by Rabbi Joel D. Oseran, Vice President, International Development,
World Union for Progressive Judaism
Our weekly Torah reading from the Book of Numbers focuses our attention on the infamous act of rebellion by Korach, who along with Dathan, Abiram, On and another 250 heads of the Israelite community set out to challenge the leadership of Moses and Aaron. We read in the opening lines of the Torah portion how Korach and his co-rebels denounce Moses and Aaron by saying:
You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation?”
Has this challenge to Moses and Aaron come as a result of the discouraging event of the scouts in last week’s Torah reading? Are these frustrated leaders sensing a weakness and vulnerability in the standing of Moses and Aaron and strike out to usurp power for themselves by removing the old guard? Or, could these rebels have been just in their case, believing that for the betterment of the community and for the sake of future success, Moses and Aaron had to go?
In other words, how do we know when a challenge to authority is justified or not. How do we determine whether the motivation of the challenger is based on pure or impure motives? In Jewish tradition, we ask the question: is this controversy or is this challenge motivated “for the sake of Heaven” (
) or motivated by base personal interests?
Our Torah portion presents us with a very clear test to determine whether Korach’s challenge was legitimate or illegitimate – motivated by personal gain or for the sake of Heaven. We read how Moses instructs Korach and all the rebels to prepare fire pans and incense to offer before the Lord. Moses and Aaron also prepare such fire pans and incense to offer before the Lord. And Moses declares:
Come morning, the Lord will make known who is His and who is holy, and will grant him access to Himself; He will grant access to the one He has chosen…..Then the man whom the Lord chooses, he shall be the holy one. You have gone too far, sons of Levi [
referring to Korach who is from the tribe of Levi] (Numbers16:5-7). Note that the very same expression “You have gone too far” which was previously used by Korach and the rebels against Mosses is here used by Moses to challenge Korach and company. A clever literary technique.
The battleground is ready, the stage is set for the showdown. On one side is Korach and the rebel chieftains – on the other side Moses and Aaron. Each side claiming to represent the legitimate authority to govern the community. Each side claiming to represent the word of God. And there will be no question which side is just, which side represents the legitimate authority vested in him by the Lord Himself.
We know how this episode ends. The very ground under Korach and the other rebels literally opens up and swallows them and their possessions alive. We read in Numbers 16:33, “
They went down alive into Sheol, with all that belonged to them; the earth closed over them and they vanished from the midst of the congregation
.” So reviled is Korach in Jewish tradition that he becomes the arch-demagogue and the paradigmatic example of one whose challenge to authority is motivated by personal gain and lust for power. In the Mishna Pirke Avot, 5:17 it is Korach who is noted as the one who does not act “for the sake of Heaven”.
How easy it would be for us today, how amazingly clear and straightforward, if we could just rely on such a “simple” test to determine the legitimacy of challenges to authority. Imagine Jewish organizational life, including our many and varied congregations around the world, if we could put to this kind of test challenges to the authority of our boards or challenges to the authority even of our rabbis. Picture these scenes:
A). A group of discontent congregants claiming that the board has no authority to permit a speaker from J-Street from coming into the synagogue and giving a lecture.
B). A disgruntled member of the community standing up at a board meeting and criticizing the rabbi for performing intermarriages which, in the opinion of the congregant, weakens the community and endangers the future of the Jewish People.
In these cases, and many more I could bring as well, we are confronted by challenges to the authority of our leaders. How do we respond to these challenges? How do we determine whether they are justified or not. Unlike in our weekly Torah portion, we can not put the challengers to the ultimate test which Korach faced. In our reality, there is no way to appeal to God to show us who is right and who is wrong.
Then how do we proceed? How do we grapple with the question: are the challenges we face in our Jewish communal efforts legitimate ones (for the sake of Heaven) or illegitimate, self-serving challenges as in the case of Korach? Who decides?
Some groups in Jewish life today still maintain that certain individuals (rabbis) have the authority to speak in God’s name and must, therefore, be followed without challenge. The earth may no longer open up to “prove” that this or that rabbi’s word is the final authority, but the community knows its limitations and knows what is expected of it. Any challenge to the authority of the leader is forbidden, a sign of Korach.
We Progressive Jews do not accept this practice and literally rebel against the notion that any one rabbi or leader can posses divine authority. We Progressive Jews have learned over the ages that the one way to prevent abuse of authority and power is to create democratic institutions where the people elect their leaders who are then responsible to the will of the people. This includes the very highest position of rabbi. Rabbis in our congregations are indeed respected leaders, but their authority derives from their personal integrity, knowledge and trust placed in them by the community. A rabbi in our Progressive Jewish world who rebukes challenge by claiming to be the true spokesman of God, will be looking for a new job very quickly.
How can congregational leaders today, rabbis included, know when certain challenges are made “for the sake of Heaven” or for personal motivation (as in the case of Korach)? I believe the only way we can make that determination is by relying on the understanding and judgment of the group itself as expressed through the democratic process. We need talented knowledgeable leaders to sit in judgment. We need rabbis to bring the Jewish perspective and understanding. We need the opportunity for listening and learning. And then we need to rely on the democratic process to make the final decision – one way or the other. A challenge coming from a modern day Korach will usually be seen as such by the collective judgment of good people.
Let each of our congregations and organizations strive to place the very best members of the community we have to take up the leadership mantle. The one and only protection we have against modern day Korachs is to rely on the good judgment, knowledge and leadership qualities of those we elect to represent us as a community.