Korach: An Ally’s Cautionary Tale

Remarks delivered in honor of Pride Shabbat at Kerem Shalom, on June 11, 2021.


I started building my own collection of Judaica right around the time I started coming out. Consequently, I have a vibrant set of Jewish items. The kippot I wanted to wear, the Havdalah candle we still use weekly, and the tallit I purchased (in the heart of ultra-orthodox Jerusalem no less) all had to contain every color of the rainbow.

At first, this practice was about feeling a sense of integration as a gay man and as a Jew. It was about claiming space for myself—and telling myself—that I belong.

But then I began to understand this practice as something more. Confidently wearing colorful Jewish garb doesn’t just communicate to me that I belong, but to others as well. It’s a statement that the spaces I visit ought to be accepting and affirming for people like me.

When I chose to start wearing my colorful kippah all the time, not just during prayer, it was a consciously political act: to use my privilege as a white, cisgender, able-bodied man and do one little thing to make the spaces I enter more visibly diverse. To signal to others who feel different in some way that I’m different too, and different is okay.

For someone like me who can choose to remove their visual markers of difference, this sort of visibility is, I believe, a kind of allyship. I don’t say this because I’m trying to make myself into some model ally—far from it. I know there is more I can do to help others in their struggles for acceptance and affirmation. I say this because I know that this month, Pride month, is a time when many people are considering the same question: What does it mean to be an ally to the LGBTQ community?

Responding to this question can’t come soon enough. Just this week, Alphonso David, the president of the LGBTQ advocacy group the Human Rights Campaign, called 2021 the “worst year for anti-LGBTQ legislation in recent history.” In recent months, some states have debated or enacted anti-trans legislation that limits people’s access to the bathrooms, athletics, and medical care that align with their gender identity. Simultaneously, he says, this year is on track to be the deadliest year of anti-trans violence that the Human Rights Campaign has ever recorded. His call for allies to take a stand is urgent.

Coincidentally, this week’s Torah portion tells a story of an alleged act of allyship gone horribly wrong. It goes something like this: The Israelites are in the midst of their wilderness wanderings, and a man named Korach raises a challenge to Moses and Aaron, who are the divinely chosen leaders. Korach assembles a band in their presence and says, “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?” (Numbers 16:3).

On the surface, this looks like an act of solidarity: Korach, a member of the privileged Levite clan, accuses on behalf of the people that the leaders are guilty of self aggrandizement. Contemporary readers sympathize with Korach; after all, we wouldn’t disagree that every person is holy, just as holy as the leaders. But the Torah does not take kindly to Korach’s deed. After a fiery display of divine arbitration, Korach and his followers are swallowed up by the earth, taken down into the underworld.

Centuries later, in Jewish tradition, Korach’s dispute becomes the rabbinic archetype of a dispute that is not held in good faith (Avot 5:17). His is a cautionary tale that teaches us how not to engage in allyship.

As a way of considering what it means to be an ally to the LGBTQ community, and to all marginalized communities, I will offer three traditional critiques of Korach that have something to teach us about allyship. I don’t intend to define once and for all what it means to be an ally; what looks like allyship in one context to some people might be the opposite in another or to someone else. But I hope that we each glean something from this parashah that inspires us to take one new step, one concrete action, to make our world a more accepting and affirming place for all.

Number one: Allyship begins in relationship.

Parashat Korach opens with the words “Vayikach Korach. And Korach took” (Numbers 16:1). But the Torah leaves open the question: what exactly did Korach take?

Our classical commentator Rashi posits perhaps the most famous midrashic answer: Korach took himself. He took himself out of the community. He claimed to speak on behalf of the people, but he did not speak from among them. It didn’t matter if the words themselves were acceptable or even noble; because the protest didn’t begin in relationship, it was doomed from the start.

When allyship begins in relationship, its impact is strong and lasting. Such is the story of allyship between Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., during the civil rights movement of the 60s. This pair is frequently cited to show the power of two marginalized communities standing together in the name of justice. But as Rabbi Sandra Lawson, the Director of Racial Diversity, Equality and Inclusion of Reconstructing Judaism, pointed out in a recent interview, a crucial part of the story is often left out: Heschel and King were actual friends. The outward performance of protest was paired with the inward work of self understanding and relationship building.

Had Korach started by uniting himself with the community instead of taking himself out of it, perhaps he wouldn’t have dragged the very people he claimed to represent down with him. Perhaps he could have represented their needs not for his sake, but for their own.

This leads to the second aspect of allyship I want to highlight: Allyship involves using one’s power for the sake of another.

