Immigrants and Refugees

In a recent New York Times column by Roger Cohen (20 April 2018) deploring Israel’s violent stance in dealing with Gaza demonstrators, he ended with the following: “Shabtai Shavit, another Mossad director, from 1989 to 1996, said: ‘Why are we living here? To have our grandchildren continue to fight wars? What is this insanity in which territory, land, is more important than human life?’”

The answer is not that difficult. The “inanity” rests on the fact that Israel’s Declaration of Independence begins with a call from the land, from Eretz Israel, to return. That is the dream of Zionism. Further, the land was never defined, but the opening paragraph harks back to ancient Israel that occupied both the east and west banks of the Jordan River. Ben Gurion’s document feeds the dreams of the right. The next question arises: who is to be invited and welcomed to live on that land?

First and foremost, Jews. (Go to see the movie, Red Sea Diving Resort when it is released, the story of the secret headquarters of the Mossad in Sudan for the sea and airlift of the Beta Israel fleeing Ethiopia.) The land shaped the spiritual, religious and political identity of Jews. Further, after their expulsion, they “never ceased to pray and hope for their return to it and for the restoration of their cultural freedom” as the Declaration of Independence declares. And, in recent decades, they did return and en masse, in spite of restrictive legislation. Further, those who returned really did make “deserts bloom, revived the Hebrew language, built villages and towns, and created a thriving community controlling its own economy and culture.” They did know how to defend themselves, or learned, but there is a debate over the extent to which they loved peace. Further, they did bring “the blessings [and curses] of progress to all the country’s inhabitants,” but not equally, as they aspired “towards independent nationhood.”

The heroic narrative of what they accomplished certainly resembles historic reality. It is not a fable. But the story of those who did return is in part. The implication is that the ancestors of the Ashkenazim who led the crusade of return were descendants of those forced into exile. This tale is certainly true of Mizrachi and Sephardic Jews. But not in the same proportion of Ashkenazim. Though the DNA of Ashkenazi, Sephardi and Mizrachi Jews show significant amounts of Middle Eastern ancestry and “Diaspora Jews from Europe, Northwest Africa, and the Near East resemble each other more closely than they resemble their non-Jewish neighbors” (Ostrer and Hammer), we now know via those DNA studies that, through maternal lineages, a substantial majority of Ashkenazi have considerable European ancestry.

One connection is with Tuscans from Italy. The largest majority of Ashkenazim descend from eastern European stock, such as the Khazars, who converted to Judaism. As a result, vast swaths of eastern Europe were once governed by Jewish kings who spoke and wrote Hebrew, followed Jewish holidays and religious customs, and circumcised their boy children when they were 8 days-old. Belarus towns and cities like Minsk had Jewish majorities. It appears that Arthur Koestler was partially correct (cf. Eran Elhaik) when he made the original claim that Jewish Ahkenazim trace their heritage back to the Khazars. (The Thirteenth Tribe: The Khazar Empire)

But the problem is created by the last two clauses in the Israeli Declaration of Independence. In a condescending way, it is these returnees who bring with them the blessings of progress. On the other hand, those to whom they purportedly bring that blessing do not belong nor want to belong to the nation aspiring towards statehood. In other words, the Zionist bring an economic benefit – assuming they do – but they also bring a political deficit, for the Jews are not returning so that the country’s inhabitants who are not Jewish can realize their political aspirations. Nor does the Jewish nation welcome them to join in that aspiration. “The First Zionist Congress convened and proclaimed the right of the Jewish people to national rebirth in its own country,” not the right of all the inhabitants to self-determination. “This right is the natural right of the Jewish people (my italics) to be masters of their own fate, like all other nations, in their own sovereign State.”

This is the right of return and national self-determination in the declaration was claimed as a “natural” right. Joined with that natural right were historic rights conferred by international recognition (The Balfour Declaration, the endorsement of the League of Nations, the UN resolution on partition), by the historical calamity of the Shoah and by the service and sacrifices in WWII performed by a multitude of Jews. Further, that “natural” right to self-determination was not recognized in the document for Palestinians.

In the U.S. Declaration of Independence, those natural rights belong to individuals, not a nation. Further, it is not a right of self-determination, but a right of an individual to Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness, the latter interpreted as the right to acquire wealth ad infinitum. Those individual rights predate the formation of any government rather than being the result of a successful expression of national self-determination. Governments, according to the U.S. constitution, derive their just powers from the governed. In Israel, the government derives its right from historical precedents, the ancient history of the Jews as a self-governing polity and the modern international resolutions of the Balfour Declaration, the League of Nations and the 1947 UN partition resolution.

