Sunday, September 2, 2012

The Best Use of Authority is to Share It

The best use of authority is to share it.

In previous posts, I've shown how the story of Korach contains a lot more than a challenge to authority and the way the challengers are punished.  When we read it with enough attention, Korach gives us encouragement to pay attention to rebels and dissenters.  They can "speak with authority"--meaning two things: they can speak to the recognized leaders as peers, and they can speak like someone who knows what they're talking about, someone to whom we should pay attention.

How do we make sure that challenging voices are heard?  Partly, of course, by our own commitment as individuals to listen to what bothers us most.  Partly, as Jews, by an understanding of what I have called our "heckling tradition", in which it's possible to be reverent in a most irreverent way...and in which minority opinions (like those of Shammai in his famous disputes with Hillel) can also be "the words of the living God."

It takes more than a moral commitment to include dissenters, however.  To be sure we won't do what's convenient instead of what's right--shut people out instead of listening to them--we need institutions that force us to do the right thing.

In the history of the Zionist movement, people knew this.  They also understood that they could not afford permanently to alienate other factions, no matter how bitterly they disputed.  They wrote rules for making decisions that gave a voice to groups from all over the world and all over the political spectrum.  We can see the influence of these rules in the Israeli Knesset today.  True, a small faction can hold up proceedings, or exercise power disproportionate to its size.  That is the price you pay for making sure they are not shut out altogether.

Groups can also operate either by consensus, by near-consensus, or by voting rules that recognize the outsized interest a group can have in an issue that touches its members more closely than anyone else.  Think what a difference it would make if legislation about women's health, including reproductive rights, had to get a majority of the women in Congress in order to pass!

We can (and should!) debate the exact nature of the institutions.  What we can learn from Parshat Korach, in the end, is that when a large part of the population feels excluded from the political process, things will end in violence.  It is not up to God to prevent or to punish these outbreaks.  It is the responsibility of those in power to make them unnecessary.

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