Jon Taub

Korach and Bilaam: Original critical theorists

Scratch a (most likely) rich intersectional progressive who touts critical theory and is a purported MOT, and you’ve found a spiritual heir to both Korach and Bilaam.

Critical theorist and progressive attacks on Jews and Judaism go all the way back to the time of Moshe Rabbeinu.  In Korach, the parsha’s namesake launches his attack from within; in this week’s parsha, Balak, Bilaam attacks from without.

Korach has oft been labeled as an early Stalinist: he appealed to the rest of Bnei Yisrael by pretending to be a “democrat” [“rav lachem”] and telling the other 250 top-line conspirators that they would share power; he also knew that if Moshe was right about the service with the machtos [pans] would kill anyone unworthy of performing it, and he was right about living to claim his share of power — based upon his near-prophetic visions — he would live and everyone else would die. The fact that he was willing to let everyone else die so that he could claim his prize — and that he thought that this would automatically be Divinely sanctioned — spoke volumes about his worthiness as any leader, let alone spiritual.

In addition to his progressive pretensions, Korach may also have been the first “critical theorist”: he attacks the credibility and authority of Mosaic law first through his cynical false analogy between the techelet thread and the all-blue tallis, and then by attacking the system of tithing as unfair taxation.  In other words, by the time he has managed to questions the very foundations of the Mosaic order, he has rallied a huge portion of B’nei Yisrael to his side — so much that even after the earth opens up and swallows him, so many still accuse Moses of having assassinated Korach that G-d inflicts a deadly plague upon the people.

(This might be vaguely reminiscent of both the “confessions” of old guard Bolshevik victims of the Stalinist purges of the 1930’s, and to a lesser extent, the increasing amount of abject public “apologies” and commitments to “do better” among celebrities and others who are otherwise ostensibly “woke”.)

It is in this vein that the same ostensible spiritual leader who writes “Korach is a classic demagogue…[h]e is not seeking more power for the people, just more for himself” can also force a Korachist moral/theological equivalence between the “obligation of learning about systemic racism and systems of oppression” and the obligation to tell the story of the Exodus on Passover — insisting that the one who refuses that obligation is akin to the “wicked child” at the Seder.  Like Korach, this spiritual leader starts out with a proclamation of “kulam kedoshim” — everyone is holy — while in effect, if not intent, the implication that Jewish theology must give way to a “higher consciousness” in the event of a clash between the two always lurks beneath the surface.  (Never mind that the movements so highly touted by this aforementioned spiritual leader are anti-Judaism, anti-holiness and antisemitic at their core, even more overtly so as of late.)

Korach isn’t hiding behind an “all lives matter” theology — adderabba: he insists that those in power must have ipso facto arranged to systemically arrogated themselves an outsized portion due to “supremacist” motions, and that certain subgroups are ipso facto being treated unfairly and therefore — by dint of their having been “oppressed” — automatically deserve a share of resources and power not necessarily proportionate to what has been earned. 

Like Korach, Bilaam also has prophetic abilities — however marginal — that let him lead himself to believe that his progressive and critical theorist approaches to life ostensibly had Divine sanction.  The very name “Bilaam” has been seen as a mashup of “b’lo ‘am”, an early version of “open borders”, which especially in Bilaam’s case also meant “no boundaries”, both in his private life — the less said about his “nightly consort”, the better — and public, where he not only gives wanton lasciviousness a public sanction it hasn’t had in centuries to that point, but he also weaponizes it based on the spiritual tools he does possess.    Korach and Bilaam used spirituality — an ostensibly Jewish, if distorted, kind — to antagonize Jews, as evidenced by current groups like JVP and INN.  Bilaam took it a step further by using his ”open borders” philosophy to unite disparate factions against all Jews.

