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Korach and Anarchy

Korach and Anarchy

Dancing with the Ultimate Authority

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Korach is a figure I can highly identify with. From primary grades on, authority and I never got along too well. Even now, when I must see the principal of my children’s school, dizziness and sweat overcomes me as childhood memories resurface.

By seventh grade, I was already passing around petitions and stirring revolt. I hit high school in the midst of the turmoil of the sixties and immediately identified with the insurgents who had formed a Students’ Union. In tenth grade, I committed the ultimate rebellion and dropped out. At age 15, I was leading the “Anarchist Discussion Group” of the Free University of Vancouver, Canada.

Then, somehow, by the time I was 19, I ended up following the most regulation-intensive lifestyle I know of.

​Korach In History

The whole of history can be seen as a progressive movement from monologue to dialogue, from heteronomy to autonomy, obedience to self-initiative. For most of time, people knew their place in a hierarchy of power and knowledge.Over the millennia, a sense of value for the individual emerged. You could, with great fortune, move up in the hierarchy, but only to perpetuate it. Rarely, very rarely did anyone break out of the hierarchy altogether.

Knowledge came from above down. You gained knowledge by initiation into a cult, an institution that perpetuated itself precisely through the withholding and mystification of knowledge. Socrates encouraged his disciples to enter into dialogue—his colleagues poisoned him for it.

Over the millennia, a sense of value for the individual emerged. People began to see that they had access to truth through their own minds and hearts—they didn’t have to just accept what they were told. Society became cognizant of such things as citizens’ rights and limitations of monarchic power.

Today, information flows in two directions. Once upon a time your doctor scribbled something in Latin and your pharmacist peered down at you from his elevated platform with instructions on how to take it. Now you command your phone to find the latest cure and demand from your doctor that he find someone who has it.

Technology, as well, is becoming more and more user-centered. Most of the inventions of man until now were tools of oppression and aggression. Power was generally something you exerted over another. Today we talk about empowering the individual in terms of self-expression and productivity. In many ways, the Internet and our little hand-held devices have brought us closer to the “Post-Scarcity Anarchism” Murray Bookchin wrote about in the 60s.

​Is Judaism Top-Down?

So we look at this two-dimensional progression of history, and we ask, “Where does Jewish tradition fit in?”

To many, the answer is obvious:Superficially, yes. It belongs near the beginning, and definitely not in the vicinity of the present day.

A superficial survey of the facts appears to support this conclusion. The Torah is a commandment system—G‑d commands and you obey. Concerning many of the commandments, even the Jewish sages admit we have no clue as to their reason or benefit. But, as they put it, “If we had been commanded to just chop wood all day, that’s what we would do.”

After all, Abraham, the father of the Jewish tradition, is praised for his absolute obedience in the act of binding Isaac. He was promised great blessings, including perpetuity of his seed, “because you have obeyed My voice.”

The Jewish nation was formed when they blindly followed Moses out into the wilderness where, when offered a Divine Law, they responded, “All that G‑d tells us we shall do and we shall obey.”

There has always been a hierarchy of authority, even at times a single king.

Much of the efforts of the Jewish wise men was directed towards encoding law, down to the minutiae of what must be done when, how, by who, how much, and where. Very often, the “why” got pushed to the side or even ignored entirely. Ultimately, Maimonides and Yosef Karo after him composed a Code of Law that dealt with just about everything—except (in general) the reasons why. “Why”, it seems, is not so important. The main thing is a simple behavioral response: obedience to G‑d’s will.

​Children of the First Iconoclast

Digging beyond the superficial, however,Looking deeper, absolutely no. reveals a strong vein of antithetical evidence. The same Abraham who was so obedient was the same Abraham that challenged G‑d on His plans to destroy Sodom. He didn’t just complain and kick like a small child crying, “no fair”. He stood up and brazenly challenged the Master of the Universe on His own ground and by His own rules.

After all, Abraham—as he is described in Jewish tradition—was the original iconoclast, in every sense of the word. His beliefs and actions were a direct strike at the hierarchical power system of the cult. While those pagan cults and their priests veiled their teachings in a shroud of mystery and obtuse physical representations, Abraham educated the masses and publicized the most abstract of truths—the unity and incorporeality of the Original Being.

Abraham took a shot at the knowledge-hierarchy of the cult, but Mount Sinai was a mass revolution. Moses demanded that every man, woman and child attend the greatest revelation ever on earth, and each received the same Torah and the entire Torah. Even the details of the priestly rites—that most mystified and secretive realm of every cult—became not only public knowledge, but a duty for every school child to study.

