The Value of Challenging Authority
Growing up in the 60’s and early 70’s, I became politically aware at a very young age. The news was filled with images of demonstrations and anti-war rallies, young people taking to the streets, and people of different faiths and races risking – and sometimes losing – their lives to oppose unfair government policies.
One particularly inspiring 6th grade religious school teacher insisted we apply Jewish values to the issues of the day. I found myself working on a project about police brutality with a classmate who was, and continues to be, an ardent feminist, activist, and outspoken change agent. We became lifelong friends and in my mind’s eye I will forever see her proudly sporting her motto: “Challenge Authority!”
For me, that mandate to speak out against an unacceptable status quo is linked with my understanding of progressive Jewish values. The call to “Challenge Authority!” reminds me of the people who changed the world for the better. I think of the public activism that ended a war and gave me the right to vote at the age of eighteen. I think of the students at Tiananmen Square facing tanks, and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi defying the Burmese authorities. I think of my friend, Joan, who still teaches political ethics to high school students. And I think of the sisterhood women who demanded a role in organized Jewish life, even before they could vote, and who tirelessly challenged the all-male rabbinical club to secure my right be grow up to be a rabbi. In my experience, challenging authority can be a good thing.
So when I read this week’s parashah, Korah, I face cognitive dissonance between these positive images and our biblical tradition, which rejoices in the utter destruction of an entire clan simply because they had the audacity to challenge authority. After demanding that Moses establish a more democratic governance structure, Korah and his followers were swallowed up by the earth and plunged to their death. So too, when Miriam and Aaron challenged Moses, she (but not Aaron) was struck with the plague and exiled from the camp. When Aaron’s sons failed to properly follow protocol, they, too, were struck down. OK, so it was God’s authority that was being challenged in these cases… but doesn’t this seem a bit extreme?
As we all know, ‘history is told by the victor.’ So, those who challenged authority and won are deemed heroes, while those who challenged authority and lost are deemed fools. Think of the Maccabees, whose rebellion was victorious and are celebrated as heroes, as opposed to Korah, who led a failed insurgency and is vilified. Yet, how do we know that under Korah’s leadership things wouldn’t have been better? Maybe women could have spoken up without suffering the plague. Maybe our ancestors would have found the Promised Land a little sooner. Or perhaps the Israelites would have starved to death in the wilderness or been destroyed by Amalek. There is no way to know what might have been. But I can’t help wondering if Korah’s act of challenging authority deserved the punishment he received.
It troubles me that we read this parashah as a cautionary tale to do as we are told or face the wrath of God. Moses clearly made some mistakes during his tenure, so on what basis would we not question him or any other leader? “Because I said so” was not a very effective argument for my parents when I was growing up, and “because God said so” does not fare much better for me today. So, despite the lesson of this week’s parashah, I’ll continue to ‘challenge authority’ when it seems the right thing to do, and let history be the judge. Right on, sisters!