Korach dies because he complains of the elevation of the priests above the people. A similar confrontation between the Catholic hierarchy of King Charles’ reign and the popular revolt by Protestant forces is the subject of Caryl Churchill’s play “Light Shining in Buckinghamshire”, currently in revival at the National Theatre.
In 1647 during the Civil War the army and prominent dissenters met at Putney to debate “An Agreement of the People.” At this moment of social, political and religious turmoil, people were striving for a direct line to God. One of the articles under debate was this: “That matters of religion and the ways of God’s worship are not at all entrusted by us to any human power, because therein we cannot remit or exceed a tittle of what our consciences dictate to be the mind of God, without wilful sin.”
Religion and faith mattered to the rebels. One the most radical groups, the Ranters, believed that God was in each person, and that an institutionalised church, the priesthood and religious dogma were obsolete. Korach and his followers are swallowed up by the Earth because, like the Roundheads, Levellers, Ranters, Diggers and other dissenters, they protested about the position of the priesthood as intermediaries between God and the people.
“They combined against Moses and Aaron and said to them, ‘You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation?’”
For a modern person, living in a stable democracy, the natural inclination would be to agree with Korach and the dissenters. Faith has become an intensely personal relationship. What we think and believe is, for many, more of an issue than what we do.
Korach, like many Protestants in the Civil War, wanted a direct, unmediated relationship with God. Whilst some of the Protestants believed in the Elect, others, like the Ranters, believed that God is in each and every one of us. They all objected, like Korach, to the priesthood/Kohanim raising themselves above the people.
The demarcation of Kohanim, Leviim and Israel as distinct castes leaves me uneasy. My inclination is to side with Korach. The Sages argue that his sin was not in his words but his motives – that he was not propelled by the desire to empower all, but was just one of many malcontents who was using this argument to gain power for himself and supplant Moses. He was punished for his power-grab rather than the idea he proposed. The setting-aside, or ritual elevation, of the Kohanim is a complicated matter.
Today’s parashah details how the Kohanim cannot own land, they live off tithes, so that in one way they are powerless, dependent on others. The Kohanim were distinct from the political rulers (Moses, then Joshua, then the kings), unlike in Christendom, where the Catholic Church tithed the local population, grew rich on property and wielded much power. In a world where religious militants, like ISIS, are grabbing power in the Middle East, the recognition and separation of divine power from political power is, like the Sabbath, a gift we can share with all humanity.
Dr Georgia Kaufmann is a writer and a member of Kol Nefesh Masorti Synagogue.