Midrash Ko(r)ach

2006.06.30
By

Torah Study Saturday, July 1
10:00 a.m. – noon
Neal’s and Ann’s house
Portion: Korach (Numbers 16:1-18:32)

“To a man with only a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.” – Anon of Ibid.

This week’s portion, Korach, seems fitting for the Shabbat before Independence Day: One bold man, fed up with Moses’ continual refusal to bow to the Will of the People, stands up for Truth, Justice, and the Paleoisraelite Way. “Who made you king?” he says. “The people, ALL of them, are holy.” Gd disagrees, and Korach is swallowed into the earth.

In the modern context provided by historical scholarship, Korach’s rebellion seems to echo of the ancient struggle to unify and centralize Israelite worship at one specific location: i.e., Jerusalem. A cautionary tale backed by Ultimate Authority was needed to ensure that the people toe the line drawn by Judaism’s primitive, intolerant-of-dissent early religious codifiers. Thus Korach. End of story.

Right? Well … no, at least not entirely. Because if it is – if the story is as simple as that, with only one literalist and unimaginative interpretation – then we might as well chuck the Torah and watch TV, which (superficially) seems a lot more relevant to our hectic modern lives.

One of the most difficult things to understand about Torah (both Written and Oral) is that it largely developed outside the Aristotelian tradition which shaped Western civilization and subsequently, our own education. To Aristotle, the universe was a binary matrix of yes-no, up-down, hot- cold, with no middle ground. That’s a fine approach for computers and mathematics, but it tends to blind us to more subtle and equally valid/consistent intellectual systems – such as the one we inherited from our ancestors.

Thus we assume the Torah is a history text, and wonder why it includes laws. We assume it’s a law code, and wonder why it includes myths (in the Jungian sense). We assume it’s mythic, and wonder why so much of it accords with known history.

The Torah is all of these and none of these, at the same time. Like Judaism, which defies the simplistic categories of “religion,” “ethnicity,” “faith” or “creed,” there is always more to Torah than meets the eye – as long as the eye is open, and not blinded by preconceptions.

Rabbi Larry Kushner, Temple Emanu-El’s scholar-in-residence, says we can build our Jewish study on two assumptions: Either we’re smarter than the text, or the text is smarter than us. If we assume the first, there’s no reason to study; if we assume the latter, who knows what we might learn – especially if we do it together?

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