Challenging Autocracy

What have been your thoughts about the upheavals going on in the Arab world? Are you pleased that the peoples of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and Syria have been rising up against their autocratic rulers? Are you thinking that if the Palestinians also took to the streets in large numbers that might be a more effective way of achieving the goal of an independent Palestinian state than rocket attacks and suicide bombings? Are you concerned that the outcome of all these challenges to the established status quo may not be increased democracy, but rather increased autocracy? Are you worried about how Islamist groups might take advantage of the instability to assert their own authoritarian agenda?

I imagine that our thoughts and responses depend on a number of factors, not least, the extent to which we are optimists or pessimists, and our own attitudes towards absolutist forms of authority. I have to confess that despite getting a bit older and wiser, I remain, basically, an unreconstructed rebel. I have always challenged authority, when it was clear to me that the way that authority was being asserted was unfair or unjust in some way. And so, as a child, I used a challenge my father and certain teachers at school; and by the time I was 17, and I heard about the Black Power movement in the United States, the Anti-Apartheid movement, and discovered Marxism, my rebellious spirit was channelled into challenging tyranny, injustice and oppression in every place.

So, yes, I am very pleased about what has been called ‘the Arab Spring’ – even though the outcome of what might become, ‘the Arab Summer’, is a little uncertain…

Being rebellious and advocating rebellion may be a personal disposition, but, interestingly, it is also woven into the fabric of the Jewish narrative. In this week’s Torah portion, the parashah, Korach, at Numbers chapter 16 (:1ff.), we read about the rebellion organised by Korach, together with Datan, Aviram and On.

Who were these individuals? The very first verse gives their genealogies:

… Korach, the son of Yitzhar, the son of K’hat, the son of Levi, with Datan and Aviram, the sons of Eli’av, and On, the son of Pelet, the sons of R’uvein.

So, Korach was a first cousin of Moses and Aaron – and Miriam, of course (who isn’t mentioned here – more of that in a moment), and a fellow Levite – but, unlike, Moses and Aaron, Korach did not share in the leadership of the people. At the beginning of the book of B’midbar, Numbers, we get an insight into the reasons for Korach’s rebellion We read at Numbers chapter 4, verse 15:

When Aaron and his sons have finished covering the sacred furniture, and all the sacred vessels, as the camp is set to journey forward – after that, the sons of K’hat shall come to carry them; but they shall not touch the sacred things, lest they die. These things are the burden of the sons of K’hat in the tent of meeting.

So, Korach, the grandson of K’hat – so near, and yet so far from power. And what about Datan, Aviram and On? Well, again, the answer to that question is found in the first portion of Numbers, B’midbar. We read at Numbers chapter 3, verses 11-12:

The Eternal spoke to Moses saying: ‘And I, behold I have taken the Levites from among the children of Israel instead of every firstborn that opens the womb among the children of Israel; and the Levites shall be Mine.

Datan, Aviram and On were all members of the tribe of R’uvein. R’uvein was the firstborn son of Jacob – and in the new leadership system described in the opening portion of the book of Numbers, the firstborn are to be displaced by the Levites.

All that we have to do is be aware of the genealogies of these characters, and it is completely apparent why they decide to challenge the leadership of Moses and Aaron. As we read in today’s portion, at Numbers 16, verse 2-3:

They rose up before Moses, with men from among the Israelites, 250 men; they were princes of the congregation, the elect men of the assembly, men of renown; / and they assembled themselves together against Moses and against Aaron, and said to them: ‘You take too much upon yourselves since all the congregation, every one of them are holy, and the Eternal One is in their midst; why then do you lift yourselves up above the assembly of the Eternal One?

So, the rebels did not accept the privileged position of Moses and Aaron – arguing that the two leaders had elevated themselves above the people. The challenge has a real feel of men jockeying for power – and that is, perhaps, why the women, not least Miriam, are so conspicuous by their absence. And yet, as we read in the Torah, just two weeks ago, it was Miriam who initiated ‘the Israelite Spring’ in the wilderness, when she became the first one to speak out, specifically, against Moses. As we read in parashat B’ha’a’lot’cha, at Numbers chapter 12, verse 1: Va-t’dabbeir Miryam – v’Aharon – b’Moshe – ‘Miriam spoke – and Aaron – against Moses’. The verb is in the feminine singular: Va-t’dabbeir – ‘she spoke’ – and Aaron went along with her. Given that Miriam is completely marginalised in the Torah narrative, which highlights the leadership of Moses and Aaron, it is not surprising that she led the challenge. But what they both then said to Moses makes it clear why Aaron joined his elder sister in confronting their younger brother. We read at verse 2:

And they said: ‘Has the Eternal One indeed spoken only with Moses has He not spoken also with us?’