There is no right of revolution in the Israeli declaration as there is in the American one if a government “becomes destructive” as a result of a “long train of abuses and usurpations” to serving the goals of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness of its members. In that long list of grievances, of injuries and usurpations, which make up about two-thirds of the American declaration, two are noteworthy for our purposes. “He (the king) has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.”

What a difference almost 250 years make when, under a Trump administration, the government copies the practices of King George III and obstructs laws for naturalizing foreigners and refuses to pass laws to encourage migration to the U.S. The American Declaration of Independence, much more than the Statue of Liberty defined the U.S. as a nation that welcomed new arrivals and offered them citizenship.

In comparison, although the Israeli declaration promises to “foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants…based on freedom, justice and peace,” the proclamation of the State of Israel declares that, “THE STATE OF ISRAEL will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; as envisaged by the prophets of Israel.

Immigration, though not explicitly closed to others, targets only Jews who are defined as “exiles” returning to the land of their ancestors. Nevertheless, even as an explicit Jewish state, not only will the rights of all inhabitants, Jew or non-Jew by culture, language, religion, be guaranteed, but they will all be guaranteed equal social and political rights. But no right of return. If they previously fled or if forced to flee or they chose to flee in the war that was already underway, implicitly, there was no right of return.

The American Declaration of Independence does contain one very horrific passage. “He [King George III] has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.” Two different constituencies are cited in this paragraph. The first are the Loyalists, those who sided in the conflict with Britain. The King is accused of exciting “domestic” insurrection, that is, rebellion against the rebellion. What chutzpah!

Of the 2.5 to 3 million in the thirteen colonies, 500,000 were estimated to have been Loyalists. Their leaders and soldiers who fought on the side of Britain – about 100,000 – were driven out. (Thomas B. Allen (2010) Tories Fighting for the King in America, America’s First Civil War) Some, like John Butler, had very large landholdings which were confiscated; the Loyalists received no compensation, even though the Jay Treaty that ended the War of 1812 “advised” states to offer restitution. That never came. The rebels were traitors. After all, Butler had organized and financed the Butler rangers who fought a guerilla war against the Continental army. On the other hand, those who did not flee or were not expelled enjoyed equality with and shared in the rights of the victorious revolutionaries, except for the black slaves. In contrast, about 3,500 Black Loyalists (other than slaves of Loyalists) who fled to Canada, did so as free men.

Imagine what would have happened if those who fled had not defined themselves as Loyalists wanting to stay under the sovereign rule of Britain but instead demanded a right of return. Would the U.S. have allowed these “traitors” to return? The evidence suggests that they would not be permitted and were not given such a right. However, in re-inventing themselves as having left for positive reasons, the Loyalists made new lives for themselves in Canada or, if they went to Britain, there as well.

The Israeli declaration is silent about expelled or self-exiled Arabs from Eretz Israel, but subsequent actions clearly demonstrated that the Israelis followed, not only the American precedent, but every other treatment of defeated persecuted ethnic or religious groups driven from a country in a time of inter-ethnic and inter-religious strife. The original modern refugees, the Huguenots, were guaranteed new homes in Germany and in Britain and in other Protestant lands. They were guaranteed what we now call non-refouement. They were not given a right of return and were not offered a way back.

But the part of the passage in the American declaration that is of even greater interest is the following: the king “endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.” Native Americans were savages and not civilized people. King George III had made treaties with them as nations worthy of recognition. This made the frontiers closed to American settlement. Some argue, and I believe with considerable justification, that the War of Independence was primarily fought, not over taxes without representation, but over the right to move west and settle the lands beyond the frontier in lands that the King had recognized as sovereign indigenous land.

In the process of Americans defining their own rights and manifest destiny to move west and conquer the frontier lands, the Indians were called savages guilty of slaughtering men, women and children wantonly. Maligning Indians in this way has been an inherent part of American culture since the founding of the American state. After all, their great hero and first president, George Washington, had been a land speculator in the territories that had been guaranteed by King George III as the sovereign land of native peoples.

Further, in their declaration, Americans celebrate mob rule, such as the wanton destruction in the Boston Tea Party in 1773, with some colonists disguised as “Indian Savages,” thereby blaming then for destroying property. It was not the first or only time. The conflict started with the protest in 1765 against the Stamp Act when mobs destroyed the manor houses of Andrew Oliver and Lieutenant Governor Thomas Hutchinson, wrecked the furniture and stole jewels. Mob rule is an inherent part of the American tradition. The riots of 1773 were met by Britain suspending the Massachusetts Legislature, an action that lay behind the complaint in the Declaration of Independence that the king was responsible for “suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.”

