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Revolutionary Ideas

06/30/2022 01:16:42 AM


Over three thousand years ago, in words recorded in our portion this week, a bald rebel Levite named Korach, surrounded by 250 of his minions, began a revolution against Moses. Though it was framed in the language of faith, it was also a rebellion against the Torah itself.

Two hundred and forty-six years ago, on July 4th, a group of bewigged rebel colonists created their own revolution. "We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” 

Korach and his cronies, Dathan Aviram, might on the surface seem to be very similar to Jefferson, Madison, and Hamilton. However, one of the key differences between these two groups of rebels was motivation.  Korach was driven by lust for power, by greed. He couldn't stand that he was passed over for higher leadership, and he sought the wealth that came from priestly offerings. Korach wanted the same kind of society, the same type of leadership, only with himself as the new boss. In fact, Korach was something of a counter-revolutionary, seeking to re-install himself as a new Pharaoh. In doing so, Korach was rejecting a newly-received document, the Torah, which was already a revolutionary transformation in the course of human events.

In contrast, America’s founding fathers were also motivated by self-interest but ultimately, they did not want to take the place of King George. At their core, they were rebelling against an old order, and wanted to create a different way of thinking about what a society could be. 

The new way of thinking about humanity, proposed in the Declaration of Independence  and then brought to fuller expression a decade later, in the Constitution and Bill of Rights, was noble in its intent, even if imperfect in its implementation. When the founding fathers said “all men,” they were literal about the “men”, but not about the “all.” As a group, they assumed that women would have no voice in this new democracy, and compromised that some people were doomed to be enslaved. America is still in the process of dealing with those decisions and their after-effects. There have been dozens of changes in the nature of society, of militias and weaponry, of public discourse, press and communication, that they never anticipated.

America's founders initiated a vision of religious freedom, but only within the scope of a few Protestant denominations. They never anticipated that someday their words would be interpreted by a court with a Catholic majority, let alone a Jewish justice. I am quite confident that they had had an inkling of its current makeup, with just one token Protestant, they would have insisted on adding language to prevent it!

Nevertheless, America’s founding fathers created a revolution far beyond the one fought with muskets 240 years ago. They created documents of noble and beautiful intent whose impact extends far beyond the narrow perspective of the original words preserved on parchment. 

In a way, their efforts echo what our tradition already knows about the Torah, a document of  much holier origin than any other document. For indeed, the first chapter of the Torah says that all humans are created in the image of God. Our sages understood that that intent of the Author sometimes demands a reading of the Book that goes beyond, or even against, its plain meaning, and this is reflected in the practice of every stream of Judaism today. There are dozens of examples. The sages tell us that “an eye for an eye” implies just the opposite, monetary compensation, and that the rebellious child is not stoned to death, no matter what Deuteronomy says. The Torah says that on shabbat, there shall be no fire in an Israelite habitation, and yet each week before sundown, shabbat candles are kindled to burn through the evening.

Korach spoke of the holiness of all, but it was a ruse to elevate his own cronies at the expense of all others.  In contrast, both of these truly revolutionary traditions, from 240 years ago, and 3000, share a different common thread. Both traditions share the belief that each human being is created by God, with essential value that cannot be denied or removed by any human interpretation. Both traditions are still vulnerable to the interpretations of those who would seek to read their central texts narrowly, in a way that denies the humanity of other. Our traditions promise that the protestations of Korach will fade to a faint echo, swallowed up by the earthquakes of history, or burned away by the fires of truth, and replaced by truths that, even if God had not revealed them, would still be self-evident.

Fri, December 1 2023 18 Kislev 5784