Korach: Numbers 16:1-18:32 [also Korah and Korath]

Yesterday we completed the day long drive around the north shore of Lake Superior. We never tire of its magnificence. The views are spectacular. As you drive through the cuts in the granite rock of the Laurentian shield, the natural sculptures formed, the rock striations, the vistas of this enormous lake with nearby islands to provide perspective and rising mountains to the immediate north to provide a sense of grandeur, you literally have to catch your breath. And, at this time of the year, there are a plethora of wild flowers of many varieties and in an enormous palette of colours alongside the road. But then the sensual richness is enhanced by the enormous size of this lake that takes a day just to get past the northern shore. Lake Superior holds 10% of the whole world’s fresh water supply. If you stretched the shoreline south from Thunder Bay, it would reach Miami. What a day!!

After a marvelous meal at The Nook, I slept for 7 hours. Therefore, this will be an abbreviated blog.

Korach: Numbers 16:1-18:32 [also Korah and Korath]

by

Howard Adelman

Yesterday, Rosh Chodesh Tammuz, was ushered in with several hundred visitors praying at the Western Wall in Jerusalem led by the new Minister of Education and Chair of the Home Party, Rabbi Rafi Peretz. Bezalel Zinni, head of the Joint Headquarters for the Preservation of the Sanctity of the Western Wall, commented upon the remarks Peretz made at the service. “It was only recently reported that senior Jewish Federations in the US admit that most of the public in general and in Israel in particular does [sic!] not understand or support the Reform campaign at the Western Wall, that remnant of our Holy Temple that was erased from its foundation, but to which the people of Israel are still loyal after 2,000 years. Again, it has become clear that all the talk of a ‘rift’ with Jews of the Diaspora is an invention disconnected from reality. We congratulate the Minister of Education, Rabbi Rafi Peretz, who, as he declared during the elections, arrived today and joined the masses (my italics) of worshipers to express the widespread and clear public position that the sanctity of the Western Wall must be preserved throughout its length under the authority of the chief rabbinate of Israel only, and we are certain that he will also act to realize his words.”

Masses did not attend the service and there is no clear and widespread opinion that the Western Wall should be the preserve of the Orthodox, who ban women praying at the wall. Reading this was like listening to a squeaky version of the hyperbole of Donald Trump impervious to factual checks.

Yesterday, July 4th, was also American Independence Day. In an unprecedented move, the U.S. embassy in Ottawa hosted its Independence Day celebrations at the Arts Centre rather than at the American ambassador’s residence to focus the party on U.S. Ambassador to Canada, Kelly Craft, who will shortly move to New York as the American ambassador to the UN. (She will not likely be missed since she reputedly spent only 300 days in Canada during her appointment.) If this shift from a non-partisan celebration to one focused on politics and an individual was unprecedented in the diplomatic core in Ottawa, it did not compare in any way with the militarization, politicization and grandstanding of the Washington party which Donald Trump converted into a political rally for himself. Tanks and planes, bemedaled and embarrassed generals alongside a grinning totally unembarrassed Trump, decorated the National Mall.

Non-partisanship on a national birthday be damned! Instead, ritual veneration of the Commander-in-Chief! Instead of political substance, political showmanship. Instead of policy proposals, props. Instead of modesty, pageantry and pomp. Thus do empires decline and crumble. Yesterday, Mad Magazine announced the cessation of publication because it can no longer compete with an Alfred E. Neuman who has had his teeth fixed, but wears the same enormous supercilious grin and has become president of a once great republic.

Thus, are moves towards authoritarianism reinforced by rituals. Yet, in many parts of the world, the people are taking up arms against authoritarianism. In Sudan, popular demonstrations led to the overthrow of the country’s long-serving dictator only to learn that the protests had to continue to get his replacement, a military junta, to retreat in favour of civilian government. A million people mass together on Hong Kong streets in anti-extradition protests against the interference in democracy by the authoritarian mainland regime. Tyranny may be expanding, but so are democratic responses.

On Independence Day, Jews in America, nevertheless, continued their practice of celebrating how they could both remain Jewish as well as continue to be proud Americans. They fondly recall the bicentennial celebration in 1976 when, amidst barbecues and parties, parades and fireworks across the country, Jews also celebrated the daring rescue by the Israeli Defence Forces in Operation Thunderbolt of 100 passengers and crew being held hostage in Entebbe, Uganda after their Air France flight had been hijacked by Palestinian terrorists. This year, will some mourn the decline in American democratic values and respect for human rights while other Jews join in celebrating Donald Trump for recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, recognizing Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights and Trump’s probable endorsement of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s plans to enhance Israeli sovereignty in the Jewish settlements in the West Bank?

If American Jews were divided in their feelings yesterday, Jewish biblical commentators across the board, though with some variations, either overtly condemned Korach as a rebel and rationalized the punishment doled out to him and his allies, or remained neutral and detached as they picked apart the myriad of contradictions in the story and, using biblical critical scholarship, tried to knit it back together with more coherence.

