Saturday, August 4, 2012

Challenges to Authority: How Do We Respond?

I said I would return to Korach “soon,” and that’s true—on a historical scale!  Yes, it’s a month later, and I am still thinking about what we can learn from Parshat Korach about the questions “When and how should we challenge authority, and how should authority respond?”

We live in a time in the history of the United States when it’s hard to be on the side of authority, or sometimes, even to take authority seriously.  After Vietnam and Watergate, after the lies that produced the Iraq War and the electoral frauds that may have produced two terms of the Bush presidency, when Congress and the media carry less prestige than lawyers and used-car salesmen, the claims of our elected officials are automatically suspect.  

For many of us, religious authorities can be just as hard to believe in.  You don’t have to be a “new atheist” like the late Alexander Cockburn.  Devout Catholics have been rocked by the sex abuse scandals and the institutional response to them.  Protestants have been dismayed by the Religious Right selling its soul to its corporate sponsors.  Jews, still after decades, denounce other Jews because we disagree with the Israeli government’s policies in Palestine (which to my mind are no better and probably worse than the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan).

Some would read Parshat Korach as a classic text of repression by religious authorities.  Challenge Moses & Aaron, and God will kill you:  end of story.  But we have already seen that that’s too simple a way of reading the story.  It leaves out Aaron’s nonviolent response (which David Matthews’ reading of Korach highlighted).  It leaves out the way the firepans of the rebellion become component parts of the altar (as Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hacohen Kook pointed out to champion healthy skepticism and challenges to tradition).  The vindictive reading of the story also leaves out the fact that many of the Psalms are attributed to the sons of Korach—who then clearly survived and continued to serve in the sanctuary.

What’s more, the vindictive reading leaves out the way that rabbinic Judaism has developed for two thousand years after the canon of the Torah was closed.  The rabbis found ways to justify harsh principles and ameliorate them in practice.  For instance, they found capital punishment in the Torah and explained why certain crimes deserved the harshest penalty of which we could conceive.  Yet when a case came up before the Sanhedrin in its capacity as high court, they would demand such extremely strong evidence as to make it impossible to carry out that penalty.  The Talmud tells us that if an execution happened once in seventy years, that court would be known as “the bloody Sanhedrin.”

How can we use authority to sustain the values that sustain us?  How can we incorporate challenges without simply repressing them or simply co-opting them?  More thoughts to follow in the conclusion of this series.

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