Korach: Dissent = “Dechurching”? Not in our house.

June 23, 2023



This was the response I got while working with a Bar Mitzvah student on his d’var Torah for this weeks’ portion, Parshat Korach, when he realized just how wild this story is… 

Here’s the short version: Korach, a cousin of Moses and Aaron, essentially attempts an insurrection, claiming that he and others, primarily by virtue of birth order, should have a chance to be leaders, instead of Moses and Aaron. Instead of arguing, Moses instructs Korach and his followers to prepare a sacrifice, and let God choose between them. And then, just as they get ready to make their offering, God causes the earth to crack open and swallow up the dissenters! To complicate matters further, later reflections on this moment, such as in Psalms, do not have much patience or empathy for Korach or his followers, and many interpretations, at least read on the surface, posit that the punishment fits the crime: Korach didn’t have faith, so he got what he deserved.

Like I said: wild.

This is a complicated text no matter how you spin it, and serves as an interesting case-in-point, especially in light of the latest installment of Jessica Grose’s 4-part series in the New York Times, exploring reasons behind why Americans are increasingly “dechurching,” or moving away from organized religion. Grose and her team surveyed nearly 7,000 Americans across denominations and identities, and saw a marked increase in people losing – not their religion per se – but their institutional affiliation. And whether they are “quiet quitting” or vocally defecting, feel alienated by certain political decisions, or because “traditional” religious values and stories like this week’s parsha, often seen as fear-instilling cautionary tales, don’t speak to them. Many such folks expressed preferences for spending time in nature or meditating – activities that get them out of their heads and help them feel more connected to their spirits and to the world around them, without the dogma or stricture of institutional religion looming over them. 

This makes sense; stories like Korach’s and interpretations that say “he had it coming” are uncomfortable, leaving us wondering why we would want to hold onto a tradition that teaches such a narrative… But while Korach and these interpretations are part of Judaism and its sibling traditions, they are not wholly representative of Jewish tradition, nor has Judaism ever taken an all-or-nothing approach when it comes to how we understand stories like Korach’s. Two of the most beautiful and compelling aspects of Judaism are its multivocality and its encouragement of intellectually honest dissent. Judaism holds space for multiple perspectives on and interpretations of a given text, both in what it means and in how we might apply it and doesn’t force us to take it or leave it, to walk away at the first sign of ideological discomfort or disagreement. Rather, moments of discord are invitations for deeper engagement, to explore what’s written between the lines and to interrogate our own reactions to them. 

Drawing on this week’s parsha, a “traditional” reading of Korach – that his sin was his lack of faith – is but one of many, many, many possible interpretations, and the rabbis have many, many, many other issues with Korach’s attempted coup, namely that his methods and motivation were flawed. Korach publicly casts aspersions against Moses and Aaron (one midrash has Korach spreading malicious lies about Moses and Aaron’s unjust and unsavory behavior), he publicly and disrespectfully calls Moses out instead of approaching him with civil discourse, and Korach’s grab for power was totally self-serving, without bearing the community’s needs in mind. These are, pardon the expression, cardinal sins in Judaism because they completely undermine the Israelites’ – and any community’s – social cohesion, necessary for survival.

Now, I would not profess that Judaism has all the right answers; folks have left Jewish institutions at similar rates as those in other communities… Though I will take the opportunity to #humblebrag, because TOS has only been growing recently, and it’s not just a coincidence. I believe this is because our community leans into Judaism’s rare invitation to explore, to question, to read between the lines and to do whatever we can to see ourselves reflected in our sacred texts. In short, Judaism makes space for us to proactively engage, instead of walking away when things get uncomfortable. Obviously I’m preaching to the choir here, so to speak, but beyond our walls, just think… How different might the American “crisis of faith” be if religious institutions walked the talk of holiness, of honoring questions or disagreements that arise from a genuine, respectful place, as what they and their sources are: absolutely, unequivocally invaluable?


Rabbi Jenn Queen