In a free society, all of us are rebels against something. In a society where freedom of religion is part of the social contract, every adult chooses which ideas, which denomination, which philosophy, which tribe they want to align themselves with. And in doing so, each of us rebels against somebody else’s self-proclaimed authority. For some in the Jewish community, I am a rabbi. For others, I am a “rabbi.” For still others I am a heretic.
The same can be said for any clergy person of any faith tradition. Ask a passionately devout Sunni to describe the heresy of Shi’ism and the threat it poses to the true understanding of Islam. Then ask a devout Shia to describe how Shi’ite Islam represents the true revelation of the faith. Each narrative rebels against the other.
This week’s Torah portion tells the story of Judaism’s most famous rebel, Korach.
Korach, along with two other tribal leaders, Datan and Abiram, challenge Moses and Aaron’s authority over the Israelites. “You have too much power. The entire community are holy, all of them, and the Eternal One is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Eternal one’s assembly?” The rabbis of the Jerusalem Talmud depict Korach as having great skill in Jewish law. They describe him initiating a long, drawn out debate with Moses over detailed points of Jewish law, in which Korach tries to entrap Moses using legislative slights of hand.
Korach is a rebel who has come on the scene prepared for a coup d’etat. He’s organized 250 leading figures to stand with him, and the first time he brings his grievances he does so in public, at a staged event designed to rally the people behind him and topple the regime. He is seen by the tradition as the rebel with the gift of demagoguery. He claims to be standing up for a noble value – spiritual equality – as he tries to paint the established leaders as unfair and hypocritical. Korach presents himself as a righteous whistle blower, and yet tradition holds him up as a fake.
Rabbi Steven Nathan writes, “Korach presents us with a model of leadership that has become all too common throughout history: a leader who claims to want the best for his people, yet cares only for himself. He is one who doesn’t mind taking others with him down the path to potential destruction if there is any chance that he might gain access to more power for himself.”
Figuring out when to back an organized resistance, when to back the established leadership structure, when to back an alternative movement to those two, and when to stand alone as a person without a party can be really hard. How can we know the motives of the leaders of a rebellion? How can we determine where to channel our little bit of energy and resources in the effort to make our world more just, more peaceful, more sustainable, more beautiful?