Korah: a Rebel with a Cause
In the Jewish imagination, Korah personifies the archrebel. Rapacious envy appears to drive him to assemble a force of 250 “men of repute” to repudiate the leadership of Moses and Aaron. Stunned by the confrontation, Moses is unable to muster any sympathy for Korah. Moses often intercedes with God on behalf of his adversaries. Not this time. Moses only seeks to restrain God’s anger. The innocent should not perish with the guilty. But the uprising is broad based. Even after Korah and his 250 chieftains are swallowed by the earth and scorched by fire, the rebellion continues until more than 14,000 meet their death in a plague unleashed by God. The gravity of the turmoil is summed up by Rabbi Akiva centuries later in the Mishnah: Korah and company are beyond redemption. They are fated to remain in the netherworld (sheol) for eternity (Sanhedrin 10:3).
And yet, this unnuanced perception of events is not fully warranted by the narrative itself. Korah is not a rebel without cause. His critique of Moses and Aaron has a democratic bite to it: “You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation? (16:3)” To fathom the critique, the twelfth century Spanish commentator, Abraham Ibn Ezra, tried to contextualize the event. He suggested that what triggered the discontent was the displacement of the first-born by the Levites (Numbers 3:40-51; 8:5-26). People suspected Moses, who was himself a member of the tribe of Levi, of favoring his clan. That is what gave resonance to Korah’s grievance. As for Korah himself, who was a Levite and a first cousin to Moses (Exodus 6:18-21), he expressed the Levites vexation at being wholly subservient to Aaron and the priests. Finally, according to Ibn Ezra, Datan and Aviram, who belonged to the tribe of Reuben, Jacob’s first-born, still resented the loss of their ancestor’s birth right to Joseph. The fact that Joshua, Moses’ aide-de-camp, hailed from the tribe of Ephraim (i.e. Joseph’s son) rather than someone from the tribe of Reuben simply stoked the embers of their animus.
In short, the democratic rhetoric of Korah and company is actually aimed at the underlying principle of ascribed rather than achieved leadership which informs the religious polity created by Moses. A system in which merit takes precedence over birth would not only be far more fair but also give rise to better leadership. If God resides in Israel’s midst and all Israelites are equally holy, why should birth be allowed to trump piety or talent? To be sure, ascribed status was never the sole criterion for leadership in ancient Israel. Moses was not succeeded by his sons. Nor were the judges thereafter. And prophecy most assuredly did not run in select families. Rather it was the domain of the cult, the religious heartbeat of ancient Israel, that was primarily governed by the principle of ascribed status.
With the destruction of the Second Temple, the privilege of birth faded from rabbinic priorities. In time, rabbis replaced priests at the helm of a reconfigured religious community and their leadership rested solely on achieved status. Indeed, they reconceptualized the history of Jewish leadership in their own image. Thus Pirkei Avot (Teachings of the Sages), which exhibits their ethos in spades, begins with a chain of tradition in which none of the links owes its leadership to ascribed status. Most striking is the omission of the priests, who surely governed Tabernacle and Temple by virtue of their birth, which can only mean that for the rabbis the cult played no role in the transmission of the dual Torah (that is, both the Written and the Oral; the Hebrew word Torah, without the definite article, is meant to be inclusive). Rabbis do not derive their patrimony from priests.
Moreover, the nature of their leadership could not be more dissimilar. The very first pronouncement by the members of the Great Assembly spells out their function. “Be cautious in rendering a decision, rear many students and build a fence to protect Torah.” The dictum identifies three aspects of their responsibility: judicial, educational and legislative. As guardians of Torah, the rabbis are called upon to apply it in the adjudication of disputes, to transmit it through instruction and to expound and expand it through interpretation.
To rise to such leadership requires the mastery of Torah. Ironically, it is a priest, Rabbi Yose Ha-Kohen, who just after the destruction of the temple lauds the shift from ascribed to achieved leadership: “Perfect yourself in the study of Torah – it will not come to you by inheritance (2:17).” Learning and not lineage was the key to exercising religious leadership in an age when Judaism rested on a sacred book rather than a sacred space. Torah expertise could be acquired by anyone. Neither poverty nor advanced age were deemed insurmountable obstacles.
Pirkei Avot then serves as a kind of introduction to the Mishnah, though it comes two-thirds of the way into the book. It announces the emergence of a new leadership for a post-Temple Judaism whose fundament is Torah. For the rabbis, Simon is not remembered as a high priest, which he was, but as a man of great piety, a zadik, which is a rabbinic category. His famous dictum that the world rests on three things – on Torah, on service of God and on deeds of love (1:2)” means something other than what it says. Judaism consists of two types of commandments, those that determine our relationship to God and those that determine our relationship to our fellow humans, and both derive from the wellspring of Torah. Access to that sacred corpus was direct, without an intervening hierarchy of intermediaries.
On occasion a revolution erupts too early, failing when it does only to be realized later under altered circumstances. The democratic rhetoric of Korah railed against the fault line of a hierarchical religion. Its inherently noble vision came to fruition only after the Temple when academy and synagogue emerged as the focal points of rabbinic Judaism, making literacy the gateway to leadership.