It seems clear that the Palestinians who fled or were forced to flee did not follow the Loyalist model, but rather the Jewish model of clinging to and praying for return, now for 70 years and perhaps eventually for thirty times as long to rival the Jews.

What is a declaration of independence for some, is not for others.

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Korah Number 16

by

Howard Adelman

The section is most often labelled Korah’s Rebellion and not just Korah. I initially avoid such a heading lest we beg the question in labeling Korah’s protest as a rebellion. Instead, one of the questions I ask is whether this is fair question.

The text says that Korah and his fellow “rebels,” each a chief of a congregation, each chosen by that congregation, each a well-recognized leader among them. The text does say that they “rose up.” But that could simply mean that they stood up at a general meeting of the Israelites. They certainly stood up in opposition to whatever Moses and Aaron were planning to do. But according to the text, Korah began with a personal attack. Korah accused both Moses and Aaron of elitism, of giving themselves a special holy status denied to the rest of the Israelites.

“You have gone too far! For all in the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the LORD is among them. Why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the LORD?” (16:3)

How did Moses respond? Like a Muslim today, he “fell on his face,” he lowered himself in a beseeching way to Korah. At the same time, his words were anything but beseeching. They were defiant. Wait until morning, Moses told Korah. Then God will determine who is holy and who is not, that is, whom God favours and whom he does not. The determination of holiness and favouritism seem to have been equated. Favouritism means that they have been chosen. How is this determined? By the one God chooses to draw near to Him? So holiness, favouritism, proximity to God and the determination of holiness are all equated.

It is self-evident that Korah has made a serious tactical error in challenging both Moses and Aaron. He had allowed his words to be twisted so that the protest was made in Moses’ terms. Korah had asked why Moses and Aaron were acting “holier than thou” and Moses twisted that to mean a question, not about arrogance and self-inflation, but about proximity to God and His holy word. Moses then raised the stakes even further. He accused Korah of going too far in charging Moses and Aaron with arrogance and self-importance. For it was NOT they that has assumed their roles. God had cast them to perform those tasks. The challenge was really against God’s choice, not the actions of Moses and Aaron.

Then Moses made a third charge. He accused Korah and his co-protestors of ingratitude, not to Moses but to God. “Hear now, you sons of Levi: is it too small a thing for you that the God of Israel has separated you from the congregation of Israel, to bring you near to himself, to do service in the tabernacle of the LORD and to stand before the congregation to minister to them, 10 and that he has brought you near him, and all your brothers the sons of Levi with you?” (Numbers 16:8-10) God chose you to be rabbis. Now you challenge God’s choice of me to be your political leader and Aaron to be the High Priest. In other words, the charge of arrogance was just a cover and a superficial attack. They were challenging whether or not Moses and Aaron had been chosen by God. “I’ll show you,” Moses seemed to be saying, “who God has chosen. Who is the holier one!”

Then the fourth charge comes like a hammer blow. Not only are they accused of demeaning Aaron and Moses, challenging the holiness of each and challenging God’s choice, but of seeking the priesthood. Not political power. Not of trying to take his position. But of trying to displace Aaron. That is not just a question about God’s choice, but defiance against it. “And would you seek the priesthood also? 11 Therefore it is against the LORD that you and all your company have gathered together. What is Aaron that you grumble against him?”

Moses then summoned Dathan and Abiram before him in an effort to divide the opposition. But both disobey his summons. They are sticking with Korah and the protest. And now we first learn of the substantive issue behind the protest while trying to reverse the path of the verbal sparring back to the home ground of the protest, accusations that Moses and Aaron are being arrogant and self-important. “Is it a small thing that you have brought us up out of a land flowing with milk and honey, to kill us in the wilderness, that you must also make yourself a prince over us?” (Numbers 16:14) Moses and Aaron were leading them back to the wilderness for forty years ostensibly because 10 out of 12 scouts reported back about how strong their enemies were and challenged the attack plans.

Now on top of challenges of arrogance, efforts to push themselves as occupying the holy ground, naming their protest an exercise in ingratitude to God given their own chosen status as religious leaders among the people, and even efforts to usurp the position of High Priest, Moses turned to God and pleaded innocence of any effort to act against them. They feared being tortured and their eyes burned out and refused to come before Moses. “And Moses was very angry and said to the LORD, ‘Do not respect their offering. I have not taken one donkey from them, and I have not harmed one of them.’” (Numbers 16:15) Moses claims innocence of any power trip because he neither threatened them nor took anything from them. But he did ask God to reject their sacrifices. He did ask God to take away their religious roles. Is that not an act of revenge simply for launching a verbal protest and alleging that Moses and Aaron had been arrogant?

