out from a reasonable position, but in the end, he went too far. If you challenge leadership by aiming your metaphorical gun, common wisdom dictates that you had better not miss the shot. In taunting Moses like a teenager, and worse, in challenging Moses, he also challenged the Divine Will and thus angered God. So he missed the shot twice. The result is a Divine response of overwhelming force and terror. The earth opened up and swallowed Korah, the 250 chieftains, and another 15,000 Jews to top it off. It was “hardly a proportionate response.” Nachmanides notes that once again Aaron was silent in the face of God’s anger, just as he had been after the punishment of his sons, Nadav and Avihu. In fact, Aaron is silent throughout the whole episode of Korah’s rebellion.

* * * *

Interestingly, Korah’s position is validated in a previous episode in the Torah (Exodus 18), when Moses’ father-in law, Jethro, comes to visit Moses from Midian, with Moses’ semi-abandoned wife and children in tow. But in contrast to the young hothead, Korah, he counsels Moses gently, explaining that Moses would be less harried – and, implicitly, might even have some time for his family – if he shared the leadership duties. It is not far from what Korah is trying to communicate.

And what Korah is saying remains a message for today’s Jews: that we are self-challenged to become a holy people, a kingdom of priests. “Nothing and no one stands between the individual Jew and his or her God,” Straub asserts.

In fact, if we retroject our 21st sensibility onto Bamidbar, perhaps it is not too much to say, as Straub does, that Korach elicited such a strong reaction “from the eidah, from…Moses, from God – precisely because he was the first to tap into the ways in which a rigid and uncompromising demand of law (halakhah) can stifle and eventually suffocate the deeper covenantal love expressed through spirit (kavvanah)” (76).

©️Corinne Copnick, Los Angeles, 2018. All rights reserved.