One of the most controversial and influential Jewish theologians of the twentieth century, Richard Rubenstein, died in May at the age of 97. He was the leading Jewish voice in the “Death of God” movement, arguing that the Sho’ah had invalidated the idea of a benevolent deity who safeguards the Jewish people.

Rubenstein challenged the notion of a merciful God who controls everything for the best. He asked, “how can Jews believe in an omnipotent, beneficent God after Auschwitz?” Traditional Jews believed that every catastrophe in our history was God’s punishment of Israel for its sins. Rubenstein thought that this position could only mean that the Nazi regime was an instrument of God’s will. And this, he felt, was nothing short of obscene. This rejection of the comfort of traditional theology infuriated many Jewish thinkers and generated terrible personal attacks.

This week’s Torah reading tells the unsettling story of Korach, who stirred up a rebellion against the leadership of Moses and Aaron, ending with God destroying the rebels. Although there are other challenges to the authority of Moses and Aaron in the Bible, this is the most famous and the most serious. Korach asks why Moses and Aaron should rule over the people when, as Korach puts it, “all the community are holy, every one of them, and the Eternal is in their midst.” This was a rejection of the leadership of Moses and Aaron.

Was Richard Rubenstein a modern day Korach?

No. Although Rubenstein’s critics accused him of rejecting the meaning of Jewish observance, Rubenstein was not a rebel like Korach. He himself never renounced belief in God and he attended synagogue every Shabbat. He often said, “God is the ocean, and we are the waves.” Or, in the words of Clare Carlisle, “Each wave is dependent on the sea, and because it is part of the sea it is connected to every other wave. Likewise, each being is dependent on God, and as a part of God it is connected to every other being.” This does not make life meaningless, but rather gives us the opportunity to create meaning.