How did the Earth Get Involved in Politics?

Just as the creator seeks solitude, the destroyer must be constantly surrounded by people, witnesses to his efficacy –Walter Benjamin, The Destructive Character

This week’s perasha is concerned with the revolt of Korach, a leading Levite, against the desert leadership of Moshe and Aharon. The story is a bit complicated; there seems to be more than one revolt, with more than one ensuing outcome–Korach and his crew are swallowed up by a gaping crater that opens in the ground, while the 250 would be usurpers of the high priesthood are consumed by an incense driven conflagration. I will not attempt to unravel all the difficulties in this text; I am concerned with essentially two pivotal matters, as we will see. At any rate, I believe there is more here than merely post-revolution factional rivalries, as those of the Mensheviks versus Bolsheviks, that Michael Walzer reads into the Korach narrative.

The text itself , in verse 16:3, states that Korach and his crew gathered before Moshe and Aharon, arguing:

You have taken upon yourselves too much; for the masses are all holy and within them is the Lord, (and if I may paraphrase into New Yorkese) Who made you such a big shot over Gd’s congregation?

The Midrash and Zohar add an entire series of issues into what appears to be a dynastic battle between Moshe and Aharon’s clan versus that of Korach’s for tribal and national domination. The Midrash Rabba states that Korach took a talit made entirely of blue material and claimed ‘should this all blue talit require an additional blue fringe to be proper? Does a study hall full of books require a further small supplementary text on the door (a mezuzah) to be acceptable?’ The Zohar adds that Korach had problems with the Sabbath and Torah as well. Why do the midrashim need to amplify Korach’s dissension from Moshe and Aharon beyond the political? Why turn a political disagreement into a heretical faction?

While we are on the subject of recasting the Korach story, was Cecil B. DeMille was on to something? In his uber-epic film, “The Ten Commandments,” DeMille decided to situate the punishment of the earth opening up as a result of the people’s worshipping idols,  that a more appropriate use of the punishment involving swallowing sinners into the ground would be as a consequence of the golden calf, where the people regressed back into frank idolatry. Is there a reason that this supernatural type of punishment should have been invoked after what appears to be a mere political battle, rather than after a much worse situation such as the golden calf? Our survey of the literature first, followed by my own ‘contemporary’ attempt at reading this episode, will need to answer these two questions:

1. Why the transformation of Korach’s revolt into a religious heresy, and

2. why did there need to be such a dramatic Divine intervention in specifically this episode?

First of all, let us examine the argument against Moshe and Aaron of Korach that the text cites, that “all the people are holy”. Two common approaches are found in the Hassidic commentators about Korach’s argument. One, that what he said, about all the congregation being holy, is a true statement. As R. Tzadok Hacohen puts it: if it wasn’t in some way true (that the people are all holy), it wouldn’t have been cited in the Torah. Two, Despite the objective veracity of the comment he made about the people,  coming from Korach it was a cynical attempt at populism that Korach himself didn’t actually believe it.

So what is the true component of Korach’s statement? According to the Tiferet Shemuel, once the people received the Torah, then all had equal access to the text, thus seemingly, in the ideal situation, there would be no need for a ‘ spiritual leader’, a ‘rav’. The Tiferet Shelomo reads Moshe’s answer, in 16:9, where Moshe opens with ‘a small thing to you’, with the ‘to you’ meaning that the reply to them was in their own message (which begins “rav lachem”): this is proof that if anyone needs a rav, a spiritual leadership, it is you folks’. But in theory in an ideal future world the people could reach such a high level as a result of access to the texts that they wouldn’t need any spiritual leadership, the route to truth and spirituality would be open for all, like an internet of positive content (is this why “religious leaders” are so eager to ban the internet?)

The Yismach Yisrael takes a similar approach, that the argument would be true in the right circumstances, but was cynical here. He argues that once the Torah was given, it is the responsibility of the people to interpret, to bring Torah to daily human life;  Torah is not given to angels or supermen. Korach was arguing, as per a comment in the BT Bava Metzia 49:, that Moshe was more like an angel than a man, thus Moshe was not the appropriate ‘interpretive’ guide for the avergae person, rather, Korach, with his “common sense arguments”, was the proper leader. What were Korach’s common sense arguments? His “common sense” arguments are those cited by the Midrash, that an all blue talit shouldn’t need a blue supplemental fringe, nor a house full of books a mezuzah, which are, upon reflection,  more subversively snide remarks than “common sense”.

Like the Tiferet Shelomo, the Yismach Yisrael finds the response in 16:9- “Is it a small thing for you (ham’eat michem) that God has seperated you from the people to perform the service of the Mishkan and stand before the people to serve them?

