Korach – Defeating Demagoguery

The Torah is political.

The Torah is not Democratic or Republican, Likud, or Meretz.

The Torah is not partisan. The Torah does not tell us for whom to vote, or have secret codes that foretell who will win the Presidential election in 2020.

But the Torah IS deeply, deeply political; it is profoundly concerned with political processes, law, and leadership.

We, as Jews who turn to the Torah for teaching, guidance and wisdom, look to the Torah’s teachings when thinking about challenges facing us and the world today. 

Korach, this week’s parsha, is a classic example. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes that this week’s parsha is the story of one of world’s first examples of populism and demagoguery.

What are populism and demagoguery?

Cas Mudde, a professor at the University of Georgia and the co-author of Populism: A Very Short Introduction, describes populism as follows:

  • It is not a philosophy or ideology.  Instead, it is a framing of everything as a battle between the virtuous, pure people on one side and a corrupt elite on the other.
  • Populism calls for kicking out the political establishment but does not specify what should replace it.
  • Populism unites many different people into a mob mentality, and then moves forward the only way it can, by identifying and attacking enemies, real and imagined, because it has no internal ideas or principles behind it.

A demagogue is the leader of this mob, a leader who gains power by exploiting prejudice and ignorance among the people, whipping up the passions of the crowd, and shutting down discussion and debate. 

Korach and his group are a textbook case, and we can learn much from their rise and downfall. Let us look closely and explore.

As usual, the populism and demagoguery begin in a moment of crisis – real, or manufactured. The Ramban teaches that Korach began his plan immediately following the people’s own failure following the report of the spies in Parashat Sh’lach, a time of anxiety and fear.

At that moment, vayikach Korach – and Korach took.

What does it mean vayikach? The Targum explains – itpaleg.  He divided. He sowed division.

Rashi explains:

  • מָשַׁךְ רָאשֵׁי סַנְהֶדְרָאוֹת שֶׁבָּהֶם בִּדְבָרִים

“he drew the leadership of the courts along with him with words.”

Demagogues get their populist power through their use words.

There is nothing wrong with using words though, of course. Moshe used words, Aharon used words. Words can inspire, enlighten, and teach.

And there is nothing wrong with strong words, words that challenge or debate!

Our tradition is one of debate, of machloket, that helps us learn and grow.

So what’s the difference? 

Instead of using words to teach and to bring insight, Korach used words to obfuscate and inflame. Instead of lifting the people up, his words cut down. 

Though there were elements of truth in what he and his followers said, Korach and his group wrapped those kernels of truth in lies. 

“Listen,” he claimed, “there should be no hierarchy, no privilege!” Yet he, a first cousin of Moshe and also a Levite, enjoyed great privilege in the hierarchy! 

Another example: look at the way that Datan and Aviram used language:

הַמְעַט כִּי הֶעֱלִיתָנוּ מֵאֶרֶץ זָבַת חָלָב וּדְבַשׁ לַהֲמִיתֵנוּ בַּמִּדְבָּר כִּי־תִשְׂתָּרֵר עָלֵינוּ גַּם־הִשְׂתָּרֵר׃

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)

Here, Datan and Aviram are speaking powerfully to the very real feelings of frustration, disappointment, and anger that the people felt. And there is some truth in their words: Egypt was a plentiful land, the Jewish people will die in the wilderness, and Moshe was their leader.

On closer examination however, we see the depth of their depravity and lies:

Egypt isn’t the land of milk and honey – Israel is!

Moshe didn’t cause the people to die in the wilderness – the spies did!

Moshe doesn’t want to lord his leadership over the people, in fact over and over again he begs God to free him from the burden!

They, like all populists, carefully calibrated their half-truths to stir up maximum resentment and anger. 

Populists also delegitimize.

Jan-Werner Müller, a Professor of Politics at Princeton University, argues that the best way to know if someone is a populist is if they claim that “they and they alone represent the people,” and tries to render anyone who disagrees with them as not just wrong, but “essentially illegitimate.” They use their power to silence dissent.

The great Rav Abraham Twersky sees Korach in just this way. Quoting the Mishna in Pirkei Avot:

“All disagreements that are l’shem Shamayim — for the sake of Heaven – will in the end be established.  However, disagreements that are not for the sake of Heaven, will not be established.  What is an example of a disagreement that is for the sake of Heaven? That of Hillel and Shammai.  What is an example of a disagreement that is not for the sake of Heaven? That of Korach and all of his cohorts.”

