Note: All indented material in this sermon is direct quotation from: ”The First Populist, Korach 5778”; Covenant and Conversation: Life-Changing Ideas in the Parsha with Rabbi Sacks; #34; June 13, 2018.
I was thinking about Korach all week. And as I was thinking about Korach, I felt challenged because I thought that by simply by talking about the antihero — the adversary of this week’s parshah — I would be considered “too political.”
Yet I know that the Torah reading is here to inform us, to inspire us; and, I believe, to teach us values and even change us.
I am also consistently amazed at the level of relevance that can be found in an ancient text. Korach has so much to say about the way power is abused and the way people follow leaders hoping for change, but yet are so easily deceived.
I read something insightful about the parshah, and Moses’ response to the challenge of Korach. You see, Korach asks Moses how it is that he can take so much power? Isn’t everyone in the community holy? Shouldn’t authority be shared? It’s not a difficult question. It’s not an argument that we have trouble with. And yet, Korach is remembered as a pretty bad and dangerous force.
Different reasons are given for this, some of which we’ll talk about now. One reason is Korach comes to Moses with all of his followers. It appears to be an overwhelming protest. It is not as if Korach wants to enter a debate. Korach wants to overwhelm Moses — bully Moses with the appearance of a crowd of people.
Moses’ response reflects that. He is overwhelmed and he falls on his face. That’s a sign of humility … or perhaps helplessness.
The rabbis understood that this was not a disagreement that was healthy. We are a people rooted in disagreements, aren’t we? No two Jews agree about anything. We know two Jews have three opinions.
In the Mishnah of Pirkei Avot it is pointed out that there are disagreements … machlokot … for the sake of heaven and there are those not for the sake of heaven. It is reasoned that “one for the sake of heaven” is a respectful disagreement and the parties want what is best for all. They use Korach’s disagreement as a machloket lo b’shem shamayim … not for the sake of heaven … because Korach appears before Moses with a crowd — probably intending to shout him down, to overwhelm him, to disallow a difference.
This past week Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote a commentary on the parshah that was so excellent I’m going to use it here. I quote it heavily (and if you disagree, call him this week) because he clearly sees and articulates the contemporary relevance in this parshah. He refers to Korach as “THE FIRST POPULIST.”
The story of Korach has much to teach us about one of the most disturbing phenomena of our own time: the rise of populism in contemporary politics. Korach was a populist, one of the first in recorded history — and populism has re-emerged in the West, as it did in the 1930s, posing great danger to the future of freedom.
Populism is the politics of anger. It makes its appearance when there is widespread discontent with political leaders, when people feel that heads of institutions are working in their own interest rather than that of the general public, when there is a widespread loss of trust and a breakdown of the sense of the common good.
This is what populist leaders tap into.
People come to feel that the distribution of rewards is unfair: a few gain disproportionately…
And the average guy loses. The populist promises jobs and wealth to all. And the populist plays on the feeling that their country has been taken away, their jobs have been stolen or sent overseas…
…whether because of the undermining of traditional values or because of large scale immigration.
Discontent takes the form of the rejection of (what are called) … cultural elites. Populist politicians claim that they, and they alone, are the true voice of the people …. They are deliberately divisive and confrontational. They promise strong leadership that will give the people back what has been taken from them.
In 2017, support for populist parties throughout Europe was running at around 35 per cent, the highest level since the late 1930s. Parties of the Far Right gained power in Poland and Hungary, and made a strong showing in Austria, France and Holland. In Southern Europe, in countries like Spain and Greece, populism tends to be of the Left.
And recently in Italy the populists of the far right and the far left combined to take political control.
Regardless of what form it takes, when populism is on the rise, tyranny is around the corner. Human rights are dispensed with. The public grants the strong leader exceptional powers: so it was in the 1930s with Franco, Hitler and Mussolini. People are willing to sacrifice their freedom for the promised utopia, and to tolerate great evils against whichever scapegoat the leader chooses to blame for the nation’s problems.
The Korach rebellion was a populist movement, and Korach himself an archetypal populist leader. Listen carefully to what he said about Moses and Aaron: “You have gone too far! The whole community is holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them. Why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the Lord?” (Num. 16:3).
