This week we read of a dramatic political challenge – hopefully only in the Torah, and not also in the newspapers. Parashat Koraḥ begins with the challenge of Koraḥ and his company to the leadership of our teacher Moses. Koraḥ and his company approach Moses with a challenge rooted in the Torah itself: if the whole congregation is holy and therefore who is Moses to put himself above the community?
Koraḥ might have a point. There is an interesting conversation to be had about the nature of power and leadership. Nonetheless, the narrative does not move in the direction of addressing Koraḥ’s question – instead, we see Koraḥ and his company issued a test, which concludes by way of violent divine intervention.
If you never read another page of Torah, or never opened the founding books of rabbinic literature, you might come to think that any challenge to the law – or, perhaps, any challenge to the leadership of Moses – is off the table. However, this does not appear to be true. The argument is part of the lifeblood of Judaism. If you open the complicated pages of the Talmud, you will be met with layers and layers of dispute and disagreement. If you roll through the Torah, you will even find people arguing with God – and sometimes winning those arguments. If it’s acceptable for a person to challenge even God, then kal va-ḥomer – all the more so – it must be acceptable for a person to challenge Moses.
Two points of comparison are helpful in understanding which challenges to authority are legitimate and which are not. The first is found in Parashat Pinḥas: the five daughters of Tzelofḥad approach Moses and the Israelite leadership and point out a gap in the inheritance laws. The original Torah laws of inheritance don’t account for situations like theirs, in which there are no sons to inherit their father’s property. In this case, Moses realizes that the five women have a point, and seeks clarification from God. God then alters the law so that in such cases, daughters can inherit. This is a public challenge to the justice of the law, and it is taken seriously first by Moses (who takes the question to God), and then by God (who shifts the law to account for their case).
The other potential point of comparison with Koraḥ is brought explicitly in Pirkei Avot 5:17
, in which a comparison is made between the maḥloket (the disagreement) of Koraḥ and the maḥloket of Hillel and Shammai. Hillel and Shammai are early sages renowned for their disagreements, and whose schools of students continued that tradition of disagreement for generations. According to Pirkei Avot, the dispute of Hillel and Shammai were maḥloket l’shem shamayim, dispute for the sake of Heaven, which Koraḥ’s dispute was decidedly not. When Hillel and Shammai argued, their primary purpose was to find the truth. Koraḥ, on the other hand, was not interested in truth; he was interested in power. The question about holiness and equality was a tool that he used – and ironically, it was a tool that he used in order to gain the very power to which he disputed Moses having access.
The problem with the argument is not its very existence; the problem is the cause of argument and what types of arguments we bring to the table. If we argue with one another for power, no matter how prettily we dress it up, the Torah teaches us that it will end in destruction. But if our disagreements come from a place of truth-seeking (like Hillel and Shammai) or justice-seeking (like the daughters of Tzelofḥad), then we have the opportunity to build a just society together instead of tearing one another, and ourselves, down.