The “blind faith” of the Children of Israel in Moses also deserves further investigation: For at least a millennium now, the Christians have chastised us for our stubborn sinfulness, pointing always to the unruly behavior and constant kvetching of our ancestors in the wilderness. Maimonides points out that the Children of Israel always held some doubts about Moses and his fantastic feats until the event of Mount Sinai. Why did they change their minds then? Because that was an empirical event—they saw for themselves that G‑d spoke with Moses. But without that there was always skepticism.

And then Korach steps in, despite all the above, with a full blown rebellion against the authority of Moses.

Korach’s ideology precipitates anarchism.Korach’s ideology precipitates anarchism. His rhetoric is reminiscent of Proudhon and Kropotkin: “All the people are holy, so why do you raise yourselves over the community of G‑d?”

Consider that this is an incident of ancient times, when ruthless dictators were considered gods. Yet it appears from the biblical account that most of the people were ready to support Korach, were it not for open Divine intervention. For Korach to have gotten anywhere at all with his arguments, there must have been fertile ground to begin with. Such insurgence does not occur in a culture of docile followers.

​Stubborn Jews

Quite clearly, the Children of Israel were not Eric Fromm’s true believers. They were, after all, those who had chosen to leave their masters behind, the ones who had the gall to sacrifice the god of their taskmasters before their very eyes in their own land.

The tradition continued. In classical antiquity, our people were the recalcitrants.In classical antiquity, our people were the recalcitrants. The Maccabee revolt was the first recorded instance of a nationalist revolt. The Romans never had nearly as much trouble with any people as they had with the Jews (save, perhaps, the Druids). And it was the sages themselves who stood in the midst of the revolt. So too today, you’ll have a hard time convincing anyone that Jewish people are followers.

There is a story told of Rabbi Jonathan Eibeshitz, one of the many “showdown-with-the-priest” stories. In this one the rabbi wished to demonstrate to his friend, the priest, that his faithful churchgoers were not thinking people, but just blindly following authority.

Rabbi Eibeshitz challenged the priest to step outside the cathedral after services and stare at the spire. Which the priest did.

Of course, when the congregants saw this, they dared not ask what the priest was staring at—they simply stared also, pointing and nodding. Very soon, a crowd gathered and within no time the town was abuzz with the news of the angels the priest had noticed above the cathedral. Many townspeople swore they had seen the angels as well, and so the story became written in the annals of the town history.

The priest was not one to be so easily confounded. He asserted to the rabbi that his congregants in shul were no different. And so, Rabbi Eibeshitz invited the priest to attend services that Shabbat.

It was Shabbat Zachor, when a special portion is read for the maftir, at the end of the Torah reading. As usual, Rabbi Eibeshitz was called to do the final reading. He made the appropriate benedictions—but instead of reading the portion for Shabbat Zachor, proceeded to read an entirely different portion.

Immediately, the gabbai interrupted and corrected him. The rabbi stopped, but then proceeded with another erroneous portion. This time the whole congregation jumped in to correct him. Once again, he proceeded with yet another portion. By now the women were yelling from upstairs and even the children joining in the protest. Finally, Rabbi Eibeshitz surrendered and began the appropriate reading.

“See,” he told the priest, “I did no great sin. I just made a minor modification of the service. And these are people who have treated me with great respect and honor for many years, coming to me for advice, decision and blessing. But if they know I am wrong, they don’t refrain from pouncing upon me like a lion.”

​Hearing Words and Hearing Meaning

Concerning dialogue and the commandment system: Strangely enough, Jews have managed to allow them to coexist. The classic case is that of the “Oven of Achnai”, when Rabbi Eliezer attempted to defend his position by invoking miracles and even a voice from heaven to support him. But he failed when his best friend, Rabbi Yehoshua made one of the most significant statements of the oral tradition: “We do not accept the intervention of a voice from heaven. The Torah is not in heaven”.

To which, our sages tell, G‑d smiled and said, “My children have won over me, My children have won over me.”1

Perhaps the most poignant act of a Jew, the one that tells the most about us, is when we dance with the Torah on Simchat Torah. Think for a minute: This is the Word of G‑d. The Ultimate Authority. The voice that says, “You must do, you must obey, for I am G‑d, your Lord. I have in my hand to reward those who follow me, or to punish those who transgress. So obey me and live.”

And we dance with it in ecstatic joy bordering on frivolity.I can’t imagine anything more Jewish than dancing with the Word of G‑d. I can’t imagine anything more Jewish than dancing with the Word of G‑d.

This is the system of halachah—a dance with the word of G‑d. We accept its authority as unilateral Divine Law, but we enter into dialogue with it nonetheless, analyzing, examining and reaching conclusions according to the logic of our own earthly minds.

And not just the dialogue of a student with his teacher. Often it seems more like the dialogue of husband and wife.

