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Home » Korach, Questions of Ethics

Korach: Moral Clarity

Submitted by on June 22, 2009 – 2:43 pmNo Comment | 1,094 views

Subjective Morality

In a recent discussion group I asked if it is inherently immoral for a man to rape a woman. I was surprised by the willingness of some to tolerate the rapist. They conceded that rape was immoral from their own point of view, but argued that others might see it differently.  Each culture establishes its own criteria for morality and we mustn’t force our view on others.

We have arrived at an age when morality, like ice cream flavor, has deteriorated into subjective preference. My preference for vanilla over chocolate does not render vanilla inherently better; it is merely an opinion with which others are entitled to disagree . In our Post Modern era the same is said of morality. My preference for honesty over cheating does not render honesty objectively superior; it is merely an opinion.

A Holy Congregation

It might come as a surprise to learn that this Post Modern thinking is not that modern after all. Thirty-three-hundred years ago Korach used this philosophy to justify his rebellion against Moses and Aaron. “The entire congregation is holy,” he argued, “Why do you exalt yourself above the congregation of G-d?”  (1)

The Hebrew for congregation, Tzibur, forms an acronym for Tzadik, Benoni and Rasha, righteous, intermediate and wicked. Jewish tradition maintains that a congregation is not complete until it accepts its wicked members alongside the righteous and average ones. Indeed, every Jew contains a spark of the Divine and is an integral member of the tribe; the fold is incomplete if even one Jew is left out.

Nevertheless, despite the full inclusion of the wicked we do not whitewash his status; he is labeled clearly as wicked. We do not call him holy as Korach did nor do we condone his behavior. On the contrary it is hoped that his inclusion in the congregation of the righteous might inspire him to repent and join their ranks.

Korach misinterpreted this inclusion. If they are members in full  standing, thought he, they must be inherently righteous; otherwise they would not be welcomed. Our perception of them as wicked must be erroneous; rooted in our misunderstanding of their point of view. From their (equally valid) perspective they are absolutely holy.

On this foundation Korach mounted a rebellion. If every Jew is holy then no Jew requires guidance or instruction from above. No Jew need be told by Moses and Aaron how to behave. After all, what is morally correct for Aaron might not be morally correct for the next person. No leader, not even Moses, has the right to impose his morality on others. We are all holy; our points of view are all with merit.

Moses’ Reply

Moses addressed this misunderstanding succinctly. “In the morning G-d will make known who is His and who is holy and He will draw them to Him. And the one whom He chooses He will draw to Him.” (2) Why did Moses wait till morning, would it not be better if G-d immediately confirmed Aaron as High Priest?

Our sages explained that by making His choice known at the crack of dawn G-d addressed the underlying thesis of Korach’s argument. Korach held that every person, action and philosophy is holy for each is vivified by a Divine spark. By waiting for dawn G-d demonstrated that all things are not created equal. We each carry a Divine spark, this is true, but we do not each reflect the Divine light. Some carriers of G-d’s spark reflect His light, but others express darkness.

This idea is illustrated by the following Midrash. “Moses said to them: G-d instituted boundaries in His world. Just as you cannot prevent the distinction between day and night as it is written “G-d distinguished between light and dark – and there was evening and there was morning” so can you not erase the distinction between Aaron (G-d’s choice for the High priesthood) and the others.” (3)

Laws of Nature

Physical phenomena are measurable by objective criteria and their properties can be conclusively determined. Morning is morning and night is night. Thunderstorm and sunshine are opposites. Water cannot be confused with dry land or heat with cold. The laws of nature are absolute; there is nothing ambiguous about them. Ambiguity only sets in when we speak of laws of morality.

It is only here that we suggest that right might be left and wrong might be right. It is only here that we wish to reject all objective criteria and condone all forms of behavior.

Moses declared an equation between the laws of morality and the laws of nature by reminding Korach that both were created by G-d. Morality is not a personal preference; it is a law no less immutable than the laws of nature. One, who claims that water is dry from his perspective, is simply mistaken. One who argues that wickedness is holy from his perspective is equally mistaken.

The problem is that moral distinctions are often subtle and difficult for the mind to grasp; it is not always easy to discern the moral from the immoral. Here we must recall that morality is not a product of the human mind but of the Creator. This is the second symbolism of dawn.

Though light cannot be discerned at the crack of dawn and the world is shrouded in darkness, that hour remains the undisputed boundary between night and day. The same is true of morality. Though it is often difficult to discern the precise boundary between the moral and immoral, G-d, through the Torah, has determined the boundary in indisputable tones.

Points of view are not granted legitimacy just because someone had the audacity to articulate them. Intellectual honesty requires that we subject every argument to rigorous analysis and accept only those that withstand the force of scrutiny. Post Modern postulates of moral equivalence are designed to confuse right and wrong.  But we must recall that no matter how sophisticated the argument, wrong can no more be turned into right than dark can be called light. (4)

moral clarity

Footnotes

  1. Numbers 16:3.
  2. Numbers 16:5.
  3. Tanchuma Korach, 5
  4. This essay is loosely based on Likutei Sichos XVIII, p. 202
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