Parashat Korah

Authority and Dissent

The Torah articulates norms about legitimate dissent and authority's reasonable response to it.

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In this week's parashah, Korah, the eponymous Levite Priest, wages an aggressive rebellion against Moses and Aaron. While Korah's words in the parashah suggest that he was simply seeking a more egalitarian form of leadership, the violent nature of his protest coupled with his evident envy of Moses' and Aaron's authority and social station, suggest otherwise.

Because of his jealousy, Korah accuses Moses and Aaron of using their claims of divine authority as a way of increasing their own power and control over the Israelites. And his challenge resonates with 250 "other men of renown" who joined him in his "rebellion." 

As the story unfolds God is so angered by Korah and his followers that God causes the "ground to open up and swallow the rebels." When confronted by Moses and Aaron about these deaths God becomes further angered and, according to the Torah's accounting, unleashes a plague that kills an additional 14,700 people, some of whom may have been innocent bystanders, as punishment for challenging God's supreme authority.

Dissent in the Torah

This dramatic moment in Israelite history raises powerful questions about the legitimate and illegitimate exercise of authority in response to dissent. The Torah offers many other examples to illustrate this tension.

God responds to Abraham's argument in defense of the innocent citizens of Sodom and Gomorrah by engaging in a reasoned debate and making reasonable compromises. In stark contrast, Pharaoh responds to Moses' request for the Israelites to be given a three-day festival by increasing the brutality of their slavery.

And in a related story in the Book of Numbers, the daughters of Zelophehad petition Moses to redress unfair land inheritance policies. In doing so, they note that their deceased father was not part of Korah's rebellion, explicitly drawing a distinction between their own challenge to authority and that of Korah. 

Not only are they successful in pleading their particular case, but Moses restructures the law in response to their argument, creating a more just land distribution system. Their success represents an example of using an established legal process rather than resorting to (threats of) violence. And Moses' measured response represents a legitimate exercise of authority in response to a reasonable challenge.

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Jack Silver is a certified Madrikh and a second-year rabbinical student at the International Institute of Secular Humanistic Judaism.