An inconvenient voice

Moses buries him.

Literally – he opens up the earth, and Korah and his followers are swallowed alive.

The rabbis of the Midrash were more graceful. They only buried him literarily and morally – projecting upon him every evil motive and base intention.

For the rabbis, Korah becomes the personification of manipulative demagoguery, personal greed, vicious envy of power and position, exploitation, arrogance and rebelliousness; a rebel he is.

After the people Israel are condemned to wander the desert 40 years, Korah raises a revolt against Moses and Aaron: “You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst. Why do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation?” (Numbers 16:3).

It is too easy to label Korah evil and dismiss his claims. There is nothing in the pshat, the simple reading of the biblical text, to castigate Korah as the embodiment of evil. In fact, it is suspicious how ready everyone is to get rid of him. What are we covering up? What truth does Korah know?

At Mount Sinai, God proclaimed, “You shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:5-6).

Korah asks: If we are all a kingdom of priests, what is the special prerogative of one who proclaims himself “spiritual leader”? Instructing the building of the Mishkan shrine, God announced, “Let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them” (Exodus 25:8).

Korah wonders: If God already dwells among the people, who needs intermediaries and functionaries to reach God? In Leviticus, God commanded: “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God, am holy” (Leviticus 19:2).

Korah points out: Holiness, the quality we share with God, is within our reach. Not an elite, but holiness is within us all. Moses himself offered: “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord put His spirit upon them” (Numbers 11:29).

Korah responds: Shouldn’t this be our goal? Not to elevate another Moses, but to elevate the entire community to his prophetic vision?

Korah is a rebel, no doubt. But he is a holy rebel. He rebels in obedience to God. And Moses’ impulse to bury him represents a serious failure of leadership.

A healthy community needs holy dissent. A healthy community needs voices demanding a renewed commitment to ideals. A healthy community needs to be reminded that its moral compromises are just that, compromises – the best we could do under the circumstances, not the best we could do. Korah is an irritant, a source of aggravation, a challenge to authority and to accepted practice. It’s no wonder we want to bury him. But a living community of conscience and spirit needs a Korah.

Another great spiritual dissident, Martin Buber, taught that a spiritual community swings between poles of “religion” and “religiosity.” “Religiosity” refers to those rare ecstatic moments when the Absolute breaks into our experience and reorients our vision and values. These are moments of passion and insight. But they are fleeting. “Religion” is born when these moments are captured, organized and preserved in symbols, texts and rites. At the heart of spiritual life lives this tension: As “religion” settles into holy tradition, it loses touch with these original moments of ecstasy and revelation. It loses its creative energy. Religion needs religiosity.

“Religion is true so long as it is creative,” Buber wrote, “but it is creative so long as religiosity is able to imbue [it] with new and incandescent meaning. Once religious rites and dogmas have become so rigid that religiosity cannot move them, religion becomes uncreative and therefore untrue.”

One of the wonders of Jewish history is our continuing capacity to welcome and absorb holy dissent. We are a living community, held together by deep bonds of family and communal solidarity, and not just a church bound by dogma. Therefore, there has always been room to embrace dissent and rebellion without destroying the Jewish people. Prophets challenged Priests, and they were included in the Bible. The rabbis disagreed about almost everything, and the Talmud proclaimed: “These and these are the words of the living God.”

Mystics and Chasidim challenged rabbinical authorities, and their voices were added to the symphony of Jewish wisdom. The greatest Jewish rebellion in Modernity was Zionism. And today, we are all Zionists. We are a creative people because the voice of Korah lives.

We are committed to teach our children the Torah of Moses – Jewish continuity, faithfulness to the Jewish past, loyalty to tradition and ancestors. Their curriculum must also include the Torah of Korah – holy rebellion, spiritual dissent.

Alongside continuity, let us celebrate the creative overturning and reinvention of Jewish life and vision.

That, too, is our holy tradition.

Ed Feinstein is senior rabbi of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino. He serves on the faculty of the Ziegler Rabbinical School of American Jewish University (formerly the University of Judaism), the Wexner Heritage Foundation, the Whizen Center for the Jewish Family and the Synagogue 3000 initiative.

Shutting Jewish Mouths

Twenty years ago at a park in Beverly Hills, actor Richard Dreyfuss, feminist Betty Friedan and Yael Dayan, the daughter of the late Israeli leader Moshe Dayan, stoodbefore a crowd of some 300 people and called for a two-state solution to the Palestinian Israeli conflict.

