Thursday, June 23, 2011

Dissent, Tolerance and limits- Korach 2011

Freedom to disagree is prized above many things. We admire the maverick. In an Inter-Faith context, superficial agreement drives some of us crazy. But it is more than that, we are all too aware of the dangers of “Group Think”, and rightly admire those who stand up for what they believe in. We are horrified by the suppression of dissent in places like Syria. The Torah story of the violent deaths of a dissenting group lead by Korach presents obvious challenges for the modern reader. Are there legitimate limits to our tolerance for dissent?

In reading the story of Korach, we are not called today to execute heretics [1]. Jewish law courts have lost the authority for capital punishment some 2000 years ago. In the story of Korach the punishment is meted out by God alone [2], I would hope that people don’t assume that they could take the place of God and decide who today’s Korachs are that must be destroyed. Instead, we are invited to consider possible meanings of the historical and conceptual Korach. One lesson can be related to appropriate and inappropriate disagreement and leadership, the nature of conflict, and confusion between what Jews aspire to be and where we are at in reality.

Limits of Tolerance
While there are some who will fight for the right of anyone to say anything, I am much more inclined to support a rebel who happens to be right, or at least not horribly wrong. The freedom of expression of an artist who wants to display images of nude children doesn’t really worry me. On the other hand, I support the right of Muslim women to cover their faces. My different stances are based on the fact that I think the artist is very wrong, but veiling woman’s faces is merely a choice that doesn’t resonate for me. Insurgents in Libya fighting Gaddafi have my support while insurgents fighting for a thuggish theocracy in Afghanistan don’t, because I think the Taliban are wrong.

If we are not absolute in our defence of freedom of expression and dissent, then the principle has been established: some things can be censored, now the question is only how to decide on what can or cannot be censored. In the traditional Torah perspective, good and right is defined by compliance with God’s will, which of course still doesn’t sit well with some of us (might even sound Talibanesque) but we need to read Torah within its own frame of reference.

Disagree, For God’s sake! [3]
Jews are proud of a tradition of robust argument and questioning. This is expressed in the Talmudic story [4] about the sage Rabbi Jochanan right after the death of his brother in law and study partner, Resh Lakish. “The sages said, who should go to settle his mind? Let Rabbi Elazar Ben Pedat who is sharp in his learning. He went and sat before him. Every thing that Rabbi Jochanan said, (Rabbi Elazar) said "there is a Mishnah that supports you”! But instead of Rabbi Jochanan being happy with this, he cried out bitterly, “are you like the son of Lakisha?! The son of Lakisha, when I said something he would ask me 24 questions and I would give him 24 answers and therefore the learning would be broadened, but you tell me a ‘Mishnah that will support you?!” Don’t I know that I am saying something right! He [Rabbi Jochanan] walked and tore his clothes and cried, saying where are ‘you son of Lakisha?!, where are you son of Lakisha?! and he screamed until he lost his mind [5]. Yet, the same tradition that so values argument, has no tolerance for Korach. Why?

Motives and Honesty
Disagreement is welcomed when it is for “God’s Sake” [6]. Allowing disagreement is useful in the quest for understanding within or between faith communities as long as it is driven by pure motives, as opposed to the case of Korach and his assembly. There are various motives suggested in our traditions for Korach's rebellion, none of them idealistic. These motives include Korach’s resentment about being passed over for a leadership position [7]. Korach's father’s name Yitzhar, which means oil, is linked to his idea that he should rise above others just as oil rises to the top when mixed with other liquids [8]. Others in Korach's camp had their own personal agendas [9]. Yet, in spite of Korach’s desire to replace Aaron in his elevated position, he pretends that he is seeking equality. Korach cries out to Moses and Aaron that “all of the congregation, they are all holy, and God is among them, and why do you raise yourselves above the congregation of God” [10].

Fighting Fair
There are ethical rules for disagreeing. In addition to misrepresenting the purpose of their argument, there is broader dishonesty, chutzpah [11] and sheer nastiness. When Moses sends a messenger to Korach’s co-conspirators Dathan and Aviram calling them to come and speak with him they refuse to appear [12], implying their disregard for his authority [13]. They not only point out the truth that Moses had not brought them to the promised land flowing with milk and honey, but they brazenly and mockingly [14] paint a picture of their exodus from Egypt as Moses having taken the Israelites "from a land of milk and honey[15]. The rebellion even cast Moses as a potential adulterer, with Jews warning their wives against being alone with him [16]. When Moses hears this he falls on his face out of shame [17]. 

Permitted and Forbidden questioning
I think that what was more important than the way in which Korah carried out the controversy was the substance of the disagreement itself. Judaism encourages questions within the constraints of acceptance of Torah being the word of God, but not questioning its basic premise. We can see that this was part of Korach’s argument from Moses’ statement, “with this you will know that God has sent me to do all these deeds, that is was not from my heart [18]”. “These deeds” refers to prophecy. We have Korach exclaiming; “there is no Torah from heaven, Moses is not a prophet, and Aaron is no high priest[19]” From this perspective, the legitimacy of Judaism was at stake in this argument. The shutting down of Korach's rebellion can still be argued to be encouraging stifling freedom of conscience, although conveniently in the case of Korach it was more opportunism than conscience. Still the question of how Judaism views freedom of conscience itself is one that I have not yet been able to answer. 

Living with questions is part of the deal for a person of faith. It has been said that for the unbeliever there are really no (valid religious) questions, because nothing really has to make sense if there is no God, but the believer has many questions, but not always answers.

