Questioning Authority

Americans love to challenge their leaders, and this week's Torah portion helps explain how and when to do that

 

A few weeks ago I was driving my 12-year-old daughter's car pool to her middle school. As I was pulling up to the curb to drop the kids off, the car in front of us was being aggressively moved on by the traffic monitor, even though there were only two cars on the street. The driver of the car was complaining that one of the children had forgotten something. On the car was affixed a bumper sticker that read, "Question Authority."

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"I guess the driver questions the authority of traffic regulations," my daughter commented. Her friends giggled and hooted.

It struck me as ironic that about six months ago one of this group of laughing adolescents had emailed me to discuss Korah, the Torah portion that he would read and explain on the Shabbat--now this coming Shabbat--he would become a Bar Mitzvah. The portion recounts a rebellion by Korah, a tribal chief, against the leadership of Moses while the Jews are wandering in the Sinai Desert. One might say that its underlying theme is about the appropriate time to question authority.

"Rabbi Jane," this young man wrote, "I hope you won't be unhappy with me, but I think that Korah is right to challenge Moses. Moses was pushing everyone around. Why did God side with Moses and not Korah?"

I could see this boy's point. It is easy to sympathize with Korah. Korah's justification for rebellion seems consistent with Jewish theology. Korah maintains, "All of the community is holy and Adonai is among them"(Num. 16:3), and that Moses is thus wrong in setting himself above everyone else. Nor is Korah a disgruntled loner, a biblical Ted Kaczynski. He persuades fully 250 leaders of the community, men with good reputations, to join him.

We know that Moses isn't a perfect leader. Moses makes many mistakes over the course of his life. As a youth he kills an Egyptian guard and must flee for safety (Ex. 2:11-14). When he becomes the head of the Hebrew nation, he is poor at delegating responsibility (Ex. 18:13-16). Moses cannot restrain himself from embellishing God's command to provide water for the people by speaking to a stone, and instead strikes the stone (Num. 20:8-9). Frankly, the Torah presents Moses as a fairly willful, driven, authoritarian sort of person.

Contemporary American Jews are usually comfortable questioning this kind of authority for a number of reasons. Americans, in general, tend to be suspicious of those in power, and American culture idealizes Jeffersonian democratic values. Jewish Americans tend to believe in American social norms.

Politically, American Jews belong to a minority group. We don't feel entirely like insiders in this society. We tend to sympathize with the marginalized and underprivileged. The overwhelming majority of American Jews are only a generation or two removed from the experience of fleeing a totalitarian regime.

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