So Moses went back to his original position. He gave up on trying to divide the protesters but, instead, summoned them to come beside him and Aaron before the Lord. “We will now see who is right.” Each one of the 250 rabbis was to bring his censer (see Numbers 4:14; also Leviticus 16:12), the brass bowl in which they put coal and burned incense, What happens? It is unbelievable! God appears before the whole congregation of the protesters and asks Moses and Aaron to step aside so He can “consume” the others. Then Moses reverts to divide and rule again, this time not asking Dathan and Abiram to back away from Korah, but asking the other 247 local religious leaders to back away from the rebellious triumvirate.

They presumably refuse and stay loyal to Korah and the other two leaders. The protesting priests, as well as their families and children, are summoned to watch whether Korah, Dathan and Abiram will be consumed by the Lord, giving an ironic twist to the report of the ten scouts that the land would consume them. The earth literally opens up and swallows them, not just the three leaders, but all 250 of the protesters – and before their wives and children. Then they seemed to have been destroyed a second time and in a second wave, God consumed them in fire.

The two versions are not incompatible. Imagine earth torn with a big rift and hundreds being swallowed up and falling into the hot lava. But the issue is really not how two sources are merged in a single story, but the politics of escalating a verbal protest into a rebellion and sentencing the rebels to death for simply criticizing the leadership. Further, the Israelites themselves and not just their leaders lose 14,700 people to a plague before Aaron manages to stay the wrath of God.

Today we might compare the actions of Moses and Aaron to that of Kim Jong-un of North Korea, but without displacing the initiative onto God, for Kim Jong-un is revered as if he were a god. Today we watch Kim Jong-un subjected to American sanctions for the first time while Moses (and Aaron) are treated as the heroes of the story. I am not suggesting that the initial protest against the high-handedness of Moses was correct and certainly not that it was carried out in the best way given that Moses and Aaron held all the reins on the use of coercive power. But Moses’ response has to be read objectively as extremely unfair in both the interpretation of the challenge and certainly grossly unfair and even wicked in the response.
But that is not the interpretation handed down. Moses’ assertion that they were not just accusing him of usurping authority but accusing them of undermining God’s authority is presumed to be valid by religious fundamentalists.

“Korah and his rebellious group had no idea who God is and they ultimately had no fear of God. The bible said they gathered against God and his anoited and the Lord destroyed them. You would believe that the rest of the people would have learnt a lesson, but they continued to rise against the anointed of the Lord and paid again with their lives. People have to learn obedience.”

Reform Judaism does not dissent either. Here is the official summary.
“Korach and his followers, Dathan and Abiram, lead a rebellion against the leadership of Moses and Aaron. God punishes the rebels by burying them and their families alive. Once again, God brings a plague on the people. (16:1-17:15)”

Korah is relegated to the status of one of the great villains of the Torah and Moses is not only totally exonerated, he is virtually beatified for his behaviour. Incivility is attributed to Korah and not to Moses simply because Korah accused his leader of arrogance against the background of Moses and Aaron leading the people back to the wilderness simply because 10 of the 12 scouts thought success in conquest would be too costly and that there was a high risk of failure. Instead, the narrative is treated as a tale of obedience and disobedience, and the punishment, deemed appropriate, for the latter. Simply challenging authority and suggesting it is arrogant and insensitive is enough to deserve being condemned to death. It is outrageous!

With the assistance of Alex Zisman

The Leadership of God, Moses and Aaron

Ki Tissa Exodus 30:11 – 34:35 The Leadership of God, Moses and Aaron

by

Howard Adelman

There is a lot that goes on in this portion of the Torah, more than most. First, there is the issue of the census and its evident purpose, levying a tax on each Israelite over twenty years of age – no discount for those over 65 (a half-shekel by the sanctuary weight — twenty gerahs to the shekel, the confirmation of weight to be done by the priest). Is the money necessary for the upkeep of the portable sanctuary? Evidently not! The payment is called a ransom; its rationale is that it is paid so that “no plague may come upon them.” Instead of being based on a graduated tax based on ability to pay, rich and poor pay the same levy “as expiation for your persons.”

