This week, a Torah Place exclusive: “Ben Pelet’s Wife: Complexity and Hierarchy in the story of Korach”, by Dr. Ohr Margalit:
A study profiled in the Atlantic a couple of months back makes the controversial claim that men tend to view reality as black and white, while women are better able to grasp complexity.
The stories about Korach in this week’s parsha would seem, at first glance, to bear this out. Korach and his followers are portrayed by the (very male) Rabbis of the Talmud as the quintessential paradigm of illegitimate dissent. His evil subversion is contrasted in the Mishna of Avot with the admirable, worthy disagreements between Hillel and Shamai, and a clear distinction is drawn between “makhloket l’shem shamayim” – disagreement for the sake of Heaven – and malicious divisiveness.
A more nuanced portrayal of Korach’s reality is embodied, on the other hand, in the story of the nameless wife of On Ben Pelet. It takes it a woman, it would seem, to offer a more complex understanding.
Ben Pelet is listed among Korah’s supporters in the first verse of this week’s parsha, together with Dotan, Aviram and 250 unnamed dignitaries. The parsha later describes how Dotan and Aviram were swallowed up by the Earth and how the 250 dignitaries died either by fire or plague; but Ben Pelet isn’t mentioned again. Here is how Rav solved the mystery of his disappearance:
On Ben Pelet – his wife saved him.
She said to him: What are you going to get out of all this? If Moshe ends up being the master – you will be a student; if Korach ends up being the master – you will still be a student.
He said to her: What can I do? I was at council with the congregation of Korach and I took the oath of allegiance with them.
She answered: I know they are all a holy congregation, as it is written: “For the entire congregation, they are all holy”.
She said: Return and I will save you.
She wined him till his thirst was quenched and put him to bed inside, while she went and sat at the entrance of the tent with her hair undone. All who came to call for him and saw her thus went away. Meanwhile they were swallowed up by the earth.
This isn’t a story about ideal values, right and wrong, or black and white. It is about navigating the gray, murky waters of daily political life. Ben Pelet’s wife doesn’t try to convince him that Korach was wrong and Moshe was right. It’s not even clear she thought Moshe was any better than Korach. All she says is that Ben Pelet stands to gain absolutely nothing from taking sides. No matter who wins, he will remain a lowly pupil.
As a woman in a patriarchal world, Ben Pelet’s wife is an expert at short circuiting hierarchy. She knows how the system works, and as soon as her husband tells her he’s become entangled in a web of political intrigue, the tables are turned, and she takes the lead. “I’ll save you!” she exclaims. She then (very symbolically) gets him drunk and puts him to bed.
Ben Pelet’s wife knows what stands behind Korach’s claim that Moshe has no right to elevate himself above the people, that “the entire congregation is holy.” She understands that this beautiful proclamation is really nothing more than a thin cover for a political game. Korach pretends to demand democracy for all, but what he’s really after is high priesthood for himself. Ben Pelet’s wife, used to holiness being used as a pretense to keep women out of the public sphere, is then able to use the very same pretense to her advantage. Sitting at the entrance to her tent, on the very brink of immodesty, she uses the community’s own rules of “holiness” in order to keep her husband safe.
But wait a minute. This story may have been about a woman, but it certainly wasn’t told by her. It was brought by Rav, painted in the realistic grays of the Beit Midrash of his day – with Korach and Moshe as quarreling masters and Ben Pelet as the poor pupil caught in the middle. Rav, the patriarchal founder of the famous Talmudic yeshiva, was able to appreciate the grays from his place at the top of the rabbinic hierarchy.
So is it really an inherently male / female thing? Maybe, but there’s at least one other possibility: that individuals who have to navigate hierarchy on a regular basis learn to handle complexity in a way that other people don’t. Rav may have been a top Rabbi, but as leader of an ethnic minority in the Babylonian Empire he probably had to navigate some political hierarchies of his own.
So men may be from Mars, and women from Venus – but in the end, it’s probably a little bit more complex than that.
(Dedicated to the memory of my grandfathers Idel Yitzchak Margolis and Yehoshua Tzvi Shtadlan, whose yartzeits are this week. Thank you to the many women and men who I’ve had the zchut to discuss this little story with.)