These are classic populist claims. First, implies Korach, the establishment (Moses and Aaron) is corrupt …. The whole community, he says, is holy. There is nothing special about you, Moses and Aaron. We have all seen God’s miracles and heard His voice. We all helped build His Sanctuary. Korach is posing as the democrat so that he can become the autocrat.
Sacks then says the following:
Next, he and his fellow rebels mount an impressive campaign of fake news – anticipating events of our own time. We can infer this indirectly. When Moses says to God, “I have not taken so much as a donkey from them, nor have I wronged any of them” (Num. 16:15), it is clear that he has been accused of just that: exploiting his office for personal gain. When he says, “This is how you will know that the Lord has sent me to do all these things and that it was not my own idea” (Num. 16:28), it is equally clear that he has been accused of representing his own decisions as the will and word of God.
Most blatant is the post-truth claim of Datham and Aviram: “Isn’t it enough that you have brought us up out of a land flowing with milk and honey to kill us in the wilderness? And now you want to lord it over us!” (Num. 16:13). This is the most callous speech in the Torah. It combines false nostalgia for Egypt (a “land flowing with milk and honey”!), blaming Moses for the report of the spies, and accusing him of holding on to leadership for his own personal prestige — all three, outrageous lies.
Ramban was undoubtedly correct when he says that such a challenge to Moses’ leadership would have been impossible at any earlier point.
Only after the episode of the spies, when the people realized that there were struggles ahead, could he succeed.
Populism is the politics of disappointment, resentment and fear.
For once in his life, Moses acted autocratically, putting God, as it were, to the test.
Sacks describes how God will show the truth by swallowing up Korach and his followers, and then adds:
This dramatic effort at conflict resolution by the use of force (in this case, a miracle) failed completely. The ground did indeed open up and swallow Korach and his fellow rebels, but the people, despite their terror, were unimpressed. “On the next day, however, the whole congregation of the Israelites rebelled against Moses and against Aaron, saying, ‘You have killed the people of the Lord’ ”(Num. 17:6).
At this point in the narrative, Moses does not become the hero here. Jews have always resisted autocratic leaders.
However, as I noted in the beginning of my remarks — and what Rabbi Sacks picks up as well — is:
What is even more striking is the way the sages framed the conflict. Instead of seeing it as a black-and-white contrast between rebellion and obedience, they insisted on the validity of argument in the public domain. They said that what was wrong with Korach and his fellows was not that they argued with Moses and Aaron, but that they did so “not for the sake of Heaven”.
What matters in Judaism is why the argument was undertaken and how it was conducted. An argument not for the sake of Heaven is one that is undertaken for the sake of victory. An argument for the sake of Heaven is undertaken for the sake of truth.
Truth is the antidote to the populist.
Sacks concludes his commentary as follow:
When the aim is victory, as it was in the case of Korach, both sides are diminished. Korach died, and Moses’ authority was tarnished. But when the aim is truth, both sides gain. To be defeated by the truth is the only defeat that is also a victory. As R. Shimon ha-Amsoni said:
“Just as I received reward for the exposition, so I will receive reward for the retraction.”
In his excellent short book, What is Populism? Jan-Werner Muller argues that the best indicator of populist politics is its delegitimation of other voices. Populists claim that “they and they alone represent the people.” Anyone who disagrees with them is “essentially illegitimate.” Once in power, they silence dissent. That is why the silencing of unpopular views in university campuses today, in the form of “safe space,” “trigger warnings,” and “micro-aggressions,” is so dangerous. When academic freedom dies, the death of other freedoms follows.
Hence the power of Judaism’s defense against populism in the form of its insistence on the legitimacy of “argument for the sake of Heaven.” Judaism does not silence dissent: to the contrary, it dignifies it. This was institutionalized in the biblical era in the form of the prophets who spoke truth to power. In the rabbinic era it lived in the culture of argument evident on every page of the Mishnah, Gemara and their commentaries. In the contemporary State of Israel, argumentativeness is part of the very texture of its democratic freedom, in the strongest possible contrast to much of the rest of the Middle East.
Hence the life-changing idea: If you seek to learn, grow, pursue truth and find freedom, seek places that welcome argument and respect dissenting views. Stay far from people, places and political parties that don’t. Though they claim to be friends of the people, they are in fact the enemies of freedom.