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Naomi Graetz

Fake News and Populism: Korah vs. Moses

APOLOGY AND EXPLANATION

I started writing this blog last week, which is when parshat korah was read in Israel, but never got around to finishing it. In the Diaspora, you are out of sync with the Torah reading in Israel until the double parsha of Chukat-Balak  next week. Therefore, I have a good excuse to send it off this week. Also, I must admit to having always felt that Korah was not totally in the wrong, since on the surface he stands for democracy and thus I was always first to defend him. In addition, since I have always had difficulty with the idea of religious monopolies, I have great sympathy for those who attack the priesthood or rabbinate. However, given this week’s explosive national news (both in Israel and in the U.S.), and the danger of populism, I am rethinking my usual defense of Korah’s attack on the exclusivity of the priesthood and coming around to the more traditional way of viewing him. I hope this more nuanced approach will be apparent in this week’s blog.

I am always struck by how timely the parsha and the haftara are to current events. What is more timely than legitimate complaints and protest against perceived injustice; joining of religious (Levites) and secular leaders (tribe of Reuben) in the struggle for political power; accusations and denial of corruption by both sides; collective drastic punishment (fire and earthquake) of the offenders by the “legitimate” rulers. And let’s not forget being stuck for a long time with a government not of our choosing, i.e. kingship.

ALL ANIMALS ARE CREATED EQUAL: BUT SOME ANIMALS ARE MORE EQUAL THAN OTHERS

In this week’s parsha, Korah, who is Moses’s cousin (from the Levi family) and his cronies rebel. Just like Miriam and Aaron, they ask why he and Aaron think they are better than the rest of the family: “why have you raised yourselves up over the rest of us?” (Numbers 16:3). Moses who is upset tells Korah and his followers that God will choose: “In the morning, the LORD will make known who is His, and whoever is holy He will bring close to Him.” But then Moses adds the following:

“Listen, pray, sons of Levi. Isn’t it enough that the God of Israel separated you from the rest of the community of Israel to bring you close to Him to do God’s work and to serve the community? And He brought you close, and all your brothers the sons of Levi with you. And will you seek priesthood as well?” (vss 8-11)

It would seem that Moses’s Levite family reasonably resent that their branch was not chosen to be priests and that whatever work they were given as Levites was not enough to satisfy them. They want more power and authority. Moses is incensed; he protests, claims he is innocent of all corruptions when he turns to God and says: “Do not accept their offering. Not a donkey of theirs have I carried off, and I have done no harm to any one of them.”  Moses says he has done nothing wrong to justify this rebellion and that they are all ingrates. And why does he have to declare his innocence, and point out that he is not corrupt? Doesn’t that sound a bit like today’s politicians both here and abroad? Is this merely a family (both personal and political) power struggle, similar perhaps to that which Moses had with his siblings a few chapters ago (Numbers 12)?

HAFTARA (1 Samuel 11:14-12:22)

In the haftara of this week’s parsha there is a similar situation, though much later in the history of the people of Israel. The prophet Samuel is not happy about abrogating his own power to a king, but he has no choice and puts up a brave front. One of the reasons he has to give up his power is that his own sons, who were judges took bribes and perverted justice (1 Samuel 8:1–3). So when the people demand a king, he reluctantly chooses Saul, partially based on his looking the part (1 Samuel 9:2).

In the coronation speech, like Moses, Samuel says:

“Whose ox have I taken and whose donkey have I taken, whom have I wronged and whom have I abused, and from whose hand have I taken a bribe to avert my eyes from him? I shall return it to you!”  And they said, “You have not wronged us and you have not abused us, and you have not taken a thing from any man.”

He then goes on with the history of the Israelite community and how they always complained about their leaders and now “here is the king you have chosen, for whom you have asked, and here the LORD has put over you a king”. But the success of the monarchy is contingent on their being faithful to God and behaving themselves. He then performs a miracle, calling on God to send rain “and the LORD sent thunder and rain on that day, and all the people feared the LORD greatly, and they feared Samuel as well”. This of course scared the people and they were afraid for their lives in that they had “added to their offenses an evil thing to ask for a king”.  Although the haftara ends by Samuel reassuring the people, it leaves out the ending of the chapter which is a warning to the people: “fear the LORD and serve Him truly with all your heart, for see the great things He has done for you. And if indeed you do evil, both you and your king will be swept away. In this way, as Robert Alter notes in his commentary to his translation:

Samuel upstages the king whom he has just helped the people to confirm in office. It is true, his argument runs, that you have made the sinful error of choosing yourself a king. (Samuel of course makes no allowance for God’s role in the choice, which might express grudging divine recognition of a new political necessity.) That cannot be reversed, but never fear—I will still be here to act as the intercessor you will desperately continue to need.

