For contemporary readers, the core story of this week’s parsha may appear to be a debate over democracy, involving a challenge to Moses’ leadership by a rebel band led by the malcontent Korach. Using the time-tested technique of the demagogue, Korach wraps his personal pursuit of power in the alleged “name of the people,” saying: “The entire community is holy, all of them, and the Lord is among them; why do you [Moses] raise yourself above the community of the Lord?” (Numbers 16:3)
The biblical writers hastily dismiss Korach’s challenge in a charged narrative that imagines God sending judgment on the rebels by having the earth open up beneath them. Moses’ legitimacy is assured, the presumably deterrent effect of this supernatural display of power squelches further rebellions, and Aaron’s family has secured its claim to the formal priesthood of ancient Israel.
Biblical scholarship of the past several decades leads us beyond the debate over democracy and into the larger context in which the Korach story resides. Two scholars in particular, Jacob Milgrom and Baruch Levine, represented in the Anchor Bible and Jewish Publication Society editions of Leviticus and Numbers, have uncovered and presented the power struggle that permeated ancient Israel regarding which priestly family line could claim legitimacy and the prerogatives that accrued to those who presided over the sacrifices, which constituted the core of religious activity.
While the Torah and its traditional interpreters like to present the election of Aaron to head the priestly (kohen) line as a divine decree and to deflect challenges to subsequent generations of kohanim (priests), the story that emerges from biblical literature suggests a more complex and controversial history. Like any other institution of power, the determination as to who is regarded as legitimate or as a usurper with regard to religious leadership is the result of politics, power, alliances, betrayals, deal-making, coalitions, and behind-the-scenes maneuvering.
Viewed from this perspective, the story of Korach is one among several texts that allude to the instability of priestly leadership. For some scholars, the story of Korach is a polemic from a later period, presumably launched by those claiming descent from Aaron. The Aaronide investment in such a story is to malign the (imaginary?) ancestry of those claiming descent from Korach, thereby invalidating what may have been their attempt to gain control of the priesthood.
Similarly, viewed from this perspective, the familiar story of the “golden calf” is less a story about the ephemeral devotion of the Israelites to God than it is a critique of the ancestry of those claiming priestly legitimacy for the descendants of Aaron, who, after all, is represented in that story as the person responsible for the creation of the idolatrous image.
Regrettably, this ancient set of stories, with its underlying architecture of accusation, captures a dynamic that remains uncomfortably evident in the contemporary Jewish community. American-Jewish life, notwithstanding its accomplishments, creativity, innovations, and dynamism, has also been characterized by an unending volley in which first one and then another leader, agency, or organization claims the mantle of leadership.
As we know so well from the disgraceful descent of political debate in American culture, it is far easier to call into question the character of one’s opponent than it is to appeal for support by advocacy of a given position. It is not surprising that the Jewish community, a community within the larger American context, has become increasingly contaminated by this type of debate.
The tone of today’s debates — whether on the legitimacy of conversions, the safety and security of Israel, the “right way” to fund Jewish life, the “appropriate places” to direct tzedaka, or the groups that can and cannot “sit at the table” when Jewish life is under discussion — has become increasingly acrimonious and often ugly. That the Jewish Council on Public Affairs has felt compelled to create a “campaign for civility” in the Jewish community tells us how far we have strayed from respectful and tolerant debate.
We cannot count on supernatural intervention to swallow up those with whom we disagree, nor would we want to. Applied to our own time, the story of Korach suggests that we might all benefit from turning down the temperature on communal debate, from taking a few deep breaths, and from listening with double the effort that we seem so eager to put into talking.