This torah portion raises some troubling issues for us democracy-loving, everyone-has-a-right-to-their-opinion softies. Here's the Parshah in short form:
Korach: We're all holy - why do you, Moses and Aaron, have special status?
God: I'm going to destroy that guy.
[destroys Korach and his followers]
Israelites: Oh. My. God.
Rabbinic Judaism was very pluralistic. It is a truism to observe that the very fabric of the Talmud is multiplicity of opinions and disagreements which are often left unresolved. Yet, there was a high degree of uniformity and pressure to conform around the margins. That is, if you accepted the basic tenets of the rabbinic game you were entitled to be part of the diversity of opinions within the game.
I reject the notion that other rabbinic authorities' interpretations of law must guide my Jewish life in particular cases. Yes, that makes me a Reform Jew, but there is a vast multitude of Jews from across the denominational lines (so, an erev rav for those into rabbi jokes) that lives precisely the way I do - whether or not people will publicly acknowledge it.
So, what do I do with a Torah portion that clearly demonizes this Korach who challenges Moses' power and Aaron's authority? Interestingly, the Torah goes out of its way to put a credible argument in Korach's mouth. Korach tells Moses
The entire community, all of them are holy [yes, the grammatical mismatch is in the original], and God is among them - why do you hold yourselves over the community of God? (Numbers 16:3) [*see note at bottom of essay]Anyway, Korach seems to have a good point. As Ibn Ezra points out, they were all at Sinai - aren't they holy? Why do they need an intercessor?
The tradition brings two different verses to compare to Korach's claim that all of them are holy. One is Exodus 19:6, in which God refers to Israel as A kingdom of priests and a holy [kadosh] nation. The Katav Sofer notes that in this appelation the word holy is singular - because it refers to the unity that is achieved in true holiness; Korach, on the other hand says that all of them are holy [kedoshim], using the plural, suggesting that the holiness of each individual is a solitary - and selfish - pursuit.
The second verse is actually a command. In Leviticus 19 God commands You shall be holy for I, your God, am holy. Holiness, God reminds us here, is not a birthright, but an orientation toward the future. You must commit yourself to becoming holy. Korach, however, claims that everyone is already holy - that is, they have no work to do. Korach deems the present moment, the status quo, as 'good enough.'
Seen in this light, Korach is not a reformer at all, but a reactionary who does not want to support the extant power structure because it is headed somewhere. He thinks things are just fine, and that holiness is not found by striving spiritually, a movement physically represented by the journey through the desert to Eretz Yisrael but is instead right here. It is available now, without any work. Even worse, actually, he and his followers think that the real goal is to move backwards, to when life was easy. They said to Moses,
Is it insignificant that you have brought us up from a land flowing with milk and honey to kill us in the desert! And you rule over us? You have not brought us to a land flowing with milk and honey.... (Numbers 16:13-14)
Their moral laziness has turned the moral universe on its head. For them, Egypt is the land flowing with milk and honey. Their goal is to return to a past of spiritual death and physical servitude. Read in this way, Korach is not a revolutionary trying to overturn the status quo. Quite the opposite - he is a self-interested reactionary seeking to halt the moral and spiritual progress of his people.
There are many such reactionaries today - inside and outside of the Jewish world. For such reactionaries, the status quo is sanctified by virtue of its existence. All of them are holy. Such people think that God has blessed the material arrangements of society as they are, and requires no change.
Alternatively, they may seek to restore what they see as the lost moral order of the past. The mythical past that they construct may overlook the cruelty and brutality of the old order, but they will paint it as a paradise - a land flowing with milk and honey.
The alternative is to see holiness as something that is in front of us. That we can do better, we can create a moral order out of the failings of the present.
[*In terms of the discussion about rabbinic authority, it's interesting that Onkelos, the translator of the Torah into Aramaic, translates hold yourselves over as mit-rav-r'vin, the root of which is rav meaning great, but also meaning master or teacher - that is, rabbi.]