a black and white woodcut of them tumbling into a huge ravine
Korach, Dathan and Abiram being swallowed up by the ground (Gustave Dore, 1865)

When defying authority is morally and spiritually obligatory

The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek.


Korach

Numbers 16:1–18:32


The Book of Numbers is not always as colorful and memorable as some of the other books of the Torah. There are no descriptions of planetary floods or complicated family dramas, as there are in Genesis. There are no epic narratives about slavery, freedom or divine revelation, as there are in Exodus. And there is no poetic and poignant farewell speech by the prophet Moses, which is something that serves as the coda to the Book of Deuteronomy.

Yet in the middle of Numbers, in the Torah portion Korach, we find a brief story about authority — and defiance of that authority — that continues to echo through the ages.

In this parashah, Korach, a Levite, along with a number of other prominent Israelites, publicly challenges the leadership of Moses and Aaron. “You have gone too far!” they say. “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?”

At first glance, this challenge does not seem unreasonable. These words appear to paraphrase God’s own previous exhortation to the people of Israel in Leviticus 19:2: “You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy.” It sounds as if Korach and his followers are simply advocating for a more democratic, egalitarian approach to leadership and community.

What’s so wrong with that?

In Jewish legend, Korach became an arch-demagogue, a man who lusts for power only in order to inflate his own prominence and position. Korach and the other rebels, according to this view, unite against Moses and Aaron, not to serve their people, but to advance themselves. They define themselves by what they are against, without offering a clear and compelling vision of what they are for.

In the end, Korach and his followers lose the struggle for power against Israel’s divinely appointed leaders in dramatic fashion. As punishment for their rebellion against Moses and Aaron (and God’s will), they and their households are swallowed up alive by the earth, never to be seen again. It is a scene that has reverberated throughout the centuries, a cautionary tale depicted in art (and even in movies).

But is it ever acceptable to challenge authority? What if that authority is corrupt or unjust?

The ethics of resistance and rebellion are contextual. In the case of Korach, in which jealous competitors of religious leaders pursue self-aggrandizement rather than the greater good for their community, defiance is viewed by our tradition as a grave transgression and capital offense. Yet there are times in our lives when defiance of authority and power is not only acceptable, but morally and spiritually obligatory.

Abraham contends with God over the fate of Sodom. Nathan challenges King David about his behavior with Bathsheba. And the biblical prophets as a whole, from Amos to Isaiah and beyond, rail against their leaders and communities for breaking the Covenantal ideal and creating societies that are unjust, misguided and without heart.

The French philosopher and activist Albert Camus wrote frequently about these issues. In his book of essays “Resistance, Rebellion and Death,” Camus argued that it is our human obligation to promote justice and to struggle for freedom whenever and wherever those values and goals are under attack. He cites the Hebrew Bible, and particularly the prophets, to support his thesis.

But Camus posits his argument in a post-biblical way. For him, God is silent and does not play a role in this process. Humankind must act alone, and is ultimately the master of its own destiny. It is only through continuous, relentless effort, Camus wrote, that evil can be diminished and freedom and justice can become more prevalent in the world.

Whether or not God is part of the calculus, resistance is at times necessary and warranted against the powers that be, particularly when they become immoral and abusive.

Many of us believe that we are living in one of those times today.

While in some ways the Korach story transcends politics, in others it is deeply political. This Torah portion, as well as the Hebrew Bible itself, show us the pitfalls of rebellion even as they hint at its moral and spiritual justification. But context is everything. It is our own time, place and cultural environment that will determine whether the rebel will come to be viewed as a sinner or a saint.

Rabbi Niles Elliot Goldstein
Rabbi Niles Elliot Goldstein

Rabbi Niles Elliot Goldstein is the spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Shalom Napa Valley. He is the founding rabbi of the New Shul in New York City and author or editor of 10 books, including “Gonzo Judaism” and “God at the Edge.”