I was once told by an elderly chassid that all a wife does is bring out the true desires of her husband—just that sometimes we don’t want our innards rubbed in our face.

Similarly, our oral tradition acts as a wife for the written Torah. In the Five Books of Moses, G‑d’s will is very obscure. Sometimes it appears quite harsh. But we Jews, we have an oral tradition which uncovers the real will that’s buried inside, revealing the kindness and compassion behind the word of the Law.

It happens in the Torah itself. G‑d says to Moses, “Sanctify to Me the firstborn of every animal and human. They are mine.”2 Human first-born? Sanctified? What does that sound like?

So Moses gathers the people, tells them how they are about to leave Egypt for a promised land flowing with milk and honey, etc., etc.—and then describes how first-born children are to be redeemed—monetarily.

Much later, when the people sin at Baal Peor, G‑d tells Moses, “Take the heads of the people and hang them up to G‑d before the sun.”3

Moses then gathers the heads of the tribes—to sit and judge the people.

And if you would say, “Moses, that’s not what G‑d said!” he would respond, “I heard what He said, and I heard what He means.”

​Obedient Arguers

I love my children. But sometimes I expect a lot from them. So the love becomes dressed up in a demanding disciplinarianism. My wife is the one that uncovers the love inside that outer shell of harshness. She teaches me to blend the two, to have sympathy and understanding in judgement. Not that she creates anything new—she only brings out something that has become locked inside.

So too: The Law says stone them, hang them, burn them, execute them by the sword. The rabbis tell us that a court that passes a capital verdict once in seven, or maybe seventy years is a court of murderers.4

The Law says an eye for an eye.5 The oral tradition reveals that this really means monetary compensation.6 And the rabbis tell us that this is not a modification of the Law—this is what the Law always meant.

The Giver of the Torah knew we would dance with His Law. He gave it to us so we might “sweeten the severities”—as the Zohar describes the process. Just as we reveal the Creator within the Creation,We are obedient arguers and faithful rebels. so too we reveal the Compassionate Father within the Judge and King.

We are obedient arguers and faithful rebels and we hold an intimate relationship with our Master and King. We stand in awe before that which eludes all comprehension, and then proceed to analyze and play with it as though it were our personal toy.

From all the above one must conclude—and this is not only my position, but something many a Jewish philosopher has already said, from Yehuda haLevi to Franz Rosenzweig—that when you look at this linear progress of mankind from heteronomy to autonomy, from hierarchical monologue to dialogue and ask, “where do we Jews fit in?” the only answer can be: We don’t.

We are in another world altogether. As Rosenzweig put it, we are already there. Because our place is in another dimension, a place where these two poles were never in conflict to begin with.

Look at our language and it becomes more clear. Abraham passed the test of the Akeida because he “obeyed my voice”. But the word for obedience here is—as it usually is—“Shamata”. As in “Shama”, to listen. The same word as in “Shma Yisrael”—“Listen, Oh Israel”, except there it has the meaning of contemplating, meditating upon.

The same word that means obedience, means contemplation. And we’re not talking about two forms of one root verb—we are talking about one and the same word. To everyone else, obedience lies at one extreme, contemplation at the other. They are mutually exclusive. To us they are not only capable of coexisting, they are the very same word.

​Monomy

Which brings us to the crux of the matter: When we say authority and when Plato, Kant or Paul Goodman say authority, we are talking about two completely different things. They are talking about two entities, one a higher and more powerful entity that needs to dominate the other to express its power. The other, an obedient entity, serving in order to gain reward from the more powerful—or to avoid its retribution. In other words, two entities, each essentially selfish in motive.

Go ahead, ask even the simplest Jew, why are you doing all these things? Is it in order to go to heaven? To escape Divine retribution? No, it is because I am a Jew and this is what Jewish people do, they do what our G‑d told us. Why? Because we are Jews and He is our G‑d. “I” as a being on my own do not exist.Abraham could challenge G‑d because he and G‑d were not two entities. There is only the Jew; the one who is tied to the G‑d to whom his fathers were tied.

Abraham could challenge G‑d because he and G‑d were not two entities. They were one entity arguing in its thoughts with itself.

That’s where we exist, in the world of thought. That’s why we can obey by listening and listen by obeying. Because we are caught up inside there, in that place where all the world is but a thought and there is nothing else but the One who is thinking it.

There is no heteronomy, there is no autonomy. Perhaps we should call it “mononomy”.

​Korach’s Error

The same dynamic that exists between a Jew and his G‑d that belong one to the other, exists between the Jew and his Torah, and between a Jew and a Jew. Especially when it comes to the relationship of a Jew with his Rebbe.

