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Friday, 11 June 2021

Divine Authority and Tyranny (Korach 2021)

Yesterday, an annular eclipse helps those who have lost track of the Hebrew date, because eclipses always happen on a new moon. So, how might we connect the new moon with Korach, the apparently rebellious priest after whom this week’s Torah portion in named. The answer is in the Mishnah of Rosh Hashanah (2:8-9). In order to declare the new moon, and thus the new month, witnesses needed to appear before the court. In this Mishnah, two witnesses came to the Rabbinic court at Yavneh and said that they saw the moon in the east on the morning of the 29th and they saw it in the west in the evening. Rabbi Yochanan ben Nuri said that they were false witnesses. However, Rabban Gamaliel accepted their testimony, assuming that they had just made a mistake with their morning sighting. Two more witnesses came along and gave a differing testimony – that they saw the moon in its proper time. However, the moon did not appear to the Court as predicted but Rabban Gamaliel nonetheless accepted their testimony. Rabbi Dosa ben Harkinas said that they were false witnesses. He asked, “How can they testify that a woman has given birth when, on the very next day, her stomach is still up there between her teeth?” In other words, how can we say there’s a new moon when no-one can see the new moon? Rabbi Joshua said to him, “I can see your position.” In other words, Rabban Gamaliel, the head of the court, has accepted the testimony of the witnesses who, it turns out, are false witnesses. Rabbi Joshua agrees with Rabbi Dosa ben Harkinas who challenges how the court – specifically Rabban Gamaliel – came to accept false testimony. So, then something fascinating happens. Rabban Gamaliel turns to Rabbi Joshua and says, “I decree that you come to me with your staff and purse on the Day of Atonement which is determined in accordance with your counting.” Rabbi Dosa ben Harkinas has provided a challenge but instead of answering that challenge, Rabbi Joshua has furthered it, essentially starting a group of people who have challenged Rabban Gamaliel’s authority. So Rabban Gamaliel’s response is to tell Rabbi Joshua that if he counts the calendar differently, he should demonstrate his apparent rebellion publicly. Is it rebellion, though? Yes, Rabbi Joshua is questioning how Rabban Gamaliel’s method for examining witnesses, but is it an innocent query or is it open mockery of the leader of the court? It could be read both ways. Rabban Gamaliel takes it as publicly questioning his authority, so he reacts by showing strict authority. Whether it was intended to be rebellious or not, Rabban Gamaliel’s response turns it into a rebellion that must be ended.


Rabbi Akiva finds Rabbi Joshua greatly troubled and explains that everything that Rabban Gamaliel has done is valid because Torah says “These are the set feasts of the Eternal… which you shall proclaim” (Lev. 23:4). Whether they are in their proper time or not, the key is that God has given authority to the Rabbis to proclaim the calendar. Akiva, ever the peace-maker, then went to Rabbi Dosa ben Harkinas and said, “If we’re going to take issue with the court of Rabban Gamaliel, we have to take issue with every single court which has come into being since the time of Moses to the present day.” He quotes the book of Exodus which talks of “Moses, Aaron, Nadav and Avihu and seventy of the elders of Israel…” (Ex. 24:9) “Why,” he asks, “have the names of the elders not been given? To teach that every group of three elders who came into being as a court of Israel are equivalent to the court of Moses himself.” We assume that Rabbi Dosa ben Harkinas is calmed and accepts the authority of Rabban Gamaliel to determine the dates of the festivals because when the court decrees them, that’s when they are, even if the calendar doesn’t match totally with what is in the sky.


Next we read that Rabbi Joshua took his staff with his purse in his hand and went to Yavneh, to Rabban Gamaliel, on the Day of Atonement according to his counting. In response, Rabban Gamaliel says to him, “Peace, my master and disciple – my master in wisdom and my disciple in accepting my rulings.” What Rabban Gamaliel saw as a rebellion has now been contained peacefully.


