Korach, Racism and Pruning the Tree of Life

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By Rabbi Shai Cherry

Parshat Korach

At the beginning of each “Introduction to Judaism” class I’ve taught at college, before I even introduce myself to the students, I ask them to yell out things they know about Judaism. Since the vast majority of my students were not Jewish, much of what they knew about Judaism was from pop culture, their friends or grandparents or reading Anne Frank/Elie Wiesel in their high school history class’s Holocaust unit.

After a few minutes, the lists inevitably included bar mitzvah, bat mitzvah, not eating milk and meat together, Chanukah, monotheism and Manischewitz. There were a few others on the top 10 lists, but I circled those listed above in red ink and explained that none of these is biblical. Not one — even “monotheism” — gets an asterisk. Then I would introduce myself and say, “Your first lesson in ‘Introduction to Judaism’ is never to confuse the Hebrew Bible with Judaism.”

When we meet Korach in this week’s parshah, he is mustering his forces to challenge Moses for leadership. Here’s his charge against Moses: “You have gone too far! For all the community is holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation?” Moses responds that the Lord will “make known who is His and who is holy.”

Who is holy? According to the Hebrew Bible, Moses prevails, but the Torah is short on explanation. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to conclude, based on their dialogue, that Moses is the holy one. But don’t confuse the Hebrew Bible with Judaism!

Unlike Christianity, Judaism doesn’t know of a chosen one. All humans are created in the divine image, which is the biblical idiom for the American creed that all men are created equal. Nowhere in rabbinic literature is there a claim that Moses is holier than his cousin, Korach. The rabbis categorically reject the possibility that Moses believed he was holier than Korach. The Midrash and Rashi (1040-1105) explain the disagreement between the cousins was rooted in a misunderstanding.

When Korach claimed all the community are holy, he meant, explains the Midrash, that all the community had heard God at Mount Sinai. That experience conferred upon the whole people the status of holiness regardless of behavior. The Midrash and Rashi’s Korach believed that after Sinai, holiness is essential — of the Jewish essence — while Moses believes holiness is purely functional. It’s how Rashi explains what Moses means: “The Lord will make known who is his for Levitical service and who is holy for the priesthood.”

According to the Midrash and Rashi, God did not make the Israelites holy. God chose the Levites and Cohanim (priests) to serve the holy One at the sacrificial altar. Their miscommunication ended in tragedy. Korach and his gang were swallowed up in the sink hole of sedition.

Subsequent commentators used Korach’s rebellion to emphasize that holiness is a behavioral goal, not a given status. But the truth is more complicated. From the Torah to today, there have been those who view Jews as essentially holier than non-Jews. This strain is particularly prominent in the mystical vein of Judaism that runs from the biblical Ezra (Ezra 9:2) to today’s ultra-Orthodox.

Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan maintained that the idea of a holy people, a chosen people, was irredeemable. It takes too much explanation to circumvent the simple understanding of the term, and the simple meaning of being the chosen people is racist. Kaplan thought the idea of the chosen people was better off relegated to a premodern time when it may well have been a net gain to help Jews survive a world where, too often, gentiles behaved in ways that could only be described as unholy.

In our times, Kaplan gave four reasons for rejecting the idea of chosen people: theological, God does not operate preferentially; psychological, it induces feelings of smug superiority among Jews; sociological, it prompts feelings of envy among gentiles; and political, it is undemocratic. All in all, asserted Kaplan, insisting on superiority smacks of an inferiority complex.

Here’s another reason. We Jews need to model that religious ideology, as our liturgy says, is a tree of life, not petrified wood. Sometimes the tree’s branches need pruning. The Catholic Church included Jews in its circle of the saved in Vatican II. Wouldn’t it be a harbinger of the messianic days if Hamas were to change its charter and recognize the right of the Jewish people to a sovereign state in what was once Dar al-Islam, the abode of Islam?

Ezra’s racism shouldn’t be confused with how modern, antiracist Jews strive to embody our Judaism today. Let’s learn from Moses and avoid the potential for ugly misunderstandings. Let’s be explicit and retire the term. Pruning the trees of life lets the sunshine in. l

Rabbi Shai Cherry is the rabbi at Congregation Adath Jeshurun in Elkins Park and the author of “Coherent Judaism: Constructive Theology, Creation, and Halakhah and Torah through Time: Understanding Bible Commentary from the Rabbinic Period to Modern Times.” The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide diverse perspectives on Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Board of Rabbis.


  1. In addition to the reasons given by Rabbi Charry for Mordecai Kaplan’s rejection of chosenness, Kaplan believed that for modern Jews to believe that the Jews were chosen was hypocritical and inconsistent since the doctrine of the chosen people goes back to Abraham and the covenant with God and most modern Jews do not believe in the reality of that revelation in the first place. This reason was quite important to him and he mentioned it to me when I interviewed him in 1972 when I began to work on his biography

  2. I wish R Cherry could make his point without setting up “ultra orthodox” Jews as some kind of negative other to his “enlightened” perspective as he writes, “This strain is particularly prominent in the mystical vein of Judaism that runs from the biblical Ezra (Ezra 9:2) to today’s ultra-Orthodox.” There is a difference between Satmar, Lakewood, Brisk, etc… R Cherry would likely wince were he dismissed in a single swoop along with all other “Liberal Jews”. We – including R Cherry – will not merit holiness until we recognize the uniqueness in our fellow Jews and stop dismissing each other with unhelpful generalizations. Until then – we remain unholy.


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