More Great Divre Torah for Parashat Korach:
Ariel, R. Yaakov – The Basis of the King’s Authority in Israel
Ahituv, Dr. Ronen – Korah and Modern Values
Amital, R. Yehuda – Dispute and Harmony
Amital, R. Yehuda – Halakha and Aggada
Amital, R. Yehuda – “All the Community is Holy” vs. “You Shall be Holy to God”
Amital, R. Yehuda – Dispute that is Not for the Sake of Heaven
Bazak, R. Amnon – Aharon Was Chosen Twice
Barde’a, Dr. Amos – “And Korah Took”
Barkai, Dr. Yair – Salt as a Metaphor
Beasley, R. Yaakov – Moshe and Aharon – Murderers?
Berger, R. Micah – A Gap Between Heart and Mind (p.2)
Berkowitz, R. Matthew – The Entire Congregation is Holy?
Berkowitz, R. Matthew – Transforming Stumbling Blocks into Sacred Moments
Berzon, R. Bernard – The Scourge of Conceit
Berzon, R. Bernard – Staff and Manna
Berzon, R. Bernard – Constructive and Destructive Criticism
Bick, R. Ezra – The Election of the Tribe of Levi
Brander, R. Asher – The Ramban on Parashat Korach
Brovender, R. Chaim – “Moshe heard and fell on his face”
Brovender, R. Chaim – Why Wait Until Morning
Brovender, R. Chaim – The Levites Disaster
Buchwald, R. Ephraim – “Dathan and Abiram: The Protagonists”
Carmel, R. Yosef – Post-Modernism
Chipman, R. Jonathan – Zohar on Korach
Chipman, R. Jonathan – Rashi on Korach
Chipman, R. Jonathan – Korah (Torah, Haftarah, Midrash, Hasidism, Rambam, Psalms)
Chipman, R. Jonathan – Korah (Mitsvot)
Chipman, R. Jonathan – Authority, Democracy and the Role of Reason
Elon, R. Mordechai – B’nei Reuven
Elon, R. Mordechai – “And He will exalt the horn of His anointed…”
Etshalom, R. Yitzchak – K’toret and ‘Anan: A Study in Leadership and Diversity
Feigelson, R. Josh – The Nuances of Questions
Feigelson, R. Josh – Korach’s Rebellion and the Institution of Marriage
Finkelstein, R. Joel – Korach: The Jewish Mystique
Frand, R. Yissocher – Where Korach Deserves Credit
Frisch, Prof. Amos – Moses, Korach, and his Cohorts
Goldwicht, R. Meir – Korach’s Machloket
Gordimer, R. Avraham – True Leadership
Gordimer, R. Avraham – Why Aharon?
Grossman, R. Yonatan – Two Complaints of the Nation, and the Re-Appointment of Aharon
Grossman, R. Yonatan – The Symbolic Significance of the Earth “Opening Her Mouth”
Haber, R. Yakov – On Blossoms, Almonds, and Spiritual Accomplishments
Hattin, R. Michael – The Rebellion in the Wilderness
Hattin, R. Michael – Korach and the Epicenter
Hattin, R. Michael – Democracy and Demagoguery
Hattin, R. Michael – The Blossoming Staff of Aharon
Hattin, R. Michael – Guarding the Temple
Hattin, R. Michael – The Incense Offering
Hattin, R. Michael – Korach and the Garments of Sky-Blue
Henkin, Rabbanit Chana – The Nature of Machloket Korach (Peri Tzadik)
Jacobson, R. Yosef Y. – Revolutionary vs. Shepherd
Jacobson, R. Yosef Y. – Never Keep Up a Quarrel
Kahn, R. Ari – Collateral Damage
Kahn, R. Ari – Perfidy
Kahn, R. Ari –Rebellion
Kahn, R. Yair – A Kingdom of Priests and a Holy Nation
Kasher, Prof. Hanna – On Controversy
Lamm, R. Norman – 9 Sermons spanning 3 decades on Parashat Korach
Lapin, R. David – Content and Intent (registration site, free)
Lapin, R. David – The Voice of Korach Can Still be Heard…In The Media! (registration site, free)
Leff, R. Zev – Peace and Strife
Leff, R. Zev – Shalom and Machlokes | The Power of Women
Leibowitz, Nechama – Gilyonot – The Grievances of Korach and Company
Leibowitz, Nechama – Gilyonot – Accompanying Questions
Leibowitz, Nechama – Gilyonot Korach – 5722 (1962)
Leibowitz, Nechama – Complete Gilyonot Parashat Korach (in Hebrew)
Leibtag, R. Menachem – Questions and Shiur #1: Biblical ‘Coalition Politics’ and Shiur #2: Haftarat Parshat Korach – I Shmuel 11:14-12:22
Leshem (Blobstein), R. Zvi – Korach: Truth or Falsehood?