The term used, “michem”,  literally, from yourselves, from your status,  Levites, you know the answer: Just as your chosen situation is not the result of your innate qualities or gifts, but rather was a gift through divine fiat, so too God wanted Moshe to serve as conduit by which the people receive the Torah at that time, not related to qualifications or discussion, but an act of God’s will.

A intriguing idea is found in the Bet Yaakov, who explains the central point of Korach’s argument as not being about hermeneutics, of interpretation as per the Yismach Yisrael, but an attack by Korach on praxis. Korach’s argument was that if everyone is perfected by access to Torah, much like the talit that already is all blue, all perfected, then what good is served by further work, such as adding fringes,  or for that matter actually doing any mitzvah as a repeating activity in time? All praxis, to Korach’s argument, is superfluous; once the ‘idea’ is understood, the activity itself is rendered superfluous. This explains why Moshe’s challenge to the rebels was to a “face-off” with regards to physically offering the incense: what is greater, personal holiness without “community organization”, or praxis, acts on behalf of the people, as exemplified by the ketoret, the ritual incense. The ketoret episode teaches that practice is not abandoned when some ideas are grasped, the vehicle is not abandoned, as it were, the act encodes more than any one reading.

The Mei Hashiloach, and his disciple, R. Tzadok Hacohen of Lublin, as we noted earlier, take Korach’s statement about the holiness of the congregation very seriously. To them, Korach’s statement is absolutely correct:

…The people are holy and within them are Gd…

R. Tzadok feels that ultimately, Korach will ultimately be redeemed as a result of is statement. His statement is true, but not yet! At the end of history, when the world is rectified, as describe in the BT Taanit 31. , Gd will form a machol, a circle-dance, as it were, with the righteous. Why  specifically a circle, asks the Mei Hashiloach? Because a circle is made up of an equal set of radii to all points on its perimeter; that is, all will have identical and equal access to Gd. In fact, points out R. Tzadok (in Tzidkat Hatzadik 65), the 250 who sacrificed the incense at the cost of their lives, did so because they were so committed to the goal of universal spiritual perfection that they were not willing to live in a world in which this was no longer the case (according to the texts, for a brief moment, after Sinai and before the golden calf, the world existed in that perfected state of universal equality ) and because of their dedication to the ideal state of human perfection, their censers were posthumously used to make the copperplate covering of the incense altar in the Mishkan, to commemorate this once and future ideal of universal human equality in spiritual perfection.

But if the statement and this ideal are correct, what was the sin of Korach? The sin of Korach was that as true as the decontextualized statement may be,  Korach’s use of the argument was a merely cynical device that he himself didn’t believe in. Like many after him, he wore the cloak of democracy while really only advocating for his own promotion, power and control. Virtually every textual reference to Korach has been read by the the commentators as indicating that Korach was disingenuous, that he said positive things to gain the admiration of the crowd, while at heart he was after something different entirely, along the lines of Benjamin’s observation about the destroyer needing to surround himself with followers cited above.

The Kedushat Levi notes the the initial verb used of Korach, ‘Vayikach Korach‘, Korach took, illustrates this phony populism. The Kedushat Levi explains that there are two types of tzadikkim in the world- those who only care that Gd’s purposes be accomplished, not caring who it is that gets the credit, and the other kind being those whose goal is to receive the credit. Thus the language used here is of ‘taking’, as in ‘taking credit’: Korach wanted recognition more than he wanted truth; had he only wanted God’s will to be done among the people he wouldn’t have cared if Moshe was in charge as long as the holy work was done. The Kol Simcha also catches this self-serving tone from the word vayikach, which he sees (following the Midrash Rabba) as ‘fighting words’- that when Korach appends to his statement regarding the people’s holiness that ‘why should Moshe be such a big shot’, Korach betrays that what he really wanted was for himself to be the big leader as opposed to Moshe. When spiritual leadership expends so much energy insisting on its own centrality, it betrays that what matters most is that it remain as leadership, rather than a concern for the greater good and purpose.

The Shem M’Shemuel, who also argues that Korach’s statement about the people being holy is true, and would have been actualized at Sinai, had the people not sinned shortly afterwards with the golden calf, ais convinced that Korach was positioning himself as the “populist” candidate, the man of the people, as opposed to Aaron. Thus the trial by incense. The root word Ketoret, incense, in Aramaic is also the word for binding together , much like the root of the word for religion (religio, from the same root as the word ligate, to tie together), thus, successfully offering the incense reveals who truly has the ability to bring the people together, it is a sign of true love for others (and as we know from multiple texts, Aaron was an individual with great love for the people). Furthermore, the ketoret itself is representative of the people as a variegated totality, with its inclusion of the spice known as helbonah, which traditionally is held to have an unpleasant odor on its own yet is essential to the “mix”, and thus symbolic of bringing even the sinners back into the community. Thus, the one who is appropriate to truly offer the ketoret is the one who has the capacity to bring all the disparate elements of the community together. Spiritual leadership means bringing different types of individuals together, not lording their superior spirituality over ‘the people’ who they view as the lower ‘masses’.