The aforementioned spiritual leader also mentions that “unless a lie begins with a little bit of truth, it will not be believed (Rashi, Num. 13:27)”. Both Korach and Bilaam — despite the fact they suffer eternal punishment as per the Talmud — do speak and possess some level of spiritual truths: there is a train of thought — predominantly Chassidic — that Korach will serve as Kohen Gadol in the Messianic era, and Bilaam’s (however forced) visions and proclamations were former codified in the Torah and are part of the daily liturgy.   However, both are indicative of how each were forced to repudiate their ostensibly progressive tenets: Bilaam when he couldn’t curse the Jews no matter how hard he tried and ended up blessing them, and Korach when forced to say “Moses and his Torah are true, but they [Korah’s company] are liars [e]very thirty days [while] turn[ed] back like meat in a pot”.

In fact, the true common thread between Korach, Bilaam and critical theory might be envy on steroids: Korach’s entire trigger was based on the fact that Moses and Aaron’s lineage was ostensibly else prestigious than his, and because of that he was willing to go as far as upending the entire Mosaic system;  Bilaam, during one of his visions, states “Let me die the death of the righteous, and let mine end be like his” (Num. 23:10), all while machinating just how to get rid of as many of them as he possibly could.   

Korach and Bilaam’s intersectional penchants also did incalculable damage to women and families: Korach took a disparate coalition of ostensibly aggrieved groups with nothing in common other than that they wanted to dislodge Moshe, to the point that they made Moshe a target of South warnings: break up your own family to prove a point.   Bilaam was the outgrowth of the Rashi/Medrash that pointed out that Moav and Midian had hated each other for centuries but “made peace” to fight the Jews, and then Bilaam had both of them sell out their women in a program of nationalized weaponized prostitution to defeat Israel.

Another commonality: Korach and Bilaam — men of the people — were one-percenters.

Korach was incredibly rich: the midrash details how much he owned and how much effort it took for him to get his riches out of Egypt. Also he may have been as assimilated as Dasan and Aviram: he was reputed to have been a chief financier of Pharaoh, which was where he got a lot of his money.  Meaning he took advantage of his Levite status — they weren’t enslaved — in ways that Moshe and Aharon didn’t [Moshe went to be “be among his brethren”] and only now suddenly did he ”get religion”, which is why it might not have been so difficult for him to deny Mosaic law.

Bilaam’s riches aren’t as directly spelled out in the literature, but his status as the premier “curser” of his era indicated that he was very much in demand at the highest levels of power for his talent, which means that he likely could command astronomical fees for his services.   This might be further indicated by his negotiating tactics at the beginning of the parsha which are couched in religious terms [“if Balak will give me a full house of silver and gold”].   While “b’lo am” Bilaam held himself out as a “no borders” guy, all it meant in his case was that he was as ideologically promiscuous as he was personally.  If one needed to find a possible modern day parallel to Bilaam it might be Julian Assange, a red diaper baby now in command of a multimillion dollar operation with pretensions to “openness” but who has proven to be as ideologically promiscuous as he is personally (and the “Ass” in “Assange” might indicate another sort of kinship with Bilaam.)

In fact, where you might have met a cross-section of Korachist and BIlaamist types were in the groups that defended Zimri and attacked Pinchas after Pinchas killed Zimri, when they hailed Zimri as the “Prince in Israel” who was murdered by someone whose grandfather “fattened calves for idolatry”.  You can picture the spiritual descendants of these rabble rousers saying Kaddish for Hamas and running around with signs saying “Zimrey Epstein didn’t kill himself”, to possibly better their chances of assignations with foreign women [as per TB Sanhedrin: “he wants what we want”.]  

Nothing says critical theorist more than using literally G-d given gifts to bring His house down in service of a personal agenda.  

Nothing says intersectionality more than an ersatz universalism united only in its doctrinaire Judeomisia (as a treatment of the recent resurgence of antisemitism in the US put it, “they are ecumenical, these barbarians”).

And nothing says progressive more than one-percenters masquerading as men of the people.

About the Author
Jon Taub is an ex-Upper West Sider, now-married Riverdalean who has two MA's, plays three instruments, and consults for biostartups.
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