Dissent

by Rabbi Jared H. Saks

Kol Nidre 5781

Perhaps you know the story of Korach. Korach was a Kohathite of the tribe of Levi. While the Israelites were wandering in the wilderness on their way to the Promised Land, Korach, along with Dathan and Abiram, assembled a band of 250 protestors and challenged the leadership of Moses and Aaron. They charged Moses and Aaron, saying, “You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Eternal is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Eternal’s congregation?”[1]

Moses responds to this challenge of his leadership by proposing a sort of Biblical showdown at high noon. “He spoke to Korach and all his company, saying, ‘Come morning, the Eternal will make known who is [God’s] and who is holy, and will grant him direct access; the one whom [God] has chosen will be granted access. Do this: You, Korach and all your band, take fire pans, and tomorrow put fire in them and lay incense on them before the Eternal. Then the man whom the Eternal chooses, he shall be the holy one. You have gone too far, sons of Levi!’”[2]

If we weren’t familiar with the Biblical narrative and its protagonists, we might expect Korach to win this one. He and his followers challenge that Moses and Aaron are wielding too much power, denying the holiness of the rest of the community, and limiting access to God. Listen to Moses’ words: “The man whom the Eternal chooses, he shall be the holy one,” as though there is a finite amount of holiness to go around. But if you know this story, you know what happens next. Korach and his band lose in the duel and the earth opens up and swallows them alive, never to be seen or heard from again.

“The author of this text is not happy with Korah’s rebellion. It is clear that Korah and his co-dissenters have gone too far when God’s punishment is so swift, violent, and terrifying….The punishment is terrifying not only for its imagery, but also for its permanence. Nothing remained of those who challenged Moses, Aaron, and God. Nothing remained of those who fought the status quo. The fact that they ever existed seems a threat to the system.”[3]

Most of the commentators, as would be expected, side with Moses and Aaron. They describe Korach as “a disgruntled Israelite, hoping to overthrow the leaders for his own political gain. The Etz Hayim [Torah commentary] describes him as ‘the arch-demagogue’ in Jewish lore. Many writers justify his punishment and object to any sort of dissent or rebellion.”[4] That’s certainly what I’ve always been taught about Korach and how I’ve always understood him. But what if we’ve gotten him wrong? What if Korach was actually justified?

Ibn Ezra, the 12th century Spanish commentator, sees things differently. For starters, the story of Korach comes right after the twelve spies scout out the land of Israel, bringing back a fear-inducing report which results in that generation’s not being able to enter the Land of Israel. But Ibn Ezra says that this isn’t when the incident took place. Ibn Ezra asserts that “Korah’s rebellion comes much earlier, immediately following the episode in which the Levites replaced the first-born males in serving the Mishkan [the portable wilderness sanctuary] (Num. 3:5-13). Bible scholar Michael Hattin writes, ‘After all, the earlier arrangement ensured that many households in ancient Israel had direct involvement in the ongoing service. The election of the Levites effectively recast the system as less ‘democratic,’ for now a particular group would have exclusive right to ministering in the Mishkan’ (Passages:  Text and Transformation in the Parasha, 274). Although Korah himself was a Levite, he was acting as a firstborn and on behalf of all the firstborn men.”[5]

Through the lens of Ibn Ezra’s commentary, we can see the justification in Korach’s claim. Prior to the selection of the Levites as servants in the Mishkan, the firstborn male in each family was destined for that role. But when the Levites assume that role, the general Israelite population loses its power in the central shrine. “Korah and his followers supported a system where each family had access to the Mishkan. They rose up against the leaders who had implemented a change that removed power from the people and placed it in the hands of just one family.”[6]

“In his book Dissent: The History of an American Idea, Ralph Young defines dissent as ‘speaking out and protesting against what is (whatever that is is), most often by a minority group unhappy with majority opinion and rule (23).’”[7] Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the great theologians of the 20th century, wrote in an essay on dissent that “Dissent is indigenous to Judaism.” “Citing the prophets, disagreements in rabbinic texts, and Hassidism, Heschel demonstrates that Judaism is a religion of dissent.”[8]

In recent months, we’ve seen great acts of dissent and protest in our nation’s streets, from Minneapolis to Louisville to our own Portland. These acts have been labeled by some as unpatriotic. But Young argues that “protest is one of the consummate expressions of ‘Americanness.’ It is patriotic in the deepest sense.”[9] “The same is true of Judaism. Heschel continues, ‘The greatness of the prophets was in their ability to voice dissent and disagreement not only with the beliefs of their pagan neighbors, but also with the cherished values and habits of their own people.’ Rebellion is not something to be feared, and ‘dissent’ is not a dirty word. Rebellion got us to where we are today. Dissent made us into a people with a 3,000-year-old religion and a homeland.”[10]

The question that lies before us is not whether or not to dissent and protest. The question is how we will dissent and how we will protest. “There is a difference between dissenters whose goal is to create a more just society by expanding the rights of the disempowered and those who are self-aggrandizing troublemakers interested only in disrupting society or denying rights to others.”[11] “For thousands of years, we have read Korah as the latter, but isn’t ours a tradition that seeks to expand the rights of the disempowered?”[12] We have fought for equality not only for ourselves, but for people of color, the LGBTQIA community, and others on the fringes of society. “If we read according to Ibn Ezra, Korah is not a ‘self-aggrandizing troublemaker.’ Young explains that many dissenters who were maligned and vilified early on come to be considered heroes only in hindsight. Maybe it’s time we see Korah as our hero and welcome the voice of dissent so ingrained in our tradition.”[13]

In the Talmud, we read, “Anyone who has the capability to protest the sinful conduct of the members of their household and does not protest, that person will be apprehended for the sins of the members of their household and punished. If one is in a position to protest the sinful conduct of the people of their town, and they fail to do so, they will be apprehended for the sins of the people of their town. If they are in a position to protest the sinful conduct of the whole world and they fail to do so, they are apprehended for the sins of the whole world.”[14]

On Rosh Hashanah, I called on you to participate in the November election, because abstaining from this election is a vote against the most vulnerable. On this eve of Kol Nidre, the holiest night in our calendar, I am calling on you to do more than that. I’m calling on you to be a protestor and a dissenter. And lest you look at the revolution that’s growing and say “I have nothing to offer,” consider this: “Some are posting on social media. Some are protesting in the streets. Some are donating silently. Some are educating themselves. Some are having tough conversations with family and friends. A revolution has many lanes—be kind to yourself and to others who are traveling in the same direction. Just keep your foot on the gas.”[15]

G’mar chatimah tovah. May you be sealed for blessing, health, and happiness in the new year.


[1] Numbers 16:3

[2] Numbers 16:5-7

[3] Michal Raucher, Dissent is Not a Dirty Word, The Jewish Theological Society, http://www.jtsa.edu/dissent-is-not-a-dirty-word, June 19, 2015.

[4] Raucher.

[5] Raucher.

[6] Raucher.

[7] Raucher.

[8] Raucher.

[9] Ralph Young, Dissent:  The History of an American Idea, New York:  New York University Press, 2015, pp. 21-22.

[10] Raucher.

[11] Young, p. 29.

[12] Raucher.

[13] Raucher.

[14] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbat 54b

[15] Cali Rockowitz, @calirock, Instagram, June 1, 2020.

Photo by Teemu Paananen on Unsplash

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