Korah was punished for his rebellion, but his questioning of the need for human rulers has remained a living issue for later generations to contemplate.

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Note that Moses and Aaron make no answer to the first part of Korah's statement, that is, the reference to communal holiness. They refer only to the latter ("Why do you raise yourselves...?"), leaving it to God to reaffirm their embattled leadership. He raised them to high position and He will answer the rebels, as indeed He does.

But the question still seeks its answer. Ultimately, as Buber emphasizes, the question Korah asked poses an insoluble contradiction: for holiness can never be fully realized within history, yet the people are to act as if it can be or even as if it has been realized. This is the biblical way of dealing with a divine impasse and it became the normative way of Jewish tradition. Korah's argument turns on the eternal tension between authority and freedom. Like many demagogues after him, Korah offered himself as a fitting guardian of the spirit of freedom. But while the people might have accepted the offer of substitute leadership, God did not.

The argument Korah presented was not blotted out with the drastic divine response, and neither was Korah's name. His family continued to serve with high distinction; no less a person than the prophet Samuel was his descendant (I Chronicles 6: 16-18); ten psalms were composed by the sons of Korah; and his offspring functioned in the Temple courts. Like Korah's argument, they refused to disappear.

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Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut

W. Gunther Plaut (1912-2012) was a leading figure in modern Reform Judaism. He was rabbi emeritus and senior scholar at Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto, Canada. Rabbi Plaut is the author of numerous books including The Torah: A Modern Commentary and The Haftarah Commentary.