Confusion between Aspiration and Reality
The failure to acknowledge the ambiguous reality of the believer is one of the unfortunate mistakes religious movements make. This often takes the form of talking about their aspirations as if this was their reality. “In Lubavitch, we don’t hate”, said one Rabbi denying our human failure to control our baser emotions by confusing reality with our aspiration to love others.

Korach’s statement that every Jew is holy, interprets our mission to seek holiness as if it were a given privilege [20]. Korach’s view seems to be based on selectively quoting God’s statement “you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation [21]”. He neglects the implied conditionality of achieving holiness reflected in God’s preceding statement “and now if you will listen to my voice, and you will keep my covenant, you will be for me a treasure from among all the nations... [22]. Our becoming a holy nation is linked [23] to the command to “Be Holy”[24], it is a choice that is offered to us [25]. Korach does not recognise the choice, insisting that everyone is automatically holy.

Limits of Equality
This misunderstanding of reality links nicely with Korach’s argument to do away with any religious leadership and have absolute equality. If we have all arrived at our spiritual destination then we don’t need a leader to lead us in our quest to achieve it. His anti-leadership view is said to have been expressed by his wrapping himself in a garment that was made of completely blue thread. He approached Moses with Chutzpah [26] and asked him if this garment requires Tzitzit? (Threads on its four corners, one of which must be blue [27]) Moses replied that it did. Korach ridiculed Moses, if a garment that is completely blue cannot absolve itself of this obligation, yet four threads acquit it [28]! Clearly our tradition rejects Korach’s argument, there are people who have a role to lead and others to follow, if we are to follow the example of the great we need to recognise them as such [29].

Taking Sides
As if often the case with controversy, there can be no sitting on the fence. The community is responsible for the actions of individuals within it, if the individual is connected to the community and identified with it…just as Korach and his band separated themselves from the rest of the congregation so should the congregation actively disassociate themselves from Korach [30]. Their standing near Korach implied that they condoned their actions. They had to show they did not share their views by keeping away [31]. 

The Nature of Conflict
A favourite lesson for me is in the metaphoric meaning of the particular form of Korach’s death, being swallowed up by the earth [32]. In communal conflicts and disputes, it is often the case that those involved in the fighting are so consumed by it, obsess over it and cannot think of anything else that their whole existence is metaphorically “swallowed up” by the conflict [33].   

The portion of Korach raises many questions, some left unanswered. It illustrates the ugliness of controversy when driven by less than noble motives. It challenges us to submit to faith in Moses and God, to cancel our will for His will [34] and to subdue the impulse to question everything. This will serve the purpose of preserving the larger project of Judaism, ethical monotheism and repairing the world with the kingdom of God.

[1] In earlier times, one could be executed for acting on unacceptable beliefs, such as idol worship and even a sage who had a different opinion about ritual can be executed if he acts on his dissenting views against the decision reached by the Sanhedrin (Maimonedes Laws of Mamrim 1:1-2)
[2] This is not to suggest that Capital punishment was not carried out by people for religious offences, in fact we recently  read about the collector of wood on the Sabbath who was executed by the whole community (Numbers 15:36), I am simply trying to make sense of the story of Korach.
[4] Talmud Bava Metzia 84a, discussed in Amsel, N, (1996) the Jewish Encyclopaedia of Moral and Ethical Issues, chapter 30, Individuality and Conformity,  Jason Aronson pub. New Jersey,  p.121
[5] As explained in Rashi
[6] Pirkey Avot 5:17
[7] Midrash Tanchuma 1, Rashi
[8] Midrash Bamidbar Rabba 18:15, Pirush Harosh in Otzar Mefarshei Hapshat,
[9] Yearot Dvash, quoted in Torah Gems, Greenberg, A,Y, (1992) p.77 makes the point that when the Mishna states “which dispute is not for the sake of heaven, that was the dispute of Korach and his congregation”, it does not say the dispute between Korach and Moses, because within the camp of Korach they had their own disputes.
[10] Numbers 16:3
[11] Targum Yonatan Ben Uziel on Number 16:2
[12] Numbers 16:12
[13] Bchor Shor
[14] Leibowitz, N, Studies in Bamidbar Numbers, p. 207, following the approach of Akedat Yitzchak
[15] Numbers 16:13
[16] Talmud Sanhedrin 110a, Targum Yonatan Ben Uziel, also implied in “all are holy”, but you are not (Mishknot Yaakov)
[17] Targum Yonatan Ben Uziel on Numbers 16:4. Bchor Shor, Chizkuni
[18] Numbers 16:24
[19] Jerusalem Talmud 10:1
[20] Leibowitz, N, Studies in Bamidbar Numbers, p. 183
[21] Exodus 19:6
[22] Exodus 19:5
[23] Ramban on Exodus 19:5
[24] Leviticus 19:2
[25] Baal Haturim on Exodus 19:5, We are told that if the Jews had taken the choice to be holy “they would live forever, this was indeed God’s intention, if not for their corrupting their ways with the calf…( Seforno on Exodus 19:5)
[26] Targum Yonatan Ben Uziel on Number 16:2
[27] Numbers 15:38
[28] Old Midrash Tanchuma
[30] Akedat Yitzchak
[31] Malbim, Taam Vdaat
[32] Numbers 16:32
[33] The Chafetz Chayim,  alternatively, their rejection of leadership relates to the idea that without government people would swallow each other alive (R. Bchai)
[34] Pirkey Avot 2:4

1 comment:

  1. Thank you Reb Zalman. Very thought provoking and relevant for today's times :)