Authority and Dissent

The Torah articulates norms about legitimate dissent and authority's reasonable response to it.

Commentary on Parashat Korach, Numbers 16:1 - 18:32

In this week’s Torah portion, Korach, the eponymous Levite priest, wages an aggressive rebellion against Moses and Aaron. While Korach’s words in the portion suggest that he was simply seeking a more egalitarian form of leadership, the violent nature of his protest coupled with his evident envy of Moses’ and Aaron’s authority and social station, suggest otherwise.

Because of his jealousy, Korach accuses Moses and Aaron of using their claims of divine authority as a way of increasing their own power and control over the Israelites. And his challenge resonates with 250 “other men of renown” who joined him in his “rebellion.”

As the story unfolds God is so angered by Korach and his followers that God causes the “ground to open up and swallow the rebels.” When confronted by Moses and Aaron about these deaths God becomes further angered and, according to the Torah’s accounting, unleashes a plague that kills an additional 14,700 people, some of whom may have been innocent bystanders, as punishment for challenging God’s supreme authority.

Dissent in the Torah

This dramatic moment in Israelite history raises powerful questions about the legitimate and illegitimate exercise of authority in response to dissent. The Torah offers many other examples to illustrate this tension.

God responds to Abraham’s argument in defense of the innocent citizens of Sodom and Gomorrah by engaging in a reasoned debate and making reasonable compromises. In stark contrast, Pharaoh responds to Moses’ request for the Israelites to be given a three-day festival by increasing the brutality of their slavery.

And in a related story in the Book of Numbers, the daughters of Zelophehad petition Moses to redress unfair land inheritance policies. In doing so, they note that their deceased father was not part of Korach’s rebellion, explicitly drawing a distinction between their own challenge to authority and that of Korach.

Not only are they successful in pleading their particular case, but Moses restructures the law in response to their argument, creating a more just land distribution system. Their success represents an example of using an established legal process rather than resorting to (threats of) violence. And Moses’ measured response represents a legitimate exercise of authority in response to a reasonable challenge.

By contrasting these stories, the Torah seems to be articulating norms about legitimate dissent and authority’s reasonable response to it. Korach’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 Korach’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.

In 2007, 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 Korach, 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 Korach–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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