Moses and Anarchy

The Living Theatre Stages Korach's Desert Rebellion

Law and Order: Tom Walker as Moses, followed by his flock of
faithful Israelites.
Kennedy Yanko
Law and Order: Tom Walker as Moses, followed by his flock of faithful Israelites.

By Jerome A. Chanes

Published January 05, 2011, issue of January 14, 2011.
  • Print
  • Share Share

What are we to make of our biblical narratives? Jacques Derrida famously said that no comment on a text is ever innocent — that the act of exegesis means intervening in the text, asserting power over it and the reader. Such is the case with the legendary Judith Malina’s highly charged play, “Korach: The Biblical Anarchist.” In a production by The Living Theatre, playwright Malina (who also directs) offers an anarchist reading of the biblical narrative of dissent and rebellion among the Israelites in their 40-year desert trek.

“The experiment is over!” Thus Moses, in crushing the Korach rebellion, prefigures the end of the anarchist vision of Korach and his followers. Korach, denied participation in leadership and even (in the play) to the central objects and rituals of the Hebrew faith, is, in Malina’s reading, one of the first in a long string of anarchists to be wiped out.

There are two contexts for “Korach,” and they are not necessarily contradictory. One, of course, is the Jewish — or better, the Hebrew — context of the biblical Korach who, whatever his motives, sought to displace or at least share power with Moses. While Korach and his followers came to a ghastly end, he is not demonized in Jewish tradition; his sons are regularly recalled in the Psalms they composed, and the biblical prophet Samuel is reputed to have been a descendent of Korach.

The other context is the anarchist one, which provides the framework for “Korach” and is deeply embedded in the history, ideology and mission of The Living Theatre. The company, founded in 1947 by the visionaries Malina and her husband, Julian Beck, has been, for six decades, a pioneer in the staging of unconventional and experimental drama, all of it celebrating the theme of nonviolent anarchist revolution. Malina, the daughter of a rabbinic leader in Germany and later the United States, was trained by Erwin Piscator, a path-finding interpreter of contemporary drama. She and Beck (a New York School Abstract Expressionist painter) were among the first in America to stage Bertolt Brecht, Jean Cocteau, Kenneth Rexroth, Gertrude Stein and T.S. Eliot.

It is the conceit of “Korach” that the anarchist ideal, though it has absorbed many blows over the centuries, will prevail. In the words of Emma Goldman (in one of three filmed segments that give “Korach” a contemporary shading), “We will lose every battle except the last one.”

The biblical Korach asks, in effect, a legitimate question: “Why Moses? Why not me?” and he is destroyed for his heretical challenge to the Mosaic order. The anarchist Korach — knowing that he is fighting one of the losing battles — asks, “Why Moses? “Why not everybody?” and, as is the case with every good anarchist, he is destroyed for his heretical challenge to the political order. Indeed, the biblical declaration, mantralike in its repetition throughout the play, that Israel is to be “a nation of priests and a holy people” is met by Korach’s counter-declaration: “We are all holy!”

“Korach” neatly telescopes a number of narratives from the Bible into a one-hour production: the golden calf; the story of Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu, who, in an excess of religious zeal, “brought strange fire” before God (in a wonderfully comic touch, they smoke weed) and are killed by the very fire they offer; Miriam’s kvetch about Moses’s Cushite concubine (an interpretation adapted from the medieval commentary of Rashi), and Miriam’s resultant affliction with leprosy. These episodes, seamlessly written into the script, presage Korach’s antinomianism and set the stage for the main event: Korach’s plaint, Moses’s harsh response and Korach’s destruction by God.

What makes “Korach” work is Malina’s direction of the intricately choreographed cast, as the actors depict the hunger, thirst, pain, anger, frustration and religious zeal of the Israelites in the desert, all culminating in Korach’s rebellious act and in his death. The script is not always smooth — some transitional moments stutter and sputter — and there is some confused pronunciation. (Is the fire pan — a central prop in the story — “censor” or “censer”?) But the production, which runs through February 28, is nothing if not disciplined, and it is energetic. Above all, it is great theater.

And what about The Living Theatre’s peroration to the playgoer? The final moments of “Korach” find Moses and a resurrected Korach in an embrace, with performers and audience members joining hands, dancing and singing together. “The experiment is over!” Hardly. For The Living Theatre, the ideal yet burns, if but for a flickering moment. For Judith Malina, “the last battle” has yet to be fought.

Jerome A. Chanes is a contributing editor to the Forward and author of the forthcoming “The Future of American Judaism” (Trinity/Columbia University Press).


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • "Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel." J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis on Israel's ground operation in Gaza:
  • What do you think?
  • "To everyone who is reading this article and saying, “Yes, but… Hamas,” I would ask you to just stop with the “buts.” Take a single moment and allow yourself to feel this tremendous loss. Lay down your arms and grieve for the children of Gaza."
  • Professor Dan Markel, 41 years old, was found shot and killed in his Tallahassee home on Friday. Jay Michaelson can't explain the death, just grieve for it.
  • Employees complained that the food they received to end the daily fast during the holy month of Ramadan was not enough (no non-kosher food is allowed in the plant). The next day, they were dismissed.
  • Why are peace activists getting beat up in Tel Aviv? http://jd.fo/s4YsG
  • Backstreet's...not back.
  • Before there was 'Homeland,' there was 'Prisoners of War.' And before there was Claire Danes, there was Adi Ezroni. Share this with 'Homeland' fans!
  • BREAKING: Was an Israeli soldier just kidnapped in Gaza? Hamas' military wing says yes.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.