Many in the crowd booed and hissed the speakers. Eventually they shouted Dreyfuss down. He had to be escorted offstage, past Jews who spat at him and called him names.

I know, because, as the local head of Americans for Peace Now back then, I organized the rally. I helped form a human ring around Dreyfuss as he raced for the safety of his car.

And I was there when a screaming protestor broke through our linked arms, called Dreyfuss a traitor, then said, “Hey, Richard, you think I could get your autograph?”

To follow the controversy over members of the Jewish mainstream accusing Jewish liberals of fomenting anti-Israel and anti-Semitic hatred by criticizing the Jewish state is to relive that afternoon in Roxbury Park, and all its attendant stupidity.

Back then, at the height of the first intifada, the Jewish establishment charged that Jews who spoke out publicly against the “Iron Fist” policies of the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin were aiding the enemies of Israel. If Friedan or any other Jew wasn’t going to serve in the Israeli army, the argument went, they had no right to criticize Israel. At a time when American support for Israel was crucial, for Jews to break ranks from the party line could only give Israel’s foes in Congress fuel for dissent.

But those Jews would not be silent. Their ranks grew. Eventually their far-left ideas — for a two-state solution and negotiations with the Palestinians — became Israeli government policy; Rabin was shot dead at a rally in Tel Aviv, organized by Peace Now.

The moral of the story: Today’s dissenters might justbe on to something.

I have no idea whether the vision of today’s leftist outliers like Tony Judt and Tony Kushner will become tomorrow’s reality. I’m not going to defend them, because those men, criticized harshly in a report by Alvin H. Rosenfeld funded by the American Jewish Committee (AJCommittee), are more than capable of defending their own views.

But I will defend the importance of Jewish self-criticism.

To read Jewish history is to see that crucial dynamic at work: From the biblical prophets down through modern times, we are a people who have canonized those who scold and chastise the established order, who envision a different world. Some of the sharpest criticism leveled by Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, was at Jews who were too comfortable in a Europe he sensed would one day turn on them. Some of the most virulent criticism he received was from Jews who believed a Jewish state would endanger the security of Diaspora Jews.

The tradition of sharp criticism turned on one’s own people still lives — in Hebrew. The Israeli press has always been far more contentious toward Israel than American Jewry. Nothing Judt or Kushner has proposed hasn’t already been written in Israel.

Similarly, the two-state solution and dealing with Yasser Arafat was old news in Israel by the time the American Jewish left picked up the cause. The party-line-discipline organizations like the AJCommittee often seek to enforce delays but don’t derail good ideas.

The rule that American Jews don’t have the right to speak out since they don’t live in Israel and won’t suffer the consequences of their ideas has visceral appeal but has proved, thankfully, unenforceable.

The American Jewish establishment’s ideal Israel-Diaspora relationship — we give our money, you give your sons — has always co-existed with strong expressions of dissent. Just as the left protested for an end to Jewish settlements in the West Bank, many on the American Jewish right publicly spoke out against then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza (an idea the Israeli and American Jewish left had argued for years earlier).

What’s more, the basic premise is just wrong. Speaking at a meeting on terrorism in Los Angeles last November, former Shin Bet director Avi Dichter noted than Iran’s two attacks on Jewish civilian targets in Argentina in the early 1990s followed Israel’s targeted assassinations on leaders of the Iranian-sponsored Hezbollah movement: 114 people were killed in those attacks, mostly Jews.

Jews in the Diaspora don’t bear the brunt of living in Israel, but they may still pay a price for decisions made in Jerusalem.

By squashing left-wing criticism, the mainstream makes the world safe for opinions far to the right. Has the AJCommittee taken a stand against Avigdor Lieberman, the Israeli minister who has called for the forced expulsion of Israeli Arabs from their towns? No, it has not; though one could argue Lieberman’s opinions endanger a democratic Jewish state at least as much as Kushner’s.

But from where I sit, the most insidious effect of the AJCommittee is the message it sends to the majority of Jews, and non-Jews, who support Israel but don’t always agree with its policies. That message is: there’s only one way to show you care for the Jewish state — our way.

Given that choice, the silent majority of Jews drift away, and the mainstream organizations then bemoan the fact that most Jews, especially Jewish youth, aren’t involved on behalf of Israel.

It’s very hard to sell smart people on the idea that the best way to support the strongest democracy in the Middle East is to shut up.