This is what Korach could not abide about Moshe way back when. And much of the world has made the same erroneous judgement ever since. They see a disciple of a sage or a chassid of a rebbe as an obedient follower who places a man of flesh and blood on a pedestal to be worshipped. Because they only see the external, the superficial. They are blind to the intimate bond, the sense of oneness, the profound emotion between these two, just as they ignore the essential bond a Jew has with his G‑d.

They asked Rabbi Moshe Shick, a great halachic authority and protegé of the “Chatam Sofer,” about the custom of chassidim to ask a tzaddik to pray on their behalf. “We are not allowed intermediaries between ourselves and G‑d,” they argued, “Even an angel cannot be asked to intercede. How, then, can they ask a tzadik to intercede.”

Rabbi Shick first noted that this was not just a custom of the chassidim, but an age old custom recommended also in the Talmud. And then he explained, “When you are hurting, the tzadik is also hurting. So he is not an intermediary—he is praying for himself!”7

The Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, explained, “An angel is an intermediary, because there is you and there is the angel. A tzadik is not an intermediary, because you are both part of one body, the Jewish people. A tzadik is not an intermediary, because you are both part of one body, the Jewish people. When one of us hurts, all of us hurts. Would anybody refrain from allowing his head to intercede on behalf of his foot?”

It seems that was Korach’s error. He couldn’t allow himself to be a foot. Or an arm. Or any part of a single body. He saw us only as individuals, each holy in his own world. In such a world, there is no room for a Moses.

​ A Dance With the Ultimate Authority

This last Simchat Torah I was dancing with a Torah scroll and I began to think, “Do I really want to dance with you? Is it that I love you and delight in you with unfettered, unconditional devotion?”

And I began to realize that, really, the Torah is to me much like a husband must be to his wife. We don’t necessarily think the same way on all matters. We have our disputes, not always resolved. But then, I know what the Torah could say about my deficiencies and how I have treated it.

So what can we do? We were bound to each other from before we were born, and there is so much in which we delight in one another, because, after all, in essence we are one. So let us dance.

Footnotes
1.
Baba Metzia 59b.
4.
Mishnah Makkot 1:10.
6.
Bava Kamma, 83b–84a.
7.
Responsum Maharam Shick, Orach Chaim, 293
Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, a senior editor at Chabad.org, also heads our Ask The Rabbi team. He is the author of Bringing Heaven Down to Earth. To subscribe to regular updates of Rabbi Freeman's writing, visit Freeman Files subscription. FaceBook @RabbiTzviFreeman Periscope @Tzvi_Freeman .
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SpikeyApples Staten Island June 23, 2017

I find the rabbi Eibeshitz and priest story hard to believe, and to be honest I find it insulting to Catholics. i also know for fact that all religions will claim same sort of bond between its members and its membership and God, as is claimed in this article. I furthermore find it funny that an author representing our religion which has historically looked down on 'competing' systems of thought, with some even cursing the very study of philosophy(as did Vilna Gaon), and who don't recommend their following to attend secular education institutionism throws around names like Kant and even Ortega-y-Gasset or Paul Goodman, people of rather leftist persuasions and besides whose names are hardly even known to your readers
P.S. I also think at the very start of human history, it was precisely 'ordinary' members of nascent societies that delegated authority to hierarchy, which was just being created, formally for the very ordinary people's good. Reply

GS Brooklyn June 22, 2017

This is not just an article. It is a course, and it has a name: "Mononomy." Brilliant! Reply

Sonya Matsui Jerusalem June 22, 2017

As usual, glorious! Reply

Max Teubner Germany June 22, 2017

As always I learned much from your article. Just one question. About Baal Peor you write "Moses then gathers the heads of the tribes—to sit and judge the people." I didn't find that in the Torah. Did I overlook it or is it in the tradition?
Thank you
Reply

Tzvi Freeman June 22, 2017
in response to Max Teubner:

Good point. You can see from the next line that Moses didn't hang the leaders. He instructs them what to do.

The Talmud Sanhedrin explains that Moses understood G-d to mean they should judge the people. That's brought in Rashi's commentary, which you can see on our site. Reply

Chaim Brooklyn June 21, 2017

Rabbi Freeman, once again I see why I love you. Reply

Bracha Goetz Baltimore June 21, 2017

Wonderful! Reply

Sabina Scotland June 21, 2017

I love this. Thank you. Reply

Dina Leah Albuquerque & Maine June 20, 2017

Rabbi Tzvi, Great explanation! Once again, you take the difficult ideas and make them easy enough for those of us without much Torah leaning can understand. I never understood Korach until now.
I'm also a child of the 60s from San Franciso Bay Area, so I love the analogies!
Thank you for making this so clear Reply

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