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Parashat Korah

November 5, 2014
Rabbi Len Levin

The Question of Freedom

“For the congregation are all holy, and Adonai is among them; and why do you exalt yourselves over the congregation of Adonai?”
(argument of Korah, Numbers 16:3)

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
(American Declaration of Independence)

In 1976, Shabbat Korah came out on July 3, the eve of the United States bicentennial. I was attending a havurah retreat, and to stimulate discussion and reflection I composed a manifesto of the Kommunistishe Organisatzion fun Revolutioneren Anarchisten und Hard-hats (KORAH), which transposed Korah’s political agenda into modern revolutionary jargon and ended: “To your tents, O Israel! You have nothing to lose but your slave mentality.” It was conceived tongue-in-cheek but was intended to raise the serious questions: What, if anything, was wrong with the principles espoused by Korah? And based on our current values, would we be more likely to stand with Moses or with Korah in the dispute narrated in today’s portion?

In several penetrating essays, Simon Greenberg (Foundations of a Faith, 1967) argued that American democracy owed a great deal to the Jewish ideals of liberty articulated in the Exodus narrative, the social legislation of the Torah, and the teachings of the prophets. There is much evidence for this, and in my previous Devar Torah on Behar I commented on how the motto of the Liberty Bell, derived from Leviticus, illustrates this positive affinity. But there is also an authoritarian cast to many of the traditional narratives. God and Moses, it seems, are always right, and anyone who questions them is automatically wrong. Dissent and expression of opposing views are doomed to disaster (in d’rerd, literally). This is grist to the mill of religious authoritarians of all stripes, who would impose a single truth and stamp out all dissenting views (including mine and probably yours).

The standard modern Jewish defense of the traditional narrative argues that Korah and his associates were not true democrats but demagogues. They proclaimed the arguments of equality hypocritically, in order to advance their own claims to leadership, which would have resulted in despotism. We have seen enough use of similar tactics by totalitarian despots in recent history to know that this is a credible reading of the biblical events.

But the uncertainty goes deeper. The story we have of these events was written by the winning side. Not surprisingly, it portrays the Korahites as insincere, and Moses as humble, dedicated, and serving God’s cause and the people’s true interests rather than his own. But if we had an alternative narrative, written from the other side, how would it read? Would they also claim God as endorsing their viewpoint? With both narratives side by side, would it be transparently clear which would be more convincing-or true? Or would “these and those are the words of the living God” apply here?

To probe further: Granting that the Torah espouses values of liberty and equality in an idiom appropriate to its time, is there perhaps something about the values of liberty, equality, and democracy that is distinctively modern-and if so, do we unabashedly claim them as part of us? Should we pledge full allegiance to liberty in its absolute, unvarnished form, freed from all vestiges of the authoritarian past?

This question was focused famously by Isaiah Berlin in his essay, “Two Concepts of Liberty,” which is incidentally on the syllabus of the AJR course on pluralism. (See here). Negative freedom is the absence of outside constraints on my action. Positive freedom is the ability to discipline myself in order to achieve the positive goals I want to achieve. In the words of the Jewish tradition: “The truly free person is the one who engages in the Torah.” (Pirkei Avot 6:2)

There is no easy solution to this paradox. I would be doing you a disservice if I were to provide you with a neat, easy answer. For better or worse, we must live with the problem and work it out in our lives. The values of Torah are our Jewish legacy. The value of autonomy is part of our modern legacy. There is synergy between them, but also tension. As modern Jews, we must decide, how much of each we incorporate in our selves. How do you decide for yourself?


Rabbi Len Levin teaches Jewish philosophy at AJR.