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Holy Dissent

The poet Theodore Roethke wrote “in a dark time the eye begins to see”

This week has been a particularly dark time, here at home, in the Jewish community, and in Israel. What we see is discord, an inability to hear opposing viewpoints, and we see sacred words being used to justify devastating action.

I think of Korach, our rebel with an important cause in this week’s Torah portion, and can’t help but notice the parallels we are experiencing today around issues of dissent, authority, and leadership.

Korach, a Levite himself, along with Dathan and Abiram and 250 representatives from amongst the Israelites organizes to rise up against Moses. With the voice of a community behind him, Korach says to Moses “You’ve gone too far! This community is holy— all of us. Not just you— why do you raise yourself up above these people of God?”

Moses, responding with humility, falls on his face— and effectively, challenges Korach to a spiritual duel: the next morning, he says, we’ll let God decide. God will show us who is holy.

Making one last attempt at diplomacy, Moses urges Dathan and Abiram, Korach’s right hand men to come speak to him- and they refuse, asking “Why should we follow you— who took us out of Egypt, which was truly the land of milk and honey, so that we could follow you around and die in this wilderness?!”

The show down comes with an offering of incense in firepans. Korach and his 250 men with their 250 firepans, and Aaron with his firepan. God makes a clear judgment regarding who is right and who is wrong and metes out a severe punishment: the ground literally opens beneath the feet of this rebel faction, swallowing them up hole, into a fiery pit. Though we find the violence of this story horrifying, in the increasingly polarized world in which we live, many people appear to embrace the definite and immutable judgment displayed in the text.

Reading this story, one might think that rebellion, or dissent is divinely forbidden— certainly, we don’t need to look far beyond the confines of our own Jewish community to see this opinion confirmed.

On this particular Shabbat, I am feeling sympathetic to the case of Korach:

our tradition is clear

that in the divinely ordained authoritarianism of the bible,

Korach’s call for democracy was not wanted.

But if we are to take the words of Torah and apply them to our own lives,

how can we not look to Korach’s dissent with compassion? I want to remark especially on a particular situation that has bubbled to the surface recently.

Over the last weeks, the Jewish news cycle has swelled with stories about If Not Now (INN), a relatively new organization comprised primarily of young people.

INN has gained serious momentum over the last 18 months, attracting legions of young adults to their work.

Their primary goal is also the main stumbling block for most legacy Jewish institutions: INN calls upon the American Jewish community to acknowledge the occupation, and to call it that.

They write on their website:

Today, the Jewish community is faced with a choice. Will we choose a Judaism that supports freedom and dignity for all Israelis and Palestinians, or will we let the leadership of the establishment define our tradition as incompatible with our values?

We will be the generation to transform our community’s support for the occupation into a call for freedom and dignity for all.

Earlier this month, If Not Now published letter signed by more than 100 young Reform Jewish adults, addressed to the attention of URJ President Rabbi Rick Jacobs, and to NFTY.

Most of the signees are former NFTY regional officers, alumni of a URJ camp or other youth program such as Heller High School in Israel, and many of them still work in the URJ at our camps or in synagogues.

The letter responds directly to the URJ’s statements on the US embassy move to Jerusalem, and on the recent violence in Gaza.

It reads:

“Growing up in the Reform Movement, we have been taught that Judaism and social justice are deeply intertwined, and we have taken pride in the social justice work that we’ve done in Jewish spaces.”

It continues…

“We know the power of our community to mobilize around important issues, but we also have seen the ways that our progressive values get checked at the door when it comes to Israel/Palestine….]

You may be unsurprised to learn that this letter, and other recent organizing efforts by If Not Now has been met with strong resistance from the movements and institutions that they are working to address; the Moses’ and Aarons’ of our own generation if you will.

Their voices are seen as a threat to the well protected and constructed narrative around Israel that the mainstream American Jewish community has crafted over the last 70 years.

While I do not agree with each and every one of their aims or tactics, I am impressed by the seriousness with which they are trying to move the conversation forward.

What’s more, they are doing exactly what the rabbis, cantors, educators, camp directors and counselors, and NFTY advisors have said they were teaching them to do: to care. To become knowledgeable, to stand up, and to pursue peace.

I think of these young people, now many hundreds in number— former NFTY presidents, URJ camp counselors, alumni of NFTY in Israel and EIE programs, who have signed this letter-

and in them I hear the voice of Korach, and of his followers.

Except now, when I hear their voices, I am forced to look back at our Torah, and wonder if God and Moses got it wrong.

Are we as a people so fearful of dissent, that we must quash it at all costs?

Looking from the example of If Not Now, to the horrors being perpetrated in our own country, and then justified by biblical texts, I believe it is time for us to look to dissent as an act of holiness, and an act of religious obligation.

As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg writes, “The dissenters hope: that they are writing not for today, but for tomorrow”

Dissent is not simply an act of complaint, but an act of change-making.

Looking to the story of Korach, we are reminded that dissent and challenges to authority are quite literally a ‘tale as old of time’.

After Korach and his contingent are swallowed up, God speaks again to Moses and tells him order Eleazar the priest to take their firepans and hammer them into the altar of the Mishkan. The text tells us that this is to serve as a warning, but perhaps they become a part of the altar as a way of saying that rebellion, dissent, and questioning will become a constant and often necessary theme in Jewish life.

Tonight, as we join together in prayer, marking the end of a week and entering into Shabbat, I want to invite each one of you to consider this question of dissent: of how we might make the world a more whole, and sacred place through holy dissent.


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