Jewish learning For the Sake of Heaven?
Parashat Korach (Number 16:1-18:32)
Parashat Korach opens with a dramatic rebellion. Korach and his co-conspirators accuse Moses: “You have gone too far! For all the community, all of them, are holy… Why do you raise yourself above God’s congregation?” (Numbers 16:3) Moses matches Korach’s aggression: “You have gone too far,” and challenges them to a duel of sorts. Each side will make incense offerings to Hashem, and whoever God chooses will be holy and preferred.
Those of us who think critically about corrupt hierarchies and abuses of power will recognize our concerns in Korach’s claims. I too consider the whole community holy. I too wonder what it was like to travel through the midbar (wilderness) in such a top-down structure, with Moses in charge. And as a rabbi who thinks often about models of leadership, the stakes feel high to me. Was Moses’s leadership becoming corrupt, or was Korach’s confrontation of it corrupt? What can we learn from this parashah about power and conflict?
This year as I encounter Korach, I hear echoes of adrienne maree brown’s 1 We Will Not Cancel Us. brown’s book is a response to both the toxic elements of cancel culture that have proliferated in an age of social media call-outs, as well as a response to the way critiques of cancel culture have been used by right-wing agendas to discredit the public confrontation of corrupt power. brown writes, “I want to invite us to get excellent at being in conflict, which is a healthy, natural part of being human and biodiverse.”
Is Korach’s rebellion a “healthy, natural” kind of conflict? brown elaborates:
“In a nutshell, principled struggle is when we are struggling for the sake of something larger than ourselves, and are honest and direct with each other while holding compassion.”
“Principled struggle” is known in Jewish tradition as מחלקת לשם שמים, makhloket l’shem shamayim, “a debate/dispute for the sake of heaven.” The etymology of the word makhloket can teach us more about the inner workings of conflict. The root חלק means “portion,” or “part.” When we are in a makhloket, each party holds a portion of the truth, and even as we disagree with one another, our truths are each a necessary fraction of something larger. Makhloket l’shem shamayim perfectly fits brown’s description of generative and growthful conflict: “struggling for the sake of something larger than ourselves.”
Korach’s rebellion is certainly an example of conflict in the Torah, but is it generative conflict? The Rabbis, it turns out, have the same question, and in Pirkei Avot they weigh in:
.מַחֲלֹקֶת…וְשֶׁאֵינָהּ לְשֵׁם שָׁמַיִם? זוֹ מַחֲלֹקֶת קֹרַח וְכָל עֲדָתוֹ
Which is the dispute that is not for the sake of Heaven? The controversy of Korah and all his congregation. (Avot 5:17)
Thus, Pirkei Avot teaches us that Korach’s rebellion is not for the sake of something larger. But how do we know this to be the case, and how can we differentiate between one kind of makhloket and another?
When Korach and his supporters brought their incense offerings, “the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up,” (Numbers 16:32) and they disappeared entirely. From this we can deduce one of two things: either that something was corrupt about the grievances of Korach and his people, or that God acted in an unjust and arbitrary way.
Throughout the generations, our sages and commentators have sought to explore the aspects of Korach that would motivate corrupt behavior, hoping not to be left with the disheartening possibility that God is at fault in the story. In the Talmud, Korach is portrayed as extravagantly wealthy and driven by greed 2. According to the Ramban, Korach’s timing was predatory and even calculated—waiting until the people had endured trauma after trauma in the desert to channel their discontent into a coup. Rashi picks up on the opening words of the parashah, vayikach Korach, “and Korach took” to mean that he took advantage of his followers with his words, luring them to his side with deceptive stories and rumors.
Nehama Leibowitz, a 20th century scholar, suggests that Korach’s complaint:
כִּי כל־הָֽעֵדָה כֻּלָּם קְדֹשִׁים “that all the community, all of them, are holy” is spoken in a subtle but significant language of individualism. Korach could have said:
כי כל האעדה קדושה “The whole congregation is holy.” But instead, by specifying כֻּלָּם, every one of them, individually, Korach shows his true colors, an ultimate interest in his own personal gain.
In the end, these are interpretive theories. Korach is a challenging character to grapple with, for our sages and for us today, because he’s not totally wrong. The Judaism we practice now is based on Korach’s same democratizing claim that “all the people are holy.” Rabbinic Judaism relocated ritual from the centralized and hierarchical Temple to the homes and synagogues of everyday people, and put holiness in our hands. We are empowered to live out the do-it-yourself ethic of Judaism—lighting candles, hosting seders, leyning Torah, forming chevra kadishas, and nearly everything else we do—because the Rabbis so deeply aligned with the notion that we are a mamlekhet kohanim, “a kingdom of priests,” a community of grassroots holiness and equality. Which we are.
But Korach seems to have missed another essential element, one of the hardest spiritual charges of being in community: collectivity.
Being in community, as a spiritual discipline, requires that we unlearn the ego, individualism, and competition that the foundations of our capitalist and white supremacist society has instilled in all of us. In community, we engage with the collective’s needs as our personal needs. I think it’s one of the most difficult spiritual practices to learn and live by, in part because it embodies a paradox. Each one of us, individual and unique, indispensable and treasured, is a reflection of the divine. We are different from each other in essential ways. And yet, when God commands the Israelites to embody holiness, that holiness is an interconnected, communal whole. Something larger than the sum of its parts.
If we believe that no one is disposable, then God too misses the mark. Though, as our commentators suggest, Korach may be driven by ego, personal gain, and manipulative tendencies, God’s impulse to open up the earth and swallow Korach whole reflects what adrienne maree brown defines in her book as un-generative conflict, stemming from the belief that:
“those who cause harm or mess up or disagree with us cannot change and cannot belong. They must be eradicated. The bad things in the world cannot change, we must disappear the bad until there is only good left.”
In Torah, neither human nor divine has it yet figured out. In our parashah, both we and God are growing towards better ways of engaging makhloket and building the spiritual muscle of an interconnected, complex human we.
We have our work cut out for us, to learn how not to swallow each other whole, and instead to become curious about what חלק, portion, of a greater truth each member of our community holds in their lived experience. May we continue learning together to become “excellent at conflict,” integrating the lessons of both righteousness and imperfection that Korach and God embody in this story. May we continue to find discernment on the path toward generative conflict, conflict for the sake of life, justice and divinity, l’shem shamayim.
1 adrienne maree brown is an author, artist, and activist, who uses lowercase letters for her name, in the tradition of some Black feminist writers, including bell hooks.
2 Sanhedrin 110a
Mónica Gomery was ordained from the Hebrew College Rabbinical School in 2017. She is honored to serve on the clergy team of Kol Tzedek Synagogue in Philadelphia as Rabbi and Music Director, and to teach Talmud on the faculty of SVARA: A Traditionally Radical Yeshiva.