Korah: Power to people just biblical pie in the sky

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Numbers 16:1-18:32

I Samuel 11:14-12:22

Follow me, and all will be equal.

This week's reading tells the story of Korah, who rebelled against the authority of his cousin Moses on political and religious grounds.

In his political agenda, Korah has much in common with contemporary rebels. Korah rejects the people who currently hold power — Moses and his family. Why should rulership and authority belong to these people and not to others? Korah reasons. Why not to us?

Korah also makes a revolutionary statement, rejecting the system of government, wondering why — in the name of equality, fairness and democracy — anyone should have authority over others. Korah, the ancient yet up-to-date revolutionary, says something like, "Follow me and all people will be equal" — or, to put it another way, "Power to the people."

In its religious agenda, Korah's uprising has much in common with some of our own era's attractive popular thought. Korah asserts, "The people are, all of them, holy, and God is among them," and challenges Moses with the question, "So why do you elevate yourself over the community of God?" (Numbers 16:3 ). Korah wants us to realize that each person, made in the divine image, interprets his or her own revelation, and makes his or her own rules. Who can presume to judge, command or even teach another person?

In the Bible, Korah and his followers meet miraculous deaths, demonstrating the legitimacy of Moses' authority. Even without miracles, though, the revolution must not fail either in its political or in its religious agenda.

"Follow me, and all will be equal," on further reflection, appears an outright contradiction. "If all are equal," one might argue, "then we do not need to follow you."

"Power to the people" seems a mighty slogan until we ask, "Which people?" The rabbis put this thought into the mouth of a character so minor that she does not even appear in the biblical account — the wife of On, son of Pelet. Her husband, On, himself appears in the list of early supporters of the revolution (Numbers 16:1). We do not hear of him again, perhaps because he later abandoned the revolution. The rabbis suggest that On's wife talked him into this departure by asking, "What is in this dispute for you? If Aaron is High Priest, you are his follower, and if Korah is High Priest, you are his follower. Either way you wind up following" (Numbers Rabbah 18:20). She does not even consider the possibility that Korah can be taken at his word — that, in the new world order, there will be no leaders.

Political thinkers sometimes try to envision a time when there was no political organization. What was it like, back then? The 17th century British political philosopher Thomas Hobbes imagined "the life of man solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short." His 18th century French colleague Jean Jacques Rousseau, in words just as famous as Hobbes', noted that "man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains."

Mrs. On, as the rabbis depict her, casts doubts on the belief that a time existed when people were unfettered and society was without leaders.

Every human being is born into a society with some form of authority structure. (For that matter, scientists say, every social animal lives within a hierarchy of dominance.) How could two members of a society resolve disputes without a hierarchy?

In religious thought, however, such a system can be imagined. Maybe each person could serve as his or her own religious authority. If people are inherently good, then such a proposition might just work, the reasoning goes. We can each just rely on our inner light, our natural goodness.

Korah makes such a claim, but only for Jews. The late Israeli thinker Yeshayahu Leibowitz pointed out that once someone starts "smugly" believing his tribe is inherently holy, "the person absolves himself of responsibility, of the mission imposed upon him, and of the obligation to exert himself." Given such a belief, he asserts, "even the most contemptible person can boast that he is a member of a holy nation." Dismiss the nationalism, make the claim that all people are inherently holy and good, and you're still well within the confines of smugness.

In the words of the late U.C. Berkeley Professor Aaron Wildavsky: "If all Israelites receive revelation equally, they need neither leaders nor priesthood. Bid Moses and Aaron goodbye. If the people are good…by virtue of revelation, they do not have to strive to become good. Bid the commandments goodbye. If every man is a judge of revelation, bid the law and the community goodbye. This is heresy. This is the end of Israel."

As Leibowitz understands the Torah, human holiness is never inherent. It appears as a goal: "And now, if you will listen to my voice, and keep my covenant, then you will become a treasure to me…and you will become a kingdom of priests and a holy nation" (Exodus 19:5-6).

You can achieve holiness, then, if you listen.