Then there is the continuation of the instructions for the mishkan, but no longer about the detailed structural and interior design. Verses 11-34 of chapter 31 are all about how to craft the utensils, the formulas for the anointing oil and incense to be used in this portable sanctuary and how they are all to be used. And, God forbid, if the high priests do not follow the directions precisely, they will surely die. These are not just rules for when the Israelites are in the desert, but for all time. These are eternal edicts to consecrate the priests. Do not try to replicate these formulas for daily use or even just to smell the incense. The punishment is dire. You shall be ostracized, “cut off from his kin.” God even names the craftsmen to be employed in carrying out the instructions. Talk about micro-management! Frankly, it all smells of the behaviour of a pharaoh from whom the Israelites had just fled.

Except the Israelites are then instructed to keep (v’shamru so familiar in a synagogue service) shabat as a sign of the covenant between God and the Israelites and as a way of remembering that the Israelites are a consecrated people chosen by God. It is a day of complete rest after working hard for six days, but, God forbid, you do any work, like fix up your recreation room. You “shall be put to death.” Only after receiving all these instructions is Moses given the stone tablets inscribed by the “finger of God.” Of course, that can only be a metaphor, for God does not have a body.

Or have we been sold a bill of goods?

Then the story gets really exciting. Moses has been away for a seemingly long period, perhaps a month. The Israelites get restless. There is a populist revolt. And the people get the High Priest, Aaron, to lead the revolt and make them an idol, a golden calf. Why would he consent to do that? Because the will of the people was too powerful and he wanted to stall until Moses returned? Because he was afraid the mob would put him to death if he did not go along with their wishes? Or because they wanted a physical reminder of their absent leader, Moses, and he was willing to oblige?

The latter seems implausible since the people explicitly asked Aaron to make them a god. When the cat’s away, the mice will play! If Aaron was afraid, there is no sign of fear. There is only the sense of an eager participant. And hardly a stall artist! He could have taken an enormous amount of time to gather the gold and the silver, to melt it down, to find just the right craftsman to make the make the mold and forge the golden calf. Nothing of the sort happened.

All these and other rationales for Aaron’s behaviour seem to be just apologetics. Someone who just tries to smell incense made according to the formula for the sanctuary is to be killed. But the leader of the rebellion who does what is considered the most horrific act of all, making an idol to be worshiped instead of God, gets off scot-free. Unjust is not the word for it! For the man who collects the precious metals, for the man who actually casts the mold and makes the golden calf, for the man who exclaims to the people concerning the golden calf, “This is your god, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!” For the man, for the very person who is a High Priest, to then organize a hedonistic revelry for the occasion!

No thunder from on high. Just instructions to Moses to get back in a hurry to quell the rebellion against the emerging Hebrew religion. Moses, fearing God’s revenge, implores God not to wipe out the very people he consecrated. God relents. There will be no punishment for the people. But what about Aaron, Moses’ older brother, the High Priest who led the rebellion? How does Moses feel about being betrayed by his own brother?

As Moses is returning Joshua warns him about the rebellion and the revelry. Moses is in denial.

“It is not the sound of the tune of triumph,
Or the sound of the tune of defeat;
It is the sound of song that I hear!”

But Moses could not deny what was before his eyes when he returned. He lost it. He blew his cool. He confronted Aaron. What did Aaron say? It wasn’t me. The people made me do it. It is they who are evil. I did not mold the calf. It just emerged out of the fire. It is one thing to lead a rebellion. It is another to deny any responsibility. It is even worse to be such a craven coward with such a flimsy and preposterous recap. Does Moses punish his brother? He called forth the Levites, his praetorian guard, and, seemingly randomly, they slew about 3,000 of the 600,000 Israelites. Thus was the rebellion put down.

The same Moses who talked God out of revenge and punishment gave vent to his own wrath. Did he assume any responsibility for something he might have instigated by his absence and failure to leave behind a reliable second-in-command? Did he even hold his brother responsible? He did blame Aaron for letting the people get “out of control,” but even excused that by saying the people were a “menace,” thereby giving credence to the explanation that Aaron only went along because he was afraid for his life.

The behaviour of both Moses and Aaron is appalling. It is elitism of the worst sort. Most biblical exegesis offers apologetics rather than plausible interpretations and explanations, compounding the problem. Does Moses ever hold his brother responsible? The people are guilty of a great sin for making a golden statue, not because it was a piece of folk art, but because it was an idol of worship substituting for God.  And God says, after Moses’ intervention on behalf of his sinning people, I will only cut those out from my favour who were actually guilty. No collective punishment. Nor even any arbitrary punishment as Moses had meted out. God just sent a plague which presumably killed only the guilty ones. I am tempted to be sarcastic – they were killed because they would not be paying taxes any more since the taxes already paid never saved them from the plague as promised when they paid the tax. But Aaron was not killed! God also reneges on his promise to live amidst the people. Why? Because He could get so angry at their stubborn willfulness that He might slay them. God nevertheless is persuaded to agree once again to lead them to the Promised Land. What is Moses’ punishment for letting all this happen? Moses will no longer be able to see God’s face. Only his backside.

