Authority and Dissent
The Torah articulates norms about legitimate dissent and authority's reasonable response to it.
By contrasting these stories, the Torah seems to be articulating norms about legitimate dissent and authority's reasonable response to it. Korah's rebellion is illegitimate and meets with disaster.The daughters of Zelophehad make a reasonable petition and meet with success--reasonable challenges to reasonable authorities ought to be accepted. Abraham's challenge to God is appropriate and is met with reasoned discussion. Moses' petition to Pharaoh for an Israelite festival is met with tyrannical oppression-- illegitimate authority will respond inappropriately and may be challenged more aggressively (to wit, the Plagues).
Dissent in Jewish History
While the Torah's stories model a healthy give-and-take between authority figures and their dissenters, Jewish history is rife with instances in which individuals are punished for challenging the established beliefs and/or customs of their times.
Elisha ben Abuyah, a first century Talmudic scholar, was branded a heretic because of his secular (Hellenistic) studies, and Baruch Spinoza, regarded today as a brilliant ethicist, was excommunicated in the 17th century for his blasphemous ideas. In neither of these examples do the dissenters' actions mirror the extremity of Korah's challenge, yet they are punished for violating the established laws, rules and expectations of the Jewish authorities of the times. We have not always lived up to the Torah's model of engaging with the reasonable dissenters among us.
A Critical Look
Stepping away from the Jewish world, we find myriad examples of people who are severely punished for disagreeing with those who abuse their authority. Soviet repression of dissidents and American blacklisting of suspected communists are some of the examples that come to mind.
And this past January, as a member of the AJWS Rabbinical Students' Delegation to El Salvador, I witnessed first-hand the impacts of the Salvadoran government's abuse of authority and power. In the 1970s, in response to petitions for a more just system of land distribution, the government unleashed brutal violence on the peasant population of El Salvador. While the government claimed the peasants were acting as Korah, arguing that their demands would result in a leftist take over of the nation, its response was far closer to that of Pharaoh, a self-interested and illegitimate abuse of power.
We would be wise to keep close in mind the lessons of Korah--to maintain a critical eye on both the exercise of dissent and authority's response to it. And when either side acts or reacts with violence or abuse, we must be prepared to stand with the aggrieved.
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