Korach and the other rebels did not accept that God had elevated Moses and Aaron. In this incident, we can see Miriam and Aaron struggling with Moses’ special relationship with the Eternal. And, indeed the Divine answer they receive is unequivocal. As we read at verses 6 to 7:

‘Hear now My words: If there is a prophet among you, I, the Eternal make Myself known to him in a vision, I speak with him in a dream. / My servant Moses is not so; he is trusted in all My house; / with him I speak mouth-to-mouth, manifestly, and not in dark speeches; and he has seen the likeness of the Eternal; why then are you not afraid to speak against My servant, against Moses?’

So, according to the Torah, the pre-eminent position of Moses is sanctioned by God – and when it comes to Korach and his fellow rebels, the narrative makes it clear that their dispute with Moses and Aaron is a challenge against the authority of the Eternal. Indeed, to prove to the rebels that God is in charge, the Torah tells us that the Eternal One made the ground open up and swallow the rebels and their families and all their belongings (16:30-33).

What do the Democrats among us feel about the Eternal One as a Divine Autocrat – ever-ready to punish disobedience? It is interesting to note that despite the prevailing patriarchal presentation of God in the Torah, Abraham, who goes along with the Divine command to sacrifice his son, Isaac, right up until it is revoked by a messenger of the Eternal One at the last moment (Genesis 22), nevertheless argues with God fearlessly when it comes to the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18). And there are occasions when Moses is also undaunted by the prospect of challenging his Divine Master (e.g. Exodus 33:12-16). Of course, according to the Torah, both Abraham and Moses had privileged access to God; it is hard to get away from the fact that when it comes to the people, the choice is absolute obedience or death – as the passage in parashat Nitzavim, Deuteronomy chapter 30, verse 19 puts it so eloquently:

I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, I have set before you life and death, a blessing and a curse; therefore choose life – u’vacharta ba-chayyim – that you may live, you and your descendants.

So, no positive lessons about the virtues of challenging autocracy in the Torah, it seems. But then, what do we make of the very first example of a human being transgressing the boundaries and disobeying God? I’m thinking of the story related in the first parashah of the Torah, B’reishit, in Genesis chapter 3, about the first woman, curious, and hungry for knowledge, as she takes the fruit of the forbidden tree, and then shares it with ‘her man’ (3:6). It’s easy to blame the serpent. In his commentary on Genesis, first published in 1934, Benno Jacob, a Reform rabbi in Germany until World War II, when he became a refugee, suggested that the conversation with the serpent represented an externalisation of the woman’s own internal conversation.[1] In other words, the first woman was not led astray – after an internal struggle, her curiosity overcame a caution

We all know the infamous outcome: the woman is punished with pain in childbirth; the man is punished with hard labour, tilling the cursed ground, in order to get his daily bread (3:16-19). But the problem is, we know the story so well, we read it very superficially. Didn’t humanity have to leave the garden – or should we not say, kindergarten, the lush playpen that hemmed them in – in order to grow up, and become responsible adults? Didn’t the first human beings have to learn about the realities of life – about pain and toil and suffering and death?

The first woman was curious. She longed for the knowledge of good and evil because it was in her nature, as a human being, to search and to probe and to challenge. On the one hand, the story is a cautionary tale about the limitations of human power and control and the absolute authority of God. On the other hand, the Torah is teaching us that to be human is to challenge absolute authority; to be human is to negotiate with the world, to work out what is right and what is wrong, and take responsibility for our actions and our capabilities and our powers.

Perhaps Korach was a demagogue, motivated by envy and interested only in empowering himself – or, perhaps, he was a democrat, determined to challenge the autocratic leadership of Moses and Aaron because he really did believe that each and every member of the congregation was ‘holy’ (Numbers 16:3). Most likely, he was driven by a complex, toxic mix of a thirst for personal power and genuine social concern – like most politicians. Whatever we make of Korach, the Torah‘s account of the transgression of the first human beings reminds us that it is natural for people to challenge autocracy. And more than this: according to Jewish teaching, as expressed by the prophets, it is an ethical obligation. As we read in Isaiah chapter 58, verse 6 – in a passage, which is read as the haftarah on Yom Kippur morning:

Is not this the fast I have chosen: to unlock the fetters of wickedness, and untie the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every chain?

As we ponder the stirring words of the unknown prophet of the Babylonian exile, the ‘second’ Isaiah, let us think of those, who are engaged in challenging tyranny today, and pray that the outcome of revolt will be new democratic social orders, which respect the human rights of all, and practice justice, equality, freedom, pluralism, compassion and peace.[2]

And let us say: Amen.




Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah

25th June 2011 / 23rd Sivan 5771

Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue – Adat Shalom Verei’ut

[1] Das Erste Buch der Tora: Genesis. (Schocken Verlag, Berlin 1934; Neudruck, 1999). Condensed English translation: The First Book of the Bible: Genesis (Ktav, New York, 1974).


[2] Extract from a prayer I wrote in response to the upheavals in the Arab world, and which I recite during the community prayers, following the Torah service on Shabbat mornings