Korach is a member of the privileged Kehat family, the most prestigious family in the tribe of Levi. Moses notes this in his reply to Korach, saying God had already set Korach apart and given him special access to the divine service. Moses asks, “Now that God has advanced you and all your fellow Levites with you, do you seek the priesthood too?” (Numbers 16:9-10).

One eighteenth-century commentary interprets this to mean that Korach was driven not by righteousness, but by envy. He wasn’t looking out for the people; he wanted the mantle of leadership for himself.

The LGBTQ Jewish organization Keshet defines allyship partly as using one’s own power to work with people who hold a marginalized identity to increase safety, dignity, and belonging for them. That’s not to say self interest can’t be part of the picture, but an ally’s ultimate goal of using their power is to make things better for someone else.

The proliferation of commercial Pride displays and products during the month of June is a good example of this. There is a debate among queer folks and our allies as to whether the sudden abundance of rainbow merchandise is a good or bad thing. On the one hand, many companies profit off these sales, without returning sufficient resources to the very communities whose identities and whose work the Pride flag was designed to represent. Such “rainbow capitalism,” as this practice has come to be called, is a Korach-esque, opportunistic performance of allyship that is really about the so-called ally’s own gains.

On the other hand, the fact that it is profitable to sell such rainbow merchandise is a sign of just how far things have come. It is a sign of the popular acceptance of LGBTQ people and groups, at least in certain forms and places. It’s not perfect, but I do love seeing rainbows everywhere for thirty days each year. And it’s a cycle, too: the more acceptance, the more rainbows, which in turn leads to more acceptance and more rainbows, and so on.

Korach’s story calls us to be careful about the choices we make as consumers of Pride-themed merchandise and in our own practices of allyship. There’s nothing wrong with a little self interest in the work of allyship, especially if it motivates us to do more. But the end goal must always be in the interest of the other, that their safety, dignity, and belonging increase because of our actions.

This is not a “one-and-done” project, but something that takes constant work. And that is the third element of allyship I want to note: It is a process, and it requires growth.

When Korach raises his protest he proclaims, “Kol ha-eidah kulam k’doshim. All the community, all of them, are holy” (Numbers 16:3). Modern commentator Yeshayahu Leibowitz notes that this is different from what God instructs back in the book of Leviticus: “K’doshim tih’yu. You shall become holy” (Leviticus 19:2, commentary paraphrased from Etz Hayim). Holiness is about striving, and it is continuous work.

So too the practice of allyship is messy, and it often leads to broken hearts. Many of us have felt this in the past month or so, as we watched in horror as yet another deadly war broke out between Israel and Hamas in Gaza—and as we watched in horror as criticism of the state of Israel devolved into antisemetic attacks on Jews. These attacks included a 75% spike, as tracked by the ADL, in physical assaults, synagogue vandalism, and harassment of Jews on social media.

For Jews who support social justice movements in the United States and around the world, and who also believe in the Zionist dream of being a free people in our ancestral homeland, there was a particularly acute sense of desperation. At best, many of us felt abandoned—at worst, directly attacked—by the very same people and communities with whom we’ve tried to work as allies.

But that doesn’t mean we should give up. Rabbi Lawson, who I mentioned earlier, said in that same interview that “allyship should not be conditional. It should not be ‘I showed up for you, or these groups—therefore you show up for me.’ You should do it because it’s the right thing to do.”

Allyship, like holiness, is not something that can be finished; nor is it something that can be failed. It is something that we strive for, something that we will mess up, something that we constantly work to build. It’s the right thing to do.

This month is the right time to consider for ourselves how we each engage in the ongoing work of allyship. After all, our fates are all woven together, just like the threads of my rainbow tallit.

I’ll conclude with prayer for Pride month, written by Rabbi Lily Solocheck:

May it be Your will,
our God and God of our ancestors,
God of Ruth and Naomi, 
God of David and Jonathan, 
God of Joseph, 
God of all our queer ancestors whose names have been erased, 
grant that this Pride month bring us joy and celebration, 
and bestow upon us a long life:
a life of safety, 
a life of healing,
a life of employment and housing, 
a life of love and support, 
a life of blessing and sharing of gifts,
a life free of shame and reproach,
a life of friendship, partnership, and love in the ways we wish to give and receive it, 
a life with dreams of the future.

May the One who delivered our ancestors from oppression to freedom, redeem us and all marginalized peoples.
May the Holy One instill in us the wisdom to know our liberations are entwined together. 

May the One who creates liberation on high,
bring liberation to us, 
to all oppressed communities, 
and to the entire world, 
V’nomar, and we say, 
Amein.

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