I will not go on with rest of the section that recounts how Moses carved two substitute tablets as replicas to the ones he broke in his rage. For my theme is: understanding what is said about leadership. I begin with God.

The Lord passed before him and proclaimed: “The Lord, the Lord, a God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; yet He does not remit all punishment, but visits the iniquity of parents upon children and children’s children, upon the third and fourth generations.” (34: 6-7)

God boasts. I’m a good guy. I keep my word. I am patient and kind, “forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin.” But not all! When I do not forgive, the punishment will extend to the third and even fourth generation. No more collective punishment in space. Only in time. For God is a temporal not a spatial God. He sets His imprint in history, not having pyramids built in his honour like the sun god. He will remain a hidden God present only in Spirit as He withdraws from the presence of the Israelites. Not to move back to the top of a mountain, but to place Himself in the vanguard of history. Humans will only be able to see God as history unfolds. Prediction will not be part of their ken. God will become a God of deeds rather than words. In return, no miscegenation. No paying respects to local customs. Smash all the religious places and figures of the local inhabitants and engage in ethnic cleansing. God would qualify to be a leader of ISIS.

Moses, quick to anger and slow to forgive, lacking any deep sense of compassion, though pleading for his people, for without them he would have no role and no mission. If any grace is to be found, it will not be located in Moses. The only one to whom he shows kindness and forgiveness is his brother.

Aaron comes off the worst. He refuses to take responsibility. He is a person of great privilege, but one who opportunistically deserts the establishment to lead the common people, those laden with insecurity and fear, resenting the privileges of the ersatz royalty. Just as Moses deserted the Pharaoh to return to the people, so does Aaron. But Aaron does so as a coward. And then he deserts the people he once led and blames them exclusively for what happened. No wonder Moses kicked him upstairs and took away his role as a military leader. Think of what would have happened in the attempted coup if Aaron had continued to have a command and control role over the military.

I speculate that Aaron resented his “promotion,” resented from being removed from a role with real power to one that was only ceremonial. When one of the elite deserts the establishment to effectively lead a populist revolt, not only against Moses, but against God, to risk his status and the riches associated with it, suggests very strongly that Aaron in the very depths of his being resented his younger brother who was far less accomplished than he was but was given the real leadership of the people.

We have an example of the irrationality of a populist rebellion led by a member of the establishment, but one saved by that same establishment lest the very sanctity of their positions be undermined. Fortunately for the Israelites there was another leader lurking in the wings, the man who alerted Moses in advance of his return of the rebellion underway, a man who stayed inside when Moses toured the camp to receive the acclaim he felt he was due from everyone else who came outside their tents.

“Joshua son of Nun, a youth, would not stir out of the Tent.”

Rebellion: Parashat Korah, Numbers 16:1 – 18:32 – 08.06.13

Rebellion: Parashat Korah, Numbers 16:1 18:32                                                 08.06.13

by

Howard Adelman

 

On Wednesday 5 June 2013, MP Brent Rathgeber, who represents the riding of Edmonton-St. Albert in the Canadian legislature, resigned from the Conservative caucus and will now sit as an independent. The catalyst for his resignation was the gutting of his private member’s bill on transparency in the public sector, the proposed CBC and Public Service Disclosure and Transparency Act, and its provision that all civil service salaries above $188,000 be disclosed. The committee raised the level for disclosure to the maximum amount payable to a deputy minister, about $444,000, so that even the vast majority of deputy ministers will not have to have their salaries disclosed. Seven conservative members present voted for the change without arguing for it.

I say that the gutting of the bill was only the catalyst because Brent Rathgeber has long chafed under the system of following orders issued by the PMO. So have other Conservative MPs such as Mark Warawa, the outspoken anti-abortion MP. Further, only three of the seven Conservatives who pushed through the change in committee were regular members. One member from BC and three members from southern Ontario — Chris Warkentin (Peace River), Ted Opitz (Etobicoke Centre) who was allowed to keep his seat in spite of voting irregularities in the last election, Dave MacKenzie (Woodstock) and Costas Menegakis (Richmond Hill) — substituted for Dean Del Mastro (Peterborough), Colin Mayes (Okanagan), Blaine Calkins (Wetaskiwin) and Earl Dreeshen (Red Deer) who did not attend. The latter two MPs from Alberta did not respond to media requests to explain why they did not attend, suggesting possibly that they were sympathetic to the position of Brent Rathgeber but were unwilling to join Rathgeber’s open protest.

