This week’s portion of Korach is intriguing in that it tells of perhaps the first ideological rebellion in our history. Korach leading a rebellion against Moses’ leadership fails and for his role in the rebellion is liquidated along with thousands of others.
The story of Korach relates directly back to Parshat B’ha-alotecha where we are told of the command handed to Moses to begin a process of inclusion of the 70 elders in the governance of the Israelites. If a process of democratization had begun why was Moses so determined to eliminate Korach? Isn’t that part of the process of shared leadership? And was not the reaction of Moses extreme? Most commentaries depict Korach as evil, trying to usurp power, ridiculing Moses with two questions: A talit made of T’chelet does it require tzitzit? A house filled with Torah scrolls, does it require a mezuzah? The implied question was a nation of holy people who witnessed the epiphany do they really require holy leaders? Spinning the Korach incident in this way has a certain convenience because it provides traditional commentaries with the justification for maintaining the status quo in Jewish life. But the question ought not to be framed as such but rather a nation which has singularly witnessed the epiphany do they really need an intermediary to serve their God?
Korach was one of the early Jewish iconoclasts, a visionary who challenged the conventional approach to leadership and religion. It would appear from examination of the text that Korach wasn’t really challenging the right of Moses to continue serving as the designated spiritual leader as much as he was criticizing the hierarchy of religious leadership who claimed that only they and only through their office could God be accessed.
Korach challenged this approach to religious practice and spirituality by claiming that all men ought to have equal access to God’s beneficence and munificence. How different was he from the Baal Shem Tov who challenged the traditional structure of 18th century eastern European religious life? Leaders such as the Vilna Gaon ostracized the Baal Shem Tov because he created a new, powerful, populist movement to Jewish spirituality. The search for God and spirituality would no longer be the private domain of the Jewish intellectuals who as the Rambam maintained were really the ones who could maintain and sustain the “shefa” between man and God.