Leshem (Blobstein), R. Zvi – Afraid of a Hair? Ohn ben Pelet
Leshem (Blobstein), R. Zvi – Death of the Rebels
Leshem (Blobstein), R. Zvi – Motivation of the Rebels
Lichtenstein, R. Mosheh – The Dangers of Stability
Lichtenstein, R. Mosheh – Korach and his Following
Lopatin, R. Asher – Misguided Piety: The Korach Story According to the Netziv
Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev — The Kedushat Levi on Korach
Milgram, Dr. Jonathan – Parashat Korach: The Pursuit of Power
Nebenzahl, R. Avigdor – The Dangers of Being Noge’a Ba-Davar
Persoff, R. Menachem – Rav Soloveitchik on Korach and Jewish Leadership
Raphael, Dr. Samuel – What the Ladino-Speaking Jews Had to Say about Korach
Rimon, Rabbanit Sharon – The Significance of the Incense
Riskin, R. Shlomo – “And they rose up in the face of Moses”
Riskin, R. Shlomo – “And Korach took “
Riskin, R. Shlomo – Korach’s Mistaken Notion of Sanctity
Riskin, R. Shlomo – How to Argue and How Not to Argue
Riskin, R. Shlomo – Pursuing Mitzvot with Passion
Riskin, R. Shlomo – The Symbolic Significance of Korach’s Name
Riskin, R. Shlomo – Two Separate Punishments
Riskin, R. Shlomo – Korach, Our Holy Grandfather
Rock, R. Yehuda – The Significance of the Incense
Sacks, Elli – Mei ha-Shiloah on Parashat Korach
Sacks, R. Jonathan – A Lesson in Conflict Resolution
Sacks, R. Jonathan – Arguments for the Sake of Heaven
Sacks, R. Jonathan – Power Versus Influence
Sacks, R. Jonathan – “If you seek to understand an accusation, look at the accuser”
Sacks, R. Jonathan – Adaptation of a Sicha by Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe
Sacks, R. Yonasan – With Fire And Water
Samet, R. ElchananA Portion in the Lord, a Portion in the Land
Samet, R. Elchanan – Moshe vs. the Rebels: A Challenge on Two Fronts
Samet, R. Elchanan – Datan and Aviram
Samet, R. Yisrael – A Portion in the Lord, A Portion in the Land
Schachter, R. Hershel – An Area Versus A Line
Schachter, R. Hershel – It’s Just Plain Common Sense
Schachter, R. Hershel – All Men Are Created Equal
Schachter, R. Hershel – Praying for a Miracle
Schneerson, R. Menachem Mendel – Who was Korach?
Schneerson, R. Menachem Mendel – The Gap of Life
Schneerson, R. Menachem Mendel – Aaron’s Almond Blossoms
Seidler, Dr. Meir – Justice and Punishment
Shimon, R. Zvi – Dirty Politics – Crisis in the Coalition
Silverberg, R. David – The Limits of Common Sense
Sobolofsky, R. Zvi – The Job of a Levi
Soloveitchik, R. Joseph B. – The Commonsense Rebellion Against Torah Authority
Speigel, Boaz – “Come morning”
Spiegel, Prof. Yaakov – The Earth’s Mouth
Student, R. Gil – Personal Bias and Doubting
Tal (Teich), R. S. Zvi – Korah’s Company
Twersky, R. Mayer – Knowledge and Belief
Twersky, R. Mayer – The Ruinous Path of Self-Deception
Waxman, R. Chanoch – The Incense Challenge
Wein, R. Berel – Man-Made Faith
Weiss, R. Avi – The Role of Miracles in the Process of Belief
Weiss, R. Avi – Two Models of Dealing with Communal Crisis
Weiss, R. Avi – Spiritually Fulfilled
Yudin, R. Benjamin – Things are Good, Let’s Make Them Better
Zoldan, R. Judah – The Man Whom the Lord Chooses