Brent Rathgeber said: “I’m obviously very, very disappointed both with the government position and certainly with the [committee’s Conservative] colleagues, many of whom philosophically support this legislation unequivocally, but seemed powerless to resist the instructions that were given to them by the [Prime Minister’s Office], by the whip or wherever the final instructions came from.”

Let us examine the so-called Korah rebellion against the background of Brent Rathgeber’s resignation. Korah’s actions against Moses and Aaron can be compared to Rathgeber’s in the following ways:

1. Korah was a cousin of Moses; Rathgeber had no family relationship to Harper.

2. Korah was a Levite, a member of the priestly class; Rathgeber had no special status.

3. Korah sought out 250 men of renown to join the protest; Rathgeber acted alone.

4. Korach combined religious leaders (Levites) and political leaders, Datham and Abiram, from the tribe of Reuben in a united front; Rathgeber’s action was strictly political but rooted in an ethical concern with transparency and accountability.

5. Korah’s rebellion was not an armed insurrection; neither was Rathgeber’s.

6. Korah’s rebellion was not a refusal to obey orders; Rathgeber explicitly resigned because he was fed up with belonging to a caucus that took orders from unelected young guys working in the PMO.

7. Korah’s rebellion was not even a challenge to the leadership of Moses and Aaron but simply a request that power be shared to a greater extent; Rathgeber’s resignation was explicitly a challenge to the way Stephen Harper acted as a control freak.

8. Finally, in the rationale for Korah’s action, he argued that God’s spirit was in all the people and not only in the elite leadership. “Ye take too much upon you, seeing all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them: wherefore then lift ye up yourselves above the congregation of the Lord?” (Numbers 16:3) After all, the Torah does say that the whole community is holy (Kulam Kedushim) and God resides in their midst. As God said at Sinai, “You [the nation of Israel] shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” (Exodus 19:6) This was precisely the same point that Rathgeber made when he protested that the requirement to follow orders betrayed the Conservative Party pledges and its mandate.

There are a number of other interesting observations that can be made. According to the account, Korah’s rebellion seemed to have wide public appeal. I suspect Rathgeber’s action did as well. Rathgeber’s action was not called a rebellion but a protest made by walking with his feet. Korah’s action is virtually universally referred to as a rebellion even though the protesters were unarmed, never stated that they would no longer follow Moses or Aaron or was in any way an effort to destroy either Moses’ political or Aaron’s religious leadership or to remove them from positions of authority, though they clearly wanted to diminish that authority. It is puzzling altogether why Korah’s actions should be seen as a rebellion.

However, that is how virtually all commentators view it. Further, though many if not most might be sympathetic to Rathgeber, virtually all condemn Korah. Why?

First, many contend the protest aimed to challenge Moses’ political and Aaron’s religious leadership. After all, this is clearly how Moses saw the actions citing the principle of divine right. The rebellion was against the Lord and not against Aaron for Aaron was chosen by God to serve as the leader of the priesthood. The rebellion of Dathan and Abiram was against him and they subsequently did refuse to obey Moses’ orders to face him fearing that Moses would kill them. “Is it a small thing that thou hast brought us up out of a land that floweth with milk and honey, to kill us in the wilderness, except thou make thyself altogether a prince over us?” (Numbers 16:13) Moses self-righteously defended his leadership arguing that he has been perfectly honest and a just ruler, not hurting one of them or depriving any one of their property.

The virtually universal condemnation of Korah by commentators accuse Korah of ambition in seeking a piece of the action, of seeking positions as judges and priests and being dissatisfied with the holy roles assigned them of physically taking care of the tabernacle, of mischief making, of being shit disturbers, of sewing dividiveness among the people, of challenging the need for strong leadership, of pride, arrogance and self-exaltation which they are doubly sinful of for they project those qualities on Moses and Aaron, of jealousy and envy that they were not chosen, of populism for they appealed to the will of the people that had so recently been “polluted with sin”, of injustice for they accused Moses and Aaron of usurping power when that authority was assigned to Moses and Aaron by the Lord, of usurping power themselves by engaging in the burning of incense that was a priestly duty, of projecting their own sins on Moses and Aaron for it was Korah, Dathan and Abiram who tried to supersede their authority, of speaking evil against the leadership, of being traitors for they had exalted Egypt as the land of milk and honey in contrast to the wilderness they were now in (see Numbers 16:13 quoted above), of falsely accusing Moses of betraying the promise of delivering the people to the land of milk and honey, and, most of all, of rebellion against the will of God. “For which cause both thou and all thy company are gathered together against the Lord: and what is Aaron, that ye murmur against him?” (Numbers 16:11) God worked in mysterious ways and whether it was His mysterious ways or the ways of the invisible hand of nature or the cunning of reason, the rebels were challenging the laws of the universe.

