Korah: Is the Torah true?

D’var Torah – Korah

June 22-23, 2012;  3 Tammuz 5772

Is the Torah true? 

Millions of Jews (as well as non-Jews), particularly those raised in traditional, religiously observant homes, schools, and communities, would answer an unqualified “yes.”   Millions of others would respond “of course not.”  But what does “true” mean for purposes of answering this question?

According to this week’s Torah portion, Korach and two-hundred fifty Israelites, all leaders and “men of repute,” rose up to challenge Moses’ authority.  To meet their challenge, Moses devised a proof-test for G-d to administer, whereupon G-d caused the earth to open up and swallow the rebels alive.   

Is this account “true?” 

If “true” must mean “the events objectively occurred as described” [the word “historicity” is sometimes used], I have substantial doubts – just as I do about the serpent in the Garden of Eden and Balaam’s donkey both speaking words, the sun standing still at Jericho, Daniel’s acquaintances emerging unscathed from a fiery oven, and about many other biblical accounts of “miracles.” 

On the other hand, I don’t limit my definition of “true” to historicity.  First, should we dismiss accounts of occurrences that we can’t “scientifically” or “historically” prove or disprove?   Second, aren’t ideas and emotions – beauty, love and so on – “true?”  Music, poetry, and mathematics?  Spirituality?  They are a kind of experiential truth.  Third, we know that eyewitnesses often experience and recount “actual events” very differently.  What “actually occurred” is often a matter of their bias and conditioned perception/interpretation, thus calling into serious question the premise of objective occurrence and/or of reporting.  And fourth, important truths can be derived from human (and not necessarily Divine) history and from myths, stories, fiction, and other literature.   

Why have the Jewish people survived over the millennia when nearly all other civilizations have vanished?  One of the main reasons – perhaps the main reason – is that we have looked at Torah not just (or not entirely, or even not at all) as historically true but also (or rather) as a great repository of truths relevant to us as a people with a purpose, values, laws, traditions, and a history.  And so we should do with the Torah’s account of the challenge of Korach and his followers. 

The Torah depicts the rebellion not just as wrong, but as motivated by resentment and jealousy.   The rebels don’t challenge Moses’ leadership “on the merits” but rather for, they say -- השתרר --  seeking to dominate them.  This despite the Torah having told us just a few chapters ago (Numbers 12:3) that Moses, while unquestionably and necessarily a very strong leader and personality, was “the most humble man on the face of the Earth!” 

Judaism emphatically does not teach meek acceptance of authority.  To the contrary, Judaism requires that we challenge injustice.  (This is what I mean when I call Judaism a “subversive religion;” it mandates challenging the existing power structure in order to right injustice, and this is an important element in historical anti-Semitism).  We joke about Jews (especially Israelis) being outspoken as part of the national Jewish character, but this flows inevitably from our mission as a people charged with pursuing justice and setting an example of moral conduct.  Certainly, in Israel today, part of the public debate on each wrenching issue is “how should we, of all people, act?”      

An important “truth” of the Torah’s account of the Korach rebellion may therefore be that when whenever we challenge authority for the wrong reasons, we risk being “swallowed up alive” by our hatred and self-aggrandizing motives. 

In our traditional daily morning liturgy, we pray:

יְהִי רָצוֹן מִלְּפָנֶֽיךָ, יְיָ אֱלֹהַי וֵאלֹהֵי אֲבוֹתַי, שֶׁתַּצִּילֵֽנִי הַיּוֹם וּבְכָל יוֹם מֵעַזֵּי פָנִים וּמֵעַזּוּת פָּנִים,   

“May it be Your will, Adonai, my G-d and the G-d of my ancestors, that You rescue me today and every day from those who are brazen-faced [impertinent, insolent, imprudent] and from brazen-facedness [impertinence, insolence, and imprudence]….

Although the High Holidays are still three months away, it is not too early to begin the process of reexamining our motives and our methods whenever we challenge others. 

Shabbat shalom.              

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A bird that you set free may be caught again, but a word that escapes your lips will not return.
Jewish Proverb