We see how the rift initiated by Korach is read as a lesson for leadership and their relationship with the people.  However, we have not touched upon the reasons why the Midrash turned Korach’s battle for Levite succession into a religious argument, and have not ascertained why the divine response was rather violent supernatural intervention in which the earth opens up and swallows the rebels. As we see from Cecil de Mille’s directorial choice, wouldn’t divine intervention make more sense after the spiritual disobedience related to the Golden Calf episode, with its accompanying decadent behaviour?

There is an early poetic account of the Korach episode, in the weekly krovoth of Yannai, the sixth century poet of Byzantine Eretz Yisrael, which can be read as an early commentary or midrash on the text. He attributes the choice of punishment to a literary tit for tat:

Ya’an gevoha gevoha paku

Mata Mata ha’amaku

(As higher for position did they strive,

deeper into the earth did they dive)

Literary parallelism not withstanding, to truly understand the supernatural intervention in a political debate, it would be instructive to review the way ideas are believed to take hold in societies, the way in which societies themselves are constructed and legitimated. Peter Berger, in his book, The Sacred Canopy, adapts early Marxian concepts regarding commodification in order to propose a sociology of religion. Societies, he argues, are the result of a dialectical interaction between the people and their activities in the world:

The fundamental dialectic process of society consists of three moments, or steps. These are externalization, objectivation, and internalization. Only if these three moments are understood together can an empirically adequate view of society be maintained. Externalization is the ongoing outpouring of human being into the world, both in the physical and the mental activity of men. Objectivation is the attainment by the products of this activity (again both physical and mental) of a reality that confronts its original producers as a facticity external to and other than themselves . Internalization is the reappropriation by men of this same reality, transforming it once again from structures of the objective world into structures of the subjective consciousness. It is through externalization that society is a human product. It is through objectivation that society becomes a reality sui generis. It is through internalization that man is a product of society.

In other words, certain historical, economic, and sociological factors cause a certain type of person to become, say, a bus driver for Egged. Over time, the stereotype of what an ‘Egged bus driver’ is supposed to be takes on a life of its own, and then, future potential Egged bus drivers train themselves to behave a certain way in order to fit in and truly play the role they have chosen for themselves; a stereotype becomes an archetype.

These stereotypes are, of course, subject to alteration. Economic, political, and other changes can lead to alternative approaches to the description which then enter the cycle of reification as described by Berger above. This is natural, and the way that human culture evolves. However, there are certain institutions to whom changes of this sort could lead to an undermining of the entire enterprise. The royal houses of Europe, in order to maintain the facticity of their rule, needed to invent the divine rule of kings in order to suppress the opposition from asking uncomfortable questions about their eligibility for rule ( for an illustrative example, cf. the antimonarchist arguments of the Monty Python troupe in “The Holy Grail” ).

The problem of legitimacy of political institutions, is a potential explanation of the supernatural intervention in the Korach episode. Whereas the golden calf episode was at the core a theological controversy, theological argument was an appropriate and adequate response. However, in this seeming political controversy, no amount of argument could ever entirely justify and legitimate the rule of one man over another. Certainly one can imagine that were there the 24 hour news cycle we have today, there would have been pundits supporting of one candidate over the other, and perhaps whole news stations would have been openly partisan, with no desire for dialogue or even resolution; it is typical of certain types of political opposition to bring the entire society to a standstill in order to advance their goals. Thus, here, in the Korach insurrection, more so than in the golden calf episode, there would be a need for divine intervention in order to legitimate the political order. And upon reflection it is clear that it is not just the political order that is at risk. For the entire mission of the Exodus was at stake, as the Midrashists properly sensed. If doubt could be assigned regarding Moshe and Aharon’s legitimacy as leaders, then doubt will be assigned to all aspects of the new society, particularly its set of laws, what we know of now as the Torah. And there is no real way to vindicate the underpinnings of an entirely new society by rational argument within the context of the preexisting society (which is why it was so difficult for the contemporary Israelites to adjust to freedom), as opposed to theological issues, which, paradoxically are more debatable and subject to rational discussion. Legitimation of the new society had to come from without, dramatically, or it would be eternally subject to the musings of talk show hosts  and the like…

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