However, most of these accusations are really repetitions of what Moses said or implied and not representations of what Korah and the other protesters did and said. For the 250 notables only said that you, Moses, have gathered too much power in the PMO, and have removed yourself from the people and taken upon yourselves power that should be returned to the people. There is absolutely NO evidence that they were asking for positions, were unhappy with their positions, or were stirring up the people. They were certainly giving voice to a sense of disquiet. Why is protest regarded as arrogance, pride and self-aggrandizement? Why is a different interpretation of their political condition and the flow of history regarded as sedition? Is it not the responsibility of everyone to speak their mind, stand up and be counted?

Evidently not if you are not echoing the party line, what is seen as the word of the Lord. Then speaking your mind is a sin. Then calling for sharing of power is a usurpation of power. Then such a challenge is a message for the leadership answering back and asserting that you are either for me or agin me. Make a choice. And God will choose those who are on the side of the Lord and the flow of history. Rathgeber, you owe it to the people who elected you as a Conservative candidate to resign and go back to seek a mandate from the people for being independent and an iconoclast. That was the response of the PMO. That is the response of Moses. Let us test your challenge.

Further, the terms of the test are set by the leader. It is not the protesters on their own who light the fires of incense against priestly regulations. Moses instructs them to do so in the true savvy of a Lenin who cunningly tricks the protesters into usurping the rules of the game.  Korah is a naïve Levite, but Dathan and Abriham are too politically astute to be sucked into the schemes of Moses even as they mistakenly interpreted the history of the people as a path of despair rather than hope. They played on the fact that Moses had come from being raised as a prince in the court of the Pharaoh and was not raised among the people. Thus, he had been conditioned to raise himself above everyone else. And Moses puts forth his integrity and self-sacrifice as a defence when there never was any accusation that Moses was in business to line his own pockets.

The congregation backed away. They witnessed the unbelievable event of the rebel leaders being swallowed by the earth and/or being consumed by fire, presumably from the own vessels of incense, and disappearing from history. What we have is an image of a sinkhole rather than an earthquake. For there is no shaking and trembling – just an opening up into what appears as a bottomless pit. The protesters were treated as all protesters are by totalitarian leaders. They join the disappeared.

However, the retreat of the people is only temporary. They stir up their courage and return to Tahrir Square in Cairo or Taksim Square in Istanbul, and show up in even larger numbers to accuse Moses of killing God’s people when he used such drastic and violent methods for suppressing the protest. Infuriated, God mows the people down inflicting them with the plague. “Get you up from among this congregation, that I may consume them as in a moment.” (Numbers 16:45) If you think the casualties in Tahrir or Taksim Squares or even in the slaughters in Syria were bad, 14,700 unarmed civilians were instantly wiped out simply for wanting a Voice. Aaron intervenes and serves once again as the mediator and moderator against the wrath of both Moses and God. Aaron and Moses once again play the game of good cop, bad cop. As Moses said, as the Turkish Prime Minister, Racep Tawip Erdogan, said, the protesters are all agitators, extremists and terrorists. They are not interested in environmentalism or the well-being of the people. We will stick to our plans. We will not get off message.

Therefore, how can Korah’s protests be considered a sin? Korah’s failure is not his arrogance or his pride or ambition, not his dissatisfaction nor his trouble-making, not his divisiveness nor his envy, not treason nor usurpation of power. Yeshayahu Leibowitz in a lecture at HebrewUniversity years ago said that the sin was not in Korah’s protests, but in his assumption and interpretation that the Israelites were holy instead of understanding that holiness was a task and an aspiration God granted to the Israelites. It was not an essential given. The protesters were not wrong in seeking a greater distribution of power, but wrong on why that power should be distributed and, therefore, how. The Israelites are chosen not because they are holy but because their task is to become a holy people. Tzitzit are not holy because they are made of blue threads but because there is one blue thread sewn into the fringes. The whole is not made holy by the actions of everyone but by the actions of the singular one. Korah was a populist. The failure to recognize the fallacy of populism was Korah’s sin, not his challenge to priests or rabbis that they alone are divinely sanctioned to interpret, teach and instruct nor his challenge to the chain of command. In seeing himself as the embodiment of the people’s holy will, he was far guiltier of the usurpation of authority than the Israelite leadership.