On Korah and Spinoza

Korah By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Jul 1, 1995 / 5755 | Torah Commentary | Philosophy

When I was a rambunctious kid growing up in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, the name of Benedict de Spinoza came to me as easily as that of Ted Williams or Stan Musial or Sid Luckman. If the latter three were among my childhood heroes, the former meant a great deal to my father. He spoke often of Spinoza’s grand conception of God as the sum total of all that exists. Indeed, body and mind were but two attributes of God’s infinite nature. There were countless others which we would never know. For my father, Spinoza represented the fullest and finest expression of Judaism’s historic quest to understand the endless diversity of existence in monotheistic terms. On many a Shabbat I was treated to a discourse that eluded the grasp of my inattentive mind. I remember only the stirring intensity of his fascination. Spinoza provided a haven in which the rational bent of my father’s mind and the religious hunger of his heart could both find comfort.

In 1656, at the age of 24, Spinoza was excommunicated by the leadership of the newly constituted Jewish community of Amsterdam for espousing heretical views. Fourteen years later he published some of these views anonymously in his Treatise on Theology and Politics, which sought to free human thought from all constraints that were religiously inspired and politically enforced. Spinoza is thus one of the intellectual founders of the modern liberal state, and also the first secular Jew. My father showed no interest in this side of the man, which was so overtly critical of the Bible. At home I heard only about the Spinoza of the Ethics.

But as a historian, I was drawn to the political thinker. In the process of demolishing the biblical foundations of the medieval authoritarian state, Spinoza articulated and employed for the first time the principles of modern biblical criticism. I wish to present just one striking example from his Treatise that relates to this week’s parasha. I do so not only because it makes a modest contribution to solving a real puzzle, but also as evidence of the extent to which Spinoza drew from the rich literature of Bible commentary created by medieval Judaism.

The rebellion against Moses by Korah and his allies is probably a composite text of at least two stories, if not more. Our material is fragmentary and without context. It is hard to detect the issues that drive the events. Korah is a Levite, a first cousin to Moses and Aaron; Dathan, Abiram and On are not, belonging rather to the tribe of Reuben, the first–born of Jacob. Our text appears to join them in protest against the concentration of power in the hands of Moses and Aaron: “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 (Numbers 16:3)?” The grievance implies an anti–hierarchical thrust and this is the way Spinoza interprets the uprising.

At issue is the mid–course correction of which I spoke when we studied parashat Bemidbar: where did the Levites come from? Spinoza deemed their sudden appointment to replace the firstborn of all the people as the custodians of the shrine to be an act of divine vengeance. After the incident of the golden calf, God rewarded the Levites, who alone had remained loyal to the absent Moses. Tainted with sin, the Israelite firstborn were rejected as unworthy of serving the cult. But God had committed a grievous error in judgment. The switch was bitterly resented. The people never reconciled themselves to their displacement, to be denied any role in the conduct of the Tabernacle. Seeing the Levites permanently ensconced would forever remind them of their own brief apostasy. What was even worse, they had to support them with annual tithes and gifts.

Spinoza offered this analysis in the context of a larger question that vexed him: how could the divinely founded First Commonwealth of Israel ever unravel? Given its origins, it should have lasted till the end of time. Spinoza found his answer in the rash substitution of the Levites, a change that sowed the seeds for the eventual failure of ancient Israel as a political experiment. In the startling admission that the prophet Ezekiel put into God’s mouth after the destruction of the Temple, Spinoza uncovered a confirmation of his view. “Moreover (God declares), I gave them (Israel) laws that were not good and rules by which they could not live: When they set aside every first issue of the womb, I defiled them by their very gifts — that I might render them desolate, that they might know that I am the Lord (JPS trans. Ezekiel 20:25–26).” Hence, the cult instituted by God was regarded by the people as a source of national humiliation and individual alienation. To quote Spinoza, “The tribes would have been united by a far closer band, if all alike had possessed the right to the priesthood. All danger would have been obviated if the choice of the Levites had not been dictated by anger and revenge.”

The first warning signal of popular dissatisfaction should have been the uprising by Korah and its aftermath. The rebels raged that Moses had acted on his own, without divine instruction. How else could they make sense of his selection of his own tribe of Levi at the expense of the nation’s firstborn? They were not prepared to accept his arbitrary innovation. Only brute divine force and not rational argument preserved the hegemony of Aaron and Moses.

Aside from his implicit tone of sarcasm, Spinoza’s reconstruction of events carries a high degree of plausibility. A reform as far–reaching as the injection of the Levites into the cult could not have been effected without resistance. Too many people were dislocated. In fact, Spinoza was not the first Jewish interpreter to contextualize Korah in terms of the Levitical reform. Abraham ibn Ezra, the worldly and rational Spanish commentator of the 12th century, preceded him and, in all likelihood, influenced him as well.

Ibn Ezra places our parasha back in the wilderness of Sinai and not in Paran, at the southern border of Canaan, from where the spies were sent. Though our story follows that of the spies narratively, chronologically it precedes, occurring after the rejection of the first–born. Like Spinoza, ibn Ezra posits great displeasure. Moses is suspected of acting out of self–interest, arrogating all power to his own immediate family. Thus, Korah and the other Levites refuse to be subordinate to Aaron and the priests, while Dathan and Abiram, who are not Levites, repudiate the idea of stripping their tribe of Reuben of its status as Jacob’s firstborn and demoting all the firstborn of Israel.

What separates Spinoza from ibn Ezra is the grand theory and the contempt for the Torah that comes with it. Long before the sage from Amsterdam, Jewish scholars had claimed the right to search out critically, with all the tools at their disposal, the historical meaning of the sacred text at the time of its composition (what was called the peshat). A spirit of empathy and reverence guarded their pursuit from turning destructive.

Shabbat shalom u–mevorach,

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.