The choice of our sages to connect the rebellion of Korah and his “edah” and Samuel’s warning about kingship is timely for us as well. When vox populi creates a king (even one not anointed by God and by democratic choice) we are opening ourselves up to all possible abuses. And when and if we change our minds, it is too late–we are stuck with the leaders we have unwisely chosen. All the protests in the world cannot change what we the people expect of our leaders–even common decency!  The question is of course, do we suffer in silence? Do we rebel? Or do we wait out the four years until the next election and hope that there will be some form of democracy left at the end of the road. Are we praying that there will be some “earthquake” that will come and banish these unsavory leaders to the underworld where they cannot harm us?

THE DANGEROUS KORAH

In the biblical story, Korah and his family were doomed. Yet in Psalms there are many references to the sons of Korah. It would seem that his family was not wiped out even though they were all swallowed by the earthquake. How did they survive? Apparently, according to the midrash, when they landed in Gehenna, they repented and rethought their rebellion and thus were able to climb out of hell when they understood that their father was wrong and repented. In the continuation of a very long midrash, we can understand the power of Korah and his rabble rousing and why it was important to shut him down. They basically accused Moses and Aaron of being corrupt. This could be the first instance of fake news; blaming those in power to confuse the people.

 What did he do? He assembled the entire congregation, as it is said “And Korah gathered against them the entire congregation.” He began to speak disparagingly and said to them, “There was once a widow in my neighborhood with two orphaned daughters and she had one field. When she came to plow, Moses said to her ‘You shall not plow with an ox and a donkey together’ (Deuteronomy 22:10). When she came to sow, Moses said to her ‘Your field shall not be sown with two different kinds of seed’ (Leviticus 19:19).  When she came to reap and make a pile [of sheaves], Moses said to her ‘You shall leave [some stalks] for the poor and the stranger’ (Deuteronomy 24:19). When she came to make a threshing floor, he said to her, ‘You shall give tithes [of your crop] and [separate] terumah, tithes, first tithe, and second tithe.’ The righteous woman accepted [the ruling] and complied. What did she do? She sold the field and bought two lambs to clothe herself with their fleece and to enjoy their fruits. When Aaron’s firstborn son was born, he came to her and said, ‘Give me the firstborns, as the Holy One, Blessed be He, said to me “Every firstborn that is born in your cattle and your flock, the male [belongs to] Him”‘ (Deuteronomy 15:19). The righteous woman accepted [the ruling] and complied. When it came time to shear them, he said to her, ‘Give me the foreleg, cheeks, and stomach.’ She said to him, ‘Even though I slaughtered them, I did not escape from your hand. Behold, I am under a ban.’ He said to her, ‘Give [them to me], as the verse states (Numbers 18:14), “Every ban among the people of Israel shall be yours.”‘ He took [the portions] and went on his way. She left weeping, as did her two daughters. Such is the way of these [men], who taunt [others] and hang [their claims] on the Holy One, Blessed be He. [They have done] so much [harm], yet they still continue [to provoke] the Holy One, Blessed be He. (here )

Korah’s claims are populist; he blames the elites for using their power and the halacha to take from the poor. There is some truth to his claims, and that is what makes his approach so dangerous. Despite his claim that he wanted the people to have power, it was he who wanted the power and was not willing to let go, but according to the midrash, he makes it look like he is doing it for their well-being and protecting them from the abuse of those who have the power. His attack on Moses is that not only did he take on the leadership role, but he engaged in nepotism, by giving the priesthood to Aaron (see (Rashi on 16:3 and Ibn Ezra 16:3). On the other hand, since it is God who chose Aaron, anyone who rises up against him is rising against God. The ones who suffer are those who believe Korah’s interpretation of the law.

The question is do we need more Korahs in the world?  Should we frame this as  Chris Christie vs. Donald Trump? Or 50% of Israel against Bibi? An interesting development is taking place in the Republican party where one Korah is turning on another. Populism, grandstanding seems to be the order of the day. Often the populist forgets him/her self as we have seen recently in Israel when Ben Gvir forgets that his job is to be “responsible” minister and becomes “one of the people”.  Just the other day a headline in the TOI read: “Ben Gvir left out of terror attack security assessment, reportedly over lack of trust”. It continued: “Unnamed coalition members rail against national security minister, calling him ‘barking dog with no bite’ and coalition ‘weak link’” (Here).

I believe we have reached an impasse, despite the claim on the penny In God We Trust, I believe that there is not much to trust in these difficult times. Everyone speaks in the name of God! This claim is of course exacerbated by fake news and its ilk.  Sorry to be so pessimistic as I wish you all a peaceful Shabbat.

 

About the Author
Naomi Graetz taught English at Ben Gurion University of the Negev for 35 years. She is the author of Unlocking the Garden: A Feminist Jewish Look at the Bible, Midrash and God; The Rabbi’s Wife Plays at Murder ; S/He Created Them: Feminist Retellings of Biblical Stories (Professional Press, 1993; second edition Gorgias Press, 2003), Silence is Deadly: Judaism Confronts Wifebeating and Forty Years of Being a Feminist Jew. Since Covid began, she has been teaching Bible from a feminist perspective on zoom.
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