Torah, on the other hand, teaches us about respecting a diversity of opinions. Such respectful but creative tension [makhloket] comes to be understood in the aftermath of Korah.
By inciting a mutiny against Moses, Korah is justly decrying a hierarchy that he sees as unfair. He proclaims his own brand of spiritual grandeur — “We are all holy!” This is a very real, egalitarian challenge to the hegemony of Mosaic leadership and its preferential granting of the priesthood to Aaron. In the end, Korah and his mutineers are consumed by fire as the earth swallows them up. Why then does Scripture later mention (Numbers 26:11) that “the children of Korah never died?“
The sages of the Mishnah picked up on the cues from Korah and went on to teach the following in Tractate Avot 5:20: “Any dispute [machloket] for heaven’s sake will ultimately endure; while any dispute [machloket] which is not for heaven’s sake will not endure. What is a dispute for heaven’s sake? This is a debate between Hillel and Shammai. What is a dispute that is not for heaven’s sake? This is the dispute of Korah and his assembly.” In other words, there is a difference between petty squabbling and good arguments that allow for growth amidst real difference. Shammai and Hillel exemplify what it means to be involved in disputes for heaven’s sake, given that before either one would launch his own argument, his first step was to cite the opposing position; only after having done so would he then make his own argument. This posture displays a deep respect for opposing points of view and the realization that truth is discovered as part of a process that emerges in civil dialogue.
The vibrancy we yearn for in our Jewish lives comes by living in that creative tension between the Mosaic path and the Korahite path. The challenge before each of us is how to create that single vessel within community – to make space to foster the creative tension to enable our moral grandeur and spiritual audacity to be fully lived.
– Rabbi Aubrey Glazer
Artwork note: This week’s artwork is an illustration of tzitzit tied with a thread of techelet, wool dyed blue with blood extracted from a sea snail. Why this image? At the end of last week’s parsha, Moses was tasked with telling the Israelites that God commanded them to “make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments, throughout their generations, and they shall affix a thread of sky blue on the fringe of each corner.” (Numbers 15:38) Many of our traditional biblical commentators believed that this “unbearable law” (Pseudo-Philo) was the final straw for Korah and his allies, and therefore gave rise to Korah’s rebellion. But, as James Kugel points out in his How To Read The Bible (2007), “Korah was not really interested in changing the system, merely in taking it over. He was thus a dangerous demagogue.” Here, we see the techelet tied to the tzitzit according to the instructions given by Rabbi Abraham ben David (c. 1125–1198), also known as the RaBad or Raavad. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.