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Chancellor's Parashah Commentary

Parashat Korah 5761
Numbers 19:1 - 22:1
June 23, 2001     2 Tammuz 5761

Ismar Schorsch is the chancellor of The Jewish Theological Seminary.

During the past few months, there has been a changing of the guard at the helm of key national organizations of the American Jewish community. The personalities interest me less than the process. From a historical perspective what is most striking is the total non–involvement of the state. No Jewish leader in the United States ever needs to secure confirmation of his or her selection from the state. Authority to exercise leadership in the Jewish community derives solely from within. The state makes no pretense of influence or power over the process.

Periodically, we ought to remind ourselves of just how radically new is the legal status of the American Jewish community. The supreme indifference of the state to the internal affairs of the Jewish community, to be sure, is just another aspect of the principled and pervasive separation of church and state in America. But from a Jewish perspective, the total absence of any state legislation governing organized Jewish life is the culmination of the long struggle for Jewish emancipation. Historically, Jewish leadership depended for its authority on sources outside its own community, either divine or foreign. Though partially operative throughout, validation from within became unfettered only in the 20th century, and nowhere more fully than in the United States.

I raise the subject because this week's parasha deals with the most ancient base for Jewish leadership: divine backing. Prof. Jacob Milgrom argues that chapter 16 of Numbers recounts not one assault on Moses' authority but as many as four: "Dathan and Abiram versus Moses, Korah and the chieftains versus Aaron, Korah and the Levites versus Aaron . . [and] Korah and the community (edah) versus Moses and Aaron (JPS Torah Commentary, p. 415)." It would take us too far afield to follow the stylistic intricacies of the text that lie behind Milgrom's conclusion. Suffice it to say that chapter 16 abridges and compresses disparate traditions of at least four uprisings, while chapter 17 preserves yet a fifth, against the political and religious leadership established to take Israel through the wilderness.

What interests me is the manner of their resolution. There are traces of four distinct moments of divine intervention to affirm the status quo. The selection of national leaders is effected through a concrete manifestation of God's will. The authority to lead flows directly from heaven. God not only creates the polity of ancient Israel, but also leads it by choosing the person to stand at its helm. And this is the theme that joins the haftara to our parasha.

At first, Korah and his band are instructed to bring before God (i.e. to the Tent of Meeting) flat pans burning with incense. But instead of being chosen Korah's group is incinerated by a divine fire and their pans used to plate the altar as a warning to future encroachers (16:6–7, 17–18, 35). Second, Dathan and Abiram, their families and households vanish through an opening in the earth, plummeting into the netherworld (16:31–34). Third, 13 staffs, representing Aaron and 12 tribal chieftains, each with his name inscribed on his staff, are to be deposited by Moses in the Tent of Meeting. A day later, it is Aaron's staff alone that has begun to sprout, blossom and even bring forth almonds (17:16–24). Finally, God's wrath turns on all the people because of their incessant murmuring. A plague quickly passes through the camp, stayed only by the heroism of Aaron who offers expiation with incense from the altar while standing in the midst of the carnage. Still, more than 14,000 Israelites perish (17:9–15).

The point of these miracles is to deliver incontrovertible proof of God's will. Moses and Aaron govern by divine fiat, as does Saul, the first king of a united monarchy. Samuel, the prophet and judge, had frowned upon the popular demand for a king. Till then God had ruled directly by sending a judge when needed. But Samuel's sons were unworthy and God conceded. The choice however remained with God, who instructs Samuel to anoint Saul, "an excellent young man, no one among the Israelites more handsome than he, a head taller than any of the people (I Samuel 9:2)." In other words, the shift to a monarchy does not eliminate God as the source of royal authority. Nor does it guarantee stellar leadership, as the often despotic kings of both the Northern and Southern Kingdom amply attest.

The restoration of the Temple under Persian rule alters the basis for Jewish leadership. In the middle of the 5th century B.C.E., Ezra, the priest, scribe and scholar, comes to Jerusalem with a royal rescript authorizing him "to regulate Judah and Jerusalem according to the law of your God, which is in your care (Ezra 7:14)." Bereft of independence, the Jewish polity must now settle for a leader appointed not by God but by a gentile sovereign. Likewise, around the year 200 B.C.E., after the Seleucids in Syria wrest control of Palestine from the Ptolemies, Antiochus the Great (III as opposed to the IV of the Hanukkah story) issues a similar edict granting "all members of the nation [the right] to form a government in accordance with the laws of their country." In yet another edict, Antiochus assumes responsibility for the sanctity of the Temple: "It is unlawful for any foreigner to enter the enclosure of the Temple which is forbidden to the Jews, except to those of them who are accustomed to enter after purifying themselves in accordance with the law of the country (Josephus, Jewish Antiquities, XII, 142, 146)."

This paradox of gentile enforcement of Jewish law set the stage for the Maccabean upheaval. Foreign power was susceptible to purchase by the highest bidder. In quick succession, two pro–Hellenistic priests bought the office of High Priest in the Temple from a nearly bankrupt Seleucid government provoking bitter resistance from more traditionally–minded Jews. At issue was the degree to which Jerusalem should become part of the cosmopolitan world of Greek civilization.

Once victorious, the Maccabees established their dynasty on yet a third source of authority, namely, the people they governed. In 140 B.C.E., Simon, the last of the surviving sons of Mattathias, was elected by a great national gathering as Prince of the People and High Priest "until a true prophet should arise (I Maccabees 14:41)." The slightly archaic nod to divine authority reflects an awareness of the unprecedented nature of leadership by popular choice.

For much of the Middle Ages and beyond, Jewish self–government in exile would function on a blend of all three forms of authority: a measure of popular election often based on religious piety and learning and usually requiring confirmation by the state. That the combination worked is a tribute to Jewish political sagacity.

Ismar Schorsch


The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch's commentary on Parashat Korah are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z"l) Hassenfeld.