“You have too much power and prestige for all the community are holy, all of them, and the Eternal is
in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above God’s congregation?”
So speaks Korach to Moses and Aaron in Numbers 16.
Stunned by the accusation, Moses challenges Korach and his followers by means of a test, whereby God will choose the firepan and incense of either Moses or Korach as the Divine ‘favoured holy one’.
The incident ends when God, at Moses’ request, causes the earth to swallow Korach, other leading rebels, their families and 250 followers.
The rights and wrongs of the miracle of the ‘swallowing earth’ have been discussed at length in rabbinic commentary.
So I wanted to look at a different, equally problematic, angle – which is neither about the nature of his challenge nor his punishment.
The legend of Korach undermines the Liberal Jewish affirmation of God working in partnership with humanity according to a single set of expectations.
In our understanding, God is not called in to arbitrate in disputes or to end wickedness. If this were a possibility, there should be no wickedness in the world and we would need to explain the absence of miracles in certain circumstances.
More importantly, Liberal Judaism, which seeks to combine the best of Judaism with the best of modernity, is sympathetic to the concept of democracy in which religious and secular leadership is a shared endeavour such that, as the Torah (Exodus 19:6) teaches, it is the responsibility of every Jew to be part of ‘the kingdom of priests and a holy nation’.
Leaders with too much power may undermine such a possibility.
Danny Rich is senior rabbi of Liberal Judaism