6/20/2005

One Man's Korach is the Next Man's Moshe

I was asked to write something up for next week's parsha, so while I'm at it, I figure I'll post it. I'll hopefully get around to writing a more substantive account of the Korach/Moshe dispute as well. I addressed a different element of it here.

כל מחלוקת שהיא לשם שמים סופה להתקיים ושאינה לשם שמים אין סופה להתקיים איזו היא מחלוקת שהוא לשם שמים זו מחלוקת הלל ושמאי ושאינה לשם שמים זו מחלוקת קרח וכל עדתו:
Any dispute which is for the sake of Heaven will last, and that which is not for the sake of Heaven will not last.
What is [an example of] a dispute for the sake of Heaven? The dispute between Hillel and Shammai.
What is [an example of] one that is not for the sake of Heaven? This is the dispute
of Korach and his group.

-Pirkei Avot 5:17

Korach, the villain of this week’s Parsha, who challenged Moshe’s leadership before his literal downfall, is immortalized by the above-quoted Mishna as the archetypal slick politician, exploiting a political agenda for self-advancement.

Reading the Torah’s narrative (Numbers ch. 16), however, leaves one wondering exactly what Korach’s platform was, and what exactly was wrong with it.
Surprisingly (but not shockingly), a pattern emerges in many explanations of the dispute; Moshe’s position is eerily similar to the worldview of the writer/speaker, while Korach’s position corresponds to a contemporary disputant of that writer/speaker. For example, I’ve heard explanations that insinuate Korach’s flaw to be his failure to adequately adjust and respond to emerging religio-political realities (wink-wink), and I’ve heard that Korach’s flaw was in his insistence on egalitarianism (knowing-nod). I found it bizarre that the respective ‘ideologies’ of Korach and Moshe could be almost completely reversed depending on who gave the ‘drasha’ before ‘Mussaf’!

The Mishnah’s critique of Korach, however, has nothing to do with his particular religio-political platform, as much as it has to do with his character flaws and lack of true conviction.

Given the difficulty and danger of trying to gauge whether one’s opponent is acting ‘for the sake of Heaven’, it would seem very presumptuous to identify any person, group, or ideology with ‘Korach’s band’. There’s much to be gained from studying the parsha, but without trying to determine who on the contemporary Jewish scene gets to play the part of Korach.
Fortunately, the Mishnah provided us with an alternative paradigm for dispute – Hillel and Shammai – to teach us that it is possible to engage in disputes, arguments, and battles of conviction while affirming the sincerity of one’s opponent.
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