How to Question Authority (and stay alive)

We each have had the desire at times to confront our leaders, be they religious or political, and question their actions.  The skill of questioning authority can mean the difference between holiness and sacrilege.

The weekly Torah reading is named for Korach, a prince among the people who stood as an accuser against leaders Moses and Aharon. Korach reproaches Moses of taking on too much, arguing that everyone is holy, and offering that God dwells among all of the people. Up to this point, Korach has made valid observations. Korach’s next question is his undoing. He asks Moses and Aharon, “why do you lift yourselves above the rest of God’s people?” He insinuates that they are pursuing excessive power. Korach is not merely wrong, but will ultimately found to be blasphemous.

Moses’ reaction is to fall upon his face, perhaps a demonstration of his well-known humility. Yet, Moses’ verbal response is not that Korach has wrongly accused Moses but rather that Korach has gathered his minions against God. In a dramatic trial by fire pan, not only incense but Korach’s entire band are consumed.  

Were this not the Torah, and were the actor not Moses, would we feel some discomfort with a claim that a leadership challenge is actually an affront to God?  In our times, we’ve been witness to political advocacy claiming legitimacy from religious belief and errant religious leaders hiding behind ecclesiastical authority. So, we might recoil at hearing Moses protect his leadership by painting the accusation as an affront to God. Rather than reject Moses’ rejoinder on this basis, we can find another lesson.

Korach’s story is not a warning to refrain from challenging leadership. The story contains too much nuance to be mistaken for a simple admonition. Rather, this is a cautionary tale about how one speaks to authority. We are reminded of Leviticus 19:17, rebuke your neighbor but do not bear any sin thereby. Questioning authority is a very Jewish impulse. The issue is how we speak. If all are holy, and all can be a container for God’s presence, then we have the responsibility to speak in a lashon kodesh, holy language, and speak as if we truly are worthy of God dwelling among us.

The accusation of Moses lifting himself above the rest becomes blasphemous when understood as an accusation not worthy of the holiness we are given or of God’s dwelling among us.  The upshot is that a would-be accuser should consider that a wrongheaded public accusation against a leader could be as fallacious as denying God. Torah has some suggestions to follow.  First, stay close to the facts.  Second, a public rebuke demands a higher level of scrutiny.  Third, don’t debase anyone with unfounded accusations because that is akin to un-Godly behavior.  

Rabbi Evan J. Krame