Democracy or Theocracy? Korach’s Fourth of July Rebellion

(On July 4, 1992, Shabbat Korach and the Fourth fell on the same day. I delivered this as a drash in a Conservative shul in upstate New York (Agudat Achim in Niskayuna) before I knew a lick of Rashi or Talmud, so please forgive its incredible ignorance and naivete. Please note this has been edited from the original notes.)
Moses is not the leader of a democracy, as this week’s parsha shows. How does a good Jewish citizen of America choose between allegiance to democracy or to the harsh autocratic theocracy the Torah seems to demand?
Kippah + American Flag
(From Jewish Boston, photo by selimaksan/iStock)

Through a wonderful coincidence, this weeks’ parsha and the Fourth of July fall on the same day. Korach tells the story of a Levite, a leader among the Hebrews wandering the desert, who arises and leads a democratic-style revolution against the leadership of Moses and Aaron.

It is apparent that Korach is really disturbed that he has been cut out of priestly leadership, when by birthright, he should have been next in line, and brothers Aaron and Moses have kept it all to themselves. However, Korach didn’t read his Book of Genesis, for if there is one theme about the law of inheritance among our people, it is that the firstborn’s birthright (primogeniture) counts for very little. Abraham passes over firstborn Ishmael to name Isaac his heir. Isaac is tricked by Jacob into passing over the elder twin, Esau. Reuven is usurped by Joseph. Jacob literally switches his hands again when he blesses his grandsons Menashe and Ephraim. Over and over again the Torah tells us that it not your order of birth, the law of the land, but an invisible quality of merit that raises our leaders to their position.

Korach’s real motives may be selfish and motivated from a sense of birthright and a lust for power, but on the face of it his arguments against Moses’ rulership are ones that no democratic, right-minded citizen of America can resist, especially on the Fourth of July. In fact, Moses’ government was an absolute, totalitarian dictatorship supported by a nepotistic class system and backed by claims of divine authority. The very best we could say about Moses’ government over the Israelites’ material and civic lives is that there were some democratic instincts: the court system  – 10s, 100s, 1000s, –  established a partly representative government. But in the end, it was Moses’ word which was the ultimate and inarguable word of law, a rule by Divine Right. To the multitude, Moses was indistinguishable from any other pharaoh who claimed transcendent authority to arrogate power for him and his family.

Korach’s arguments are so persuasive even back then when there was no successful model for rebellion in all of history, except maybe Moses’ slave revolt against Pharaoh, that he convinces 250 other leaders to rise up against Moses. And after he loses his case in dramatic fashion – the earth instantly opens to swallow him and all his followers – all the other Israelites still complain to Moses that he is tyrannical and cruel. The only thing that should have mattered was their newfound freedom and the holy mission that was the deal for it, but they had proven over and over again that they were more concerned with their material comfort and safety than thundering miracles in the desert. They want cucumbers and garlic and fish instead of divine manna. They are afraid to enter the Promised Land. They are a rabble of newly-liberated slaves who can’t liberate their own minds from their bodily needs.

Given the choice of sides here, it’s confusing to us American Jews. Historically, democratization has always helped us. Throughout the world, we usually found our position improved whenever the concept of equality for all citizens under the law is established. The French Revolution overthrew a monarchy of the Sun King. It ushered in the age of Napolean, where Jews were granted first-class citizenship, at least de jure if not de facto. And in America, we seem to have found an enduring homeland under the banner of religious freedom and separation of church and state.

One could even argue Korach was a prophetic genius, since this is the first time in history we ever hear any document record arguments for universal equality under law – “You take too much power since all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them; wherefore then do you lift yourself above the rest?” –  a concept which Western culture wouldn’t re-discover for another three thousand years, until the Enlightenment and writers like John Locke in the eighteenth century.

Isn’t every Jew divine?  Who are you, Moses to rule us with this dictatorship of divinity?” Furthermore, unlike the spies and the rabble who want garlic and fish instead of the manna, Korach strikes a high note by acknowledging holiness and appealing to the divine mission of the Israelites. What gives you a corner on the market of holiness? Didn’t God say we are all a holy people?” Have we been freed from slavery from one pharaoh just to serve another?

Adding to the confusion of us American Jews is our bedrock ideal of the separation of church and state. In every country where Jews have lived during the diaspora, we were a minority — and eventually a reviled — religious people. Sooner or later, the fact that ours is not the official religion of the state catches up with us. When ruled by others, the usual results are our tragic history: Babylon, Persia, Greece, Rome, Spain, France, Italy, England, Russia, Germany, every Moslem state … . It is not until Western civilization evolves to recognize the equality of every individual under the law, independent of religion, that this cycle of state-sponsored persecution and discrimination is broken.[1] In other words, it is not until the separation of church and state becomes an ideal of nationhood that Jews find refuge. Yet, in Moses’ system, Aaron and Moses are the sole, nepotistic proprietors of the Holy of Holies, and Moses’ word is the final law. Moses’ government in the desert is an autocratic theocracy. Punishment for violations are almost always death on a mass scale, as Korach and the death of the spies and the incident of the Manna Revolt, when God kills hundreds of thousands of Israelites, proved. We would call it genocide.

I don’t have a good answer to the challenge posed by Korach. While Korach himself is dishonest, he raises issues that cannot be ignored.  I do, however, have the glimmer of a way out of this dilemma.

The first suggestion is for the problem posed to our secular selves. For us, totalitarian theocracies are repugnant. We have seen plenty of evidence throughout history that they universally operate to oppress and murder their citizens, most recently in Iran under the Ayatollah. On this Fourth of July, we should be grateful for living in the U.S., which enshrines three ideals into its constitution: equality under the law, freedom of religion, and separation of church and state.

The second solution, though, is for the part of our selves that showed up here to shul on Shabbat, the part that aspires to be ruled by the laws of God. The key to this solution is privacy.  If every person is autonomous and equal under the law, then each of us has the right to a different set of beliefs as long as it doesn’t motivate us to behave outside the secular law. The state has set limits on itself: there are some places into which it cannot pry. It cannot look into a person’s heart, force confession to the secrets there, put those on trial, and demand conversion to this or that belief and compel the behaviors that follow from them, thank God. It cannot spy into someone’s home, or heads, or hearts…. nor if they are guided by it, their souls. The Rule of Man stops at the limits of body and soul. At that slippery border, this parsha tells us today, the Rule of God reigns. Internalize the Rule of Law, the Rule of God, and aspire to give it absolute authority. In the internal empire of our spirit, where most of us are wandering in a wilderness, we should aspire to be governed by the Totalitarian. The Israelites in the desert have struggled, and failed apocalyptically so far, to learn this awesome and difficult ideal. As the spies and the rabble and now Korach and his followers prove, they can’t quite do it. The protagonists all die. The rest are now doomed to wander for another thirty-nine years,

I dare say, most of us rehearse the Korach-Moses drama in our lives as we try to negotiate the demands of a secular life with our soul’s yearning and aspiration.


ENDNOTES:

[1] The tension is still there, though, isn’t it? This week we read about the surprise Supreme Court decision which upheld and reinforced the separation of church and state. The case stemmed from an incident in Rhode Island at the graduation ceremony attended by a young Jewish girl in 1987. A Baptist minister asked the assembly to rise and thank the name of Jesus for their graduation. The Supreme Court found this activity offensive, as would anyone else who has suffered religious discrimination. [NOTE: A reference to Lee v. Weisman, 1992]:

 

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