Rav Twersky notes that the mishna does not say the disagreement between Moshe and Korach, but rather the disagreement between Korach and all his cohorts. Why? Because from their perspective, there was no other side. There was no other legitimate perspective worth listening to.

To sum up:

  • Demagogues like Korach use words.
  • They use half-truths that speak to people’s fears and emotions.
  • They claim to represent the people. Rather than engaging with ideas and principles from others, they delegitimize anyone who opposes them as an “enemy of the people.”

This is how they take power.

Populists and demagogues can then be very powerful. In the span of just a few days, Korach succeeds in whipping up almost the entire people against Moshe, including its most esteemed leaders.

Populist leadership can be deadly. We see the fatal consequences in our parsha. 

We Jews know these dangers all too well, having been on the receiving end of of populism and demagoguery many times. Populists and demagogues can emerge from left and the right side of the political spectrum. We have served, and continue to serve, as a convenient target of populist rage, half-truths and delegitimization, and as such, must always be careful about populist movements and the threats they pose; to our community and to all vulnerable communities. rum.

But the good news is that populism, though it can do a lot of damage, usually doesn’t last. Moshe’s leadership triumphs over Korach’s, and from this triumph we can learn many lessons.

The first lesson is that rather than trying to silence populist dissent, engage it directly.

Moshe was unafraid to deal with Korach and his followers, and he used clear facts, logic, and reason to point out the hypocrisies and errors.

“Korach,” he says, “you are a member of the Levites, you actually enjoy the very privileges you are saying should not exist.”

“Korach,” he says, “God asked me to do this, and I will show you with a test.”

The second lesson: The response to populism and demagoguery must not use the same tools of half-truths and delegitimization. It must be honest, reflective and adhere to the truth.

We see that Moshe, in response to the claims made by Korach and his group, turns to God and says that he has never used his position for ill-gotten gains. Moshe, the humble leader, legitimately entertained the critique being made by the people and assessed whether there was any validity before taking action. He actually listened to the other side.

This is something we can all learn from.

We see this today where unfortunately those who don’t like the demagogue’s tools of lazy thinking, half-truths, personal attacks and delegitimization use those exact same tools against the demagogues themselves. 

This is a tragedy and serves to deepen the polarization and lack of trust that populism breeds on rather than bringing us closer to truth.

Each of us most hold ourselves accountable to the highest standards we can when challenging what we perceive as demagoguery and populism in the world – we must be open to being challenged ourselves. If we are not holding ourselves to these standards, if we are not open to being challenged, we may become the very things we are trying to stand against.

Finally, Moshe shows that populist uprisings must be dealt with patiently.

The fever of populism takes a while to die down.

We see that even after Korach’s total defeat by God and additional miracles showing the true election of Moshe and Aharon by God, the people are still whipped up through the rest of the parsha. It takes time. Irrational, dangerous populist fervor cannot be defeated through a battle. It is defeated through the steady application of ethics, law, and service leadership.

This is the leadership of the Levi’im which is beautifully described after Korach’s rebellion, at the end of the parsha.

וַאֲנִ֗י הִנֵּ֤ה לָקַ֙חְתִּי֙ אֶת־אֲחֵיכֶ֣ם הַלְוִיִּ֔ם מִתּ֖וֹךְ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל לָכֶ֞ם מַתָּנָ֤ה נְתֻנִים֙ לַֽהלַעֲבֹ֕ד אֶת־עֲבֹדַ֖ת אֹ֥הֶל מוֹעֵֽד׃

I have selected your fellow Levites from among the Israelites as a gift to you, dedicated to the LORD to do the work at the tent of meeting.

The following p’sukim are packed with leadership in direct contrast to the claims of Korach and his crew.

Themes emerge: Leadership is avodah, service. Leadership is a burden. Leadership comes with sacrifice. Leadership must have limits. Leadership must be transparent. Leadership comes with support and benefits, but those benefits are there to enable leaders to serve.

Service, sacrifice, honesty, transparency, and dedication.

We hope for these attributes from our global leaders, but we can also, each of us in our leadership capacities, at home, in our jobs, in how we speak up, we can put these Torah values into practice.

By doing so may we be the leaders, and may we merit the leaders, that will truly be: lachem matanah, a gift to you, a gift to all of us.

About the Author
Rabbi Ari Hart is the spiritual leader of Skokie Valley Agudath Jacob, a modern orthodox synagogue in Skokie, Illinois.
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