In our Torah portion, Korach challenges Moses, God’s emissary, the man who speaks with God, the man who literally glows with the Divine Presence. His challenge isn’t one of subjective rulings – is it the new moon or not – but a challenge of authority. Korach says that Moses takes on too much because all the people are holy, not just Moses. Essentially, he’s saying that Moses is no better than anyone else. That, of course, stands in complete contradiction with the word of God, since God clearly states at Sinai that only Moses can come up the mountain and that anyone who even touches the mountain shall die. God also says that no-one can see God’s face and live but God nonetheless lets Moses see God’s back, a privilege not granted to any other Israelite. So Korach’s challenge is one against not just Moses’ authority but actually against the whole structure of the Jewish community. Judaism sets up a community which has specialists – the priests were the specialists in sacrifice and the Rabbis are specialists in deciding halakhah, Jewish law. Rabban Gamaliel is the supreme specialist in the court, so questioning his decision-making ability is essentially like questioning God.


This, I believe, is what leads to the perceived rebellion – divine authority that supports human decision-making is inherently dangerous, since human beings are flawed. It is clear that Rabban Gamaliel made a mistake with the witnesses but the system that was established gave divine approval to his mistake. It made the incorrect correct. That’s very difficult for those who want a court with no mistakes, like Rabbi Joshua, who was clearly right to ask his question about the correctness of the decision. It’s not rebellion to question a leader’s terrible decision, and to ask how that can be enshrined in law. What’s fascinating is what else happens – after Rabban Gamaliel seemingly humiliates Rabbi Joshua with the demand regarding the date of Yom Kippur, their colleagues are so shocked by Rabban Gamaliel’s behavior that he is ousted as the head of the court! Although he is later returned to his post once he and Rabbi Joshua are reconciled, there continues to be a power-sharing agreement moving forward.


When people believe that they act on divine authority, their leadership can easily slip into tyranny. Nonsense laws are backed up with humiliation aimed at anyone who dares to disagree. In some sense, we see this same phenomenon with Korach as represented in Midrash. For example, when Moses tells the people that God instructs them to wear a blue tassel on their clothing so that it catches one’s eye and we remember God’s commandments, Korach asks what to do if their entire garment is blue? The Rabbis suggest that Korach asks these questions because he’s a trouble-maker, but I cannot see him that way. I believe that Korach sees divine authority being directed through one man, who is clearly very flawed, and who therefore tests the problematic system. It’s not that Korach rebels against God – he rebels against Moses because he is the only arbiter of divine authority.


The end of the Korach story is humiliation. Talmud (Bava Batra 74a) says that there is a spot that Rabbi bar bar Hana visited where he heard Korach cry up from the ground the words “Moses and his Torah are true, and we are liars.” That’s not fair. God tells the Israelites to be holy (Lev. 19:1) and Korach says that all the people are holy. That’s not a liar. He says that Moses has taken on too much, which is exactly what Moses’ father-in-law Jethro said back in Exodus 18(:14). Korach says that God is in the midst of the people. Well, that one’s a stretch – God is clearly centered around the Tabernacle. But once the Second Temple is built and then destroyed many hundreds of years later, the Rabbis end up saying essentially the same thing as Korach does in our Torah portion – that God is not focused on one specific location. If anything, then, Korach is a visionary. But he is humiliated just as Rabbi Joshua is humiliated, because any system that claims divine authority can easily tend towards terror and violence against anyone who disagrees with it.


Moses was flawed and Rabban Gamaliel was flawed. Moses ends his life without being able to cross into the Jordan because of his failure. Rabban Gamaliel ends up in a power-sharing arrangement because of his failure. That, I believe, is a wonderful lessons for all leaders – that if you think you came to this position because you’re perfect, you will end up failing. And this can, indeed, be a lesson for everyone – to hear those who would disagree with us without accusing them, to learn from their questions about how we may be wrong, to embrace humility, to be less certain of ourselves.  For some of us that’s more of a challenge than for others. But a religious community that tries to encounter God is not the same as God – we’re not perfect and that’s the point. We learn from our flaws instead of pretending that they don’t exist.


So, may God be with us as we embrace our imperfection, as we celebrate the opportunity to learn and grow from our interaction with others. May we embrace being questioned and challenged. And may we all question and challenge each other with love and respect, and let us say, Amen.

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