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Our Holy Grandfather: A Reassessment of Korach

From: Conservative Judaism
Volume 65, Number 3, Spring 2014
pp. 69-88 | 10.1353/coj.2014.0002

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

The great hasidic sage Rabbi Menaḥem Mendel of Kotzk, known simply as the Kotzker, was not a man who looked on the bright side of life or suffered fools gladly. His was a life spent largely in isolation and devoted utterly and without compromise to the search for “the Truth.” Faith without honesty and truth meant nothing, and if “in your search for truth, you must stand up to God, well, so be it.” According to the Kotzker, “You cannot live, you cannot fulfill yourself by proxy; no one can seek in your place. … No one will lay claim to truth in your stead, in your name. No one will be your intermediary, just as you cannot be another’s. You relationship with truth is your affair and no one else’s.” Despite—and indeed, no doubt due to—his uncompromising and radical views, the Kotzker developed a deeply loyal following, sustained to this day.

Not given lightly to approbation, it must have been an event of no small significance when the Kotzker bestowed the title “Our Holy Grandfather” on a biblical forefather. And accustomed as his disciples might have been to the peculiarities of their master, it still must have come as a shock to find out that the title was not vested in a patriarch, or Moses or David, but, of all people, on Korach.

To consider Korach as a dark horse candidate for the title “Our Holy Grandfather” might be an understatement. By tradition, Korach—the ego-driven, demagogic rabble-rouser who led the desert revolt against Moses and Aaron and, by direct implication, against God—is perhaps the best known biblical agent provocateur, and in that regard, next to Pharaoh and Haman, would seem to be a most difficult resuscitation job. He is the exemplar of the aphorism, “If you are going to shoot at the king, you’d better kill him.” In pre-monarchic Israel, Moses was the “king.” By conventional analysis, at least, Korach took straight aim at him with all of the despicable tools available to a demagogue: he organized a revolt in the wilderness and sought, for reasons of personal jealousy and thwarted ambition, to overthrow Mosaic and Aaronide leadership of the Israelites. Certainly, by the text, Korach “missed” and, together with his allies, paid an immediate and gruesome price. Or, at least, that is the outline of the story as tradition coveys it to us.

But Korach was neither Pharaoh nor Haman. Pharaoh sought to deny the Jewish people their freedom and thus their ability to accept God in a free, covenantal relationship. Haman, of course—a descendant of Amalek, the Jew’s sworn enemy for eternity—sought to destroy the Jews through state-sponsored genocide. Korach, by comparison, resorted to no weapons and inflicted no casualties. His was an intellectual insurrection, accursed by millennia of rabbinic authority and by God’s own response, which was the violent and abusive (in the sense of disproportionate to the wrong committed) the slaughter of 15,000 Israelites.

Proposing a different assessment from the norm of the Korach story, as the Kotzker does, is not totally quixotic. The Kotzker’s obsession with truth and individual equality lends itself to the broad outlines of the message of Korach. And although this “populist” appeal of Korach has certainly been recognized by the sages, it is generally readily dismissed either as the false front of a demagogue or the naïve and dangerously premature visions of an idealist.

The story of Korach covers two relatively brief chapters in the book of Numbers. It is nothing short of fascinating that given the amount of rabbinic lore providing additional “insight” into Korach’s actions—pointing out his unworthy pretexts, his evil motivations, and his personality deficits—Korach himself has only two speaking lines in the entire story. At the very outset of the story, he addresses Moses and Aaron by saying: “You have gone too far! 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)

From a literal reading of the text, it is not even clear if...


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