“A Musical Maverick”
By Cantor Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D., ’10 , AJRCA Professor of Jewish Music History
The Korachites were a class of priestly singers entrenched in the musical establishment of Jerusalem’s First Temple. Their music and poetry were integrated into the highly structured Temple system, and eleven biblical psalms bear their name (Pss. 42, 44–49, 84–85, 87–88). This is significant, as their patriarch, Korach, was killed centuries earlier for rebelling against the established tradition.
During the course of Israel’s wandering in the desert, Korach organized a community revolt against Moses’ authority (Num. 16:1–18:32). With the backing of chieftains, other men of repute, and scores of followers, Korach declared to Moses and Aaron: “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?” This populist movement challenged the idea that only certain priests could perform sacred tasks. Ordinary people, Korach maintained, also had a right to the ceremonial realm.
Perhaps not unlike the democratic synagogues of today, where laypeople can lead services and congregational singing is the norm, Korach and his supporters desired a more intimate relationship with ritual. In punishment for their defiance, the earth opened up and swallowed many of the rebels, including Korach, and the chieftains were consumed by fire. Communal stability, the story tells us, was too fragile to tolerate this anti-establishment push.
Music is not mentioned in the episode, but given the Korachites’ musical proclivities, we can speculate that their forefather was a musician as well. Historically and cross-culturally, music is typically a family trade, passed on from one generation to the next. Perhaps Korach introduced participatory song as a way of stirring and uniting his followers.
Korach’s revolt and its aftermath have some similarities with how musical innovations are often handled in the synagogue. If we imagine Moses as the head of a powerful ritual committee and Korach as an unconventional but popular singer-songwriter, we can understand both why the rebels were dealt with so harshly, and why their music carried on. New synagogue sounds threaten the solidity and continuity of communal ritual. However, over time, these changes can seep into worship services and become part of standard practice. No matter how much strength the leadership exerts, if the people want the music, it is exceedingly difficult to bar it from devotional use.
Korach’s music persisted with his sons and the populace. Eventually, the Korachites took the once-controversial songs into the rigid Temple system. What was once revolutionary became conventional.