Few issues touch the Reform Jewish soul like those of rebellion and authority. In our synagogues one sees teenagers wearing "Question Authority" buttons and hears adults affirming individual autonomy as the cardinal principal of Reform Judaism.
Consequently, this week's portion, Korah, which focuses on two rebellions-Korah against Moses, and Dathan and Abiram against Aaron-should be of great interest to us.
Korah challenges Moses with the statement that ". . . all the community are holy, all of them, and Adonai is in their midst." (Num. 16:3) At first blush it is a statement that finds great resonance within a democratic religious community such as ours. But it finds little favor in the tradition.
It is not dissent per se that irks the rabbis. The Mishnah permits controversy when it occurs-literally, "in the name of heaven"-and cites the disputes between the schools of Hillel and Shammai as a model. But the dissent of Korah and his congregation is singled out as not serving a heavenly cause. (Pirke Avot 5:17)
The twentieth century Torah commentator Nehama Leibowitz comments that in arguing "all of the community are holy," Korah is not speaking on behalf of the corporate mission of all Jews as a nation of priests but regarding the selfish interests of a collection of individuals. It is not dissent per se but its content that accounts for its not being in the service of heaven.
This is an interesting yardstick for us. One might argue that the rabbis are drawing a powerful distinction between rebellions that are purposeful and selfless and those that are nihilistic and selfish.
But having dismissed his rebellion we are still haunted by Korah's questions: Does any person or group have a particular claim on holiness? Can certain forms of leadership and judgment be exercised in the name of holiness? Especially in a democratic time and place, these questions underlie almost every debate and decision within our movement.
The tradition is unequivocal in its response. Korah's followers, and perhaps Korah himself, are obliterated. Decisions concerning holiness are the domain of a select few, in this case Moses and the house of Aaron. But many of us would chafe at such a concentration of authority, especially as it affects who can judge what is holy and what is not.
Perhaps our reaction should not be automatic, and we should take a modicum of the Torah's council. We live in an age when rebellion has elevated us by establishing political freedom and has diminished us when it has resisted moral guidelines that have been a fire wall between us and a materialistic culture.
The challenge of this week's portion is clear: Rebellion and autonomy have their place, but first we must measure the motive that animates them. Only then will we have a clear sense if the road they are leading us down is one that enhances a sense of kedushah "holiness," in the world or one that destroys it.
Imagine if you will the following scenario: A temple board or congregational meeting in which an issue of significant importance is hotly debated. After much deliberation and discussion, a decision is reached. People leave, most content that their side has had a fair hearing and that, win or lose, their ideas were listened to and valued. Following the meeting, one of the participants mails a letter to each member of the congregation, accusing the people who made up the majority position of being manipulative and attacking the character, values, and even the motives and morals of those involved.
Questions arise: How does this or any community deal with dissent, particularly inappropriate dissent? How are we to deal with personal attacks on our leaders? Even Moses, who had both a magic stick and a daily pep talk from the Sovereign of the universe to give him the strength to persevere, became angry at the whining, the carping, and the personal invective aimed at him, until finally he could take no more.
In the Midrash we learn that instead of one techelet string in his talit, Korah is only satisfied when his entire talit is techelet. He had to outdo Moses and the rest of the leaders of the community. He had to be better than Moses and in spite of his cries for democracy, he had to be different.
Can we, like Moses, depend on the earth swallowing up those who are inappropriate? As much as we may joke that we might wish it could happen, it is an unlikely and undesirable solution to what Rabbi Ed Feinstein calls the mean-ing of our community. How do we and how should we deal with those who are mean, vindictive, and downright nasty? By reading Korah do we learn how we should behave? Do we learn how one human being should interact with another?
I find it of particular interest that even though the earth swallows up Korah, his name and memory are not to be obliterated, like the names of Amalek and Haman, but rather a number of the psalms are attributed to the sons of Korah. Martin Buber claims that all human interactions fit into two categories: "I-Thou" and "I-It." "I-Thou" describes those relationships- close, responsive, mutual relationships-in which we become genuine, unique persons to one another. "I-It" is for everything else: all of the functional, impersonal, objectified relations that fill daily life. But Buber failed to notice a third type of relationship. In this relationship that has been called "I-You good for nothing," a functional complaint quickly and seamlessly turns into a personal attack: "I don't object merely to the job you've done....I object to you."
That Korah raises questions with which to grapple is clear to me. Why should anyone take on a leadership role if there are those among us who behave as Korah behaves? What responsibility do we as a community have when inappropriate attacks appear in our community? How do we protect and shield our leaders? How should we deal with those who engage in nastiness? Does motive justify any behavior, or are we to maintain a certain degree of respect even in disagreement? What effects will our behavior, as well as the behavior of those who behave like Korah, have on our community, both in the short term and in the long run? How can each of us change our relationships so that we create "I-Thou" relationships instead of relationships that are "I-You good for nothing"?
The questions are clear. May we become a society when the answers to such questions will be unnecessary because there will be no Korahs in our midst!
Korach, Numbers 16:1–18:32
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,127–1,140; Revised Edition, pp. 1,001 - 1,017
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 893–914