Korach and the Spies

The rebellions detailed in parshat Shlakh (read in the Diaspora) and parshat Korach (read in Israel) are best understood as a unified two act drama.

The first act, the rebellion of the spies, upended Moshe’s mission of bringing the Children of Israel from Egyptian bondage to political independence in the Land of Israel. The second act, the rebellion of Korach and his fellowship, follows naturally from Moshe’s failed mission. When the upper echelon of the elite is frustrated by the people’s recalcitrance it is only reasonable for second tier members to imagine that their opportunity to replace those perched at the top of the pyramid is at hand. And one need only observe England’s disintegrating polity in the wake of the Brexit vote for verification of this contention.

Fair enough. But I suspect that the juxtaposition of these two episodes of rebellion is meant to teach us a different and somewhat more parochial lesson.

The sin of the spies did not spoil the special relationship between the Children of Israel and the God of History. It did not sunder Israel’s status as God’s Chosen People, nor ruin its singular and irrevocable place among the nations. Rather, it merely condemned the members of just one generation of Jews, albeit an important one, to die in the desert during a forty year period of aimless wandering.

But while wandering aimlessly, these men and women of the generation of redemption still maintained easy access to God and His miracles. They continued to consume God’s manna on a daily basis. They continued to organize their communal affairs around the rituals and details of the mishkan, the portable Temple, where they were serviced by the Priests of the Lord. And if they ever confronted a thorny legal issue, if they were ever stymied by a challenging halakhic matter that would not bend to reason or yield easily to logic, they could always call upon Moshe to provide a resolution.

The only thing they could not do was liberate themselves from their exalted reality. They were condemned to live in close proximity to God and His strictures. For them, the rule of law could never be bent. The exigencies of human life, the necessity of sometimes shaping tenets and rituals to the foibles of mankind, the need to occasionally relieve the pressure of worship by taking into account the idiosyncrasies of the individual, was simply not available. Having chosen the magical over the mundane, the lofty over the commonplace, the supernal over the political, the men and women of the generation of redemption were condemned to what Max Weber called in an utterly different context the iron cage of righteousness.

Korach’s rebellion was not calculated to unlock the iron cage and liberate the people from its confines. To the contrary. Korach’s rebellion sought to fortify the iron cage, to reinforce it so as to make it impenetrable and thus unescapable. Korach insisted that because God dwelled in their midst, the entire Assembly was holy which meant that each and every member of the Assembly was required to live their entire lives in complete thrall to God and His dictates. Or to borrow yet another phrase from Max Weber, Korach’s rebellion was calculated to turn each and every Jew and Jewess into a “monk” for all of their lives.

Seen from this perspective, the juxtaposition of the two stories of rebellion, the story of the spies and the story of Korach, carries the following warning: The price for abandoning the Land of Israel – the sin of the spies – is the empowerment of a religious elite who seek to substitute spiritual rigor – frumkeit – for halakhic logic. And it matters not if those hawking spirituality are, like Korach, well versed in the logic of the halakhic system. If they reject its worldly ethos, they reject its essential purpose. And for verification of this contention one need only observe the social and ethical decay which grips so many of the ultra-Orthodox communities both in the Diaspora – Shlakh – and in Israel – Korach.

About the Author
Avi Berkowitz teaches history at the Rothberg International School at the Hebrew University, and serves as the Rabbi of the Minyan HaVatikim in the Rimon section of Efrat. He holds a PhD from Columbia University in International Relations, with a specialty in Middle East studies and received his Rabbinical ordination from Rabbi Aaron Soloveitchick. Prior to coming on aliyah, he served as the rabbi of the Community Synagogue in Manhattan's East Village, taught history at the Ramaz Upper School, and was an adjunct Assistant Professor of political science and Middle East studies at CUNY
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