The apologists in various ways depicted what happened as a “revolt of the mob” and/or “a conspiracy of the elite.” In their commentaries, they weighed in favouring, in this case, centralized authority versus personal autonomy and criticized Korach’s political convictions. Korach was labeled: “klever, conniving and krafty.” Korach was accused of being an ambitious politician in pursuit of leadership and a position above everyone else in the name of equality. Korach was said to be guilty of the sin of arrogance. He was not only guilty of unbridled political ambition, but of denying Moses’ claim simply to be a humble servant of God.

And the modern critical scholars?

Was Korach a rebel in the ordinary sense of the term? Was he in pursuit of authoritarianism under an egalitarian message? Was his character flawed and did he serve as a foil to the humility of Moses? They want to get the intent of the writing clear and evaluate the text rather than the ethical and political substance. And they are brilliant and instructive in their efforts. From their analyses of the role and meaning of the firepans (mahtot) in the tale and the connections with all the other references, the role of such a prop becomes much clearer in raking up the dead coals and embers from the sacrificial fire and, then, the significance in the contest between the Aaronites and the challengers.

The parashah begins as follows:

א  וַיִּקַּח קֹרַח, בֶּן-יִצְהָר בֶּן-קְהָת בֶּן-לֵוִי; וְדָתָן וַאֲבִירָם בְּנֵי אֱלִיאָב, וְאוֹן בֶּן-פֶּלֶת–בְּנֵי רְאוּבֵן. 1 Now Korah, the son of Izhar, the son of Kohath, the son of Levi, with Dathan and Abiram, the sons of Eliab, and On, the son of Peleth, sons of Reuben, took men;
ב  וַיָּקֻמוּ לִפְנֵי מֹשֶׁה, וַאֲנָשִׁים מִבְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל חֲמִשִּׁים וּמָאתָיִם, נְשִׂיאֵי עֵדָה קְרִאֵי מוֹעֵד, אַנְשֵׁי-שֵׁם. 2 and they rose up in face of Moses, with certain of the children of Israel, two hundred and fifty men; they were princes of the congregation, the elect men of the assembly, men of renown;
ג  וַיִּקָּהֲלוּ עַל-מֹשֶׁה וְעַל-אַהֲרֹן, וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֲלֵהֶם רַב-לָכֶם–כִּי כָל-הָעֵדָה כֻּלָּם קְדֹשִׁים, וּבְתוֹכָם יְהוָה; וּמַדּוּעַ תִּתְנַשְּׂאוּ, עַל-קְהַל יְהוָה. 3 and they assembled themselves together against Moses and against Aaron, and said unto them: ‘Ye take too much upon you, seeing all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the LORD is among them; wherefore then lift ye up yourselves above the assembly of the LORD?’

When Korach assembled Datan and Abiram and the descendants of the tribe of Reuben to confront Moses and Aaron, why is an expression of dissidence depicted as an uprising? There is no reference to the use of arms. Protest and rebellion are two very different activities. 250 leaders + of the Israelites. They were princes of the congregation, the elect men of the assembly, men of renown. This was not even a mob. Further, the dissidents were asking an important question. If God declared all of Israel holy, why are some men, particularly Moses’s brother and his children, considered more holy? Further, isn’t this a clear-cut case of nepotism?

Who was the target of the dissent – Moses’ political leadership or the elevation of the Aaron clan above the other Levites? The Reubenites joining the challenge suggests the former while other parts of the tale suggest it is just a debate over priestly privileges. Should Trump be empowered to take off her head when the captain of the American woman’s soccer team refuses to visit the White House? What is wrong with Datan and Abiram refusing to rise up and meet Moses?

And what about the punishment meted out to the dissidents? Not only is the depiction of their complaints and protest misrepresented as a rebellion, even if they were rebels in some vague sense, there is no justification offered for the punishment, let alone having Datan and Abiram swallowed up by the earth and the 250 members of the elite of Israelite society as well, possibly, of Korach and his whole household, including children and servants, burnt alive. Never mind whether the punishment was even deserved, under no decent ethical regime could it be considered proportionate in relationship to the dissidence.

My daughter Rachel was one of many scholarly commentators who wrote wonderful revealing expositions of the text. But where is the ethical and political judgement? Is this not just a case of those defending egalitarianism in the face of unaccountable drifting into authoritarianism? Is the accusation against Korach and his followers, that they were simply playing politics and acting as partisans seeking their own glory and superior status rather than equality, unfair even if possibly true of any dissident group? After all, the South African regime made the same charge against Nelson Mandela and the British monarchists charged the American rebels who actually did take up arms of the same illicit motives.

I have no time this morning to suggest answers and can only imply my dissatisfaction with the rabbinic and scholarly approaches that generally fail to take up the ethical and political issues directly. But, as can be expected, I will return to the issue when I have more time. I have to get back on the road again.

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