Thursday, June 22, 2017

Disarming the Character Assassin Within - Torah portion Korach

I had the privilege of participating in a "Bibliodrama" this week, led by Yael Unterman. Bibliodrama is an interactive, group role-playing activity involving a Biblical (or other) narrative. Participants take on the perspective of specific people/characters (or even, occasionally, objects) in the text, and in the process they illuminate aspects of the story, and aspects of themselves as projected into the narrative. The result is a sort of improvisational "modern Midrash."

The topic of the Bibliodrama this week was Korach and his rebellion against Moses and Aaron (Numbers 16-17). One of the questions posed toward the end was whether we resonated more with Moses' perspective or with Korach's perspective. Well, any "good" villain in a story will have motivations to which we can relate. And I do relate to Korach's vision of more of a "democratic" system of governance, as he says to Moses and Aaron regarding their leadership:
רַב לָכֶם כִּי כָל הָעֵדָה כֻּלָּם קְדֹשִׁים וּבְתוֹכָם יְ-הוָה
It is excessive for you, because all of the community - all of them - are holy, and YHVH is among them... (Num 16:3)
In other words, why should Moses and Aaron be the ones who lead the people, preside over sacrificial rites, and lord over them with laws? The people of Israel are all equal under YHVH, who is among the entire nation, not just a few privileged individuals. I can hear that argument. I also resonate with the idea of democracy - rule by the people - over aristocratic or dynastic rule. And it is easy to see how rulers throughout the ancient world, claiming their leadership to have divine sponsorship, could exploit that belief in order to exercise absolute control over the people.

That said, I found myself sympathizing even more so with Moses. The reason relates to the remaining words of the above verse:
וּמַדּוּעַ תִּתְנַשְּׂאוּ עַל קְהַל יְ-הוָה
...and why should you lift yourselves above the congregation of YHVH?
This is an accusation. Korach believes that Moses and Aaron made themselves rulers, as opposed to having been selected by YHVH. As I said above, given the Ancient Near Eastern context, where every ruler and his brother considered themselves emissaries of the gods, it would be reasonable, even prudent, to maintain some cynicism about claims of divine appointment. 

What's more, Korach didn't have the benefit of the Torah text in front of him. Yes, we know, from having read the narratives of Exodus, that Moses was approached by YHVH, that he did not want the job, that he came up with one reason after another for why he shouldn't do it, to the point that YHVH became downright angry with him (Ex 4:14). We know the formula repeated countless times, "YHVH spoke to Moses, saying..." We know Moses' frustrations with the people and his misgivings about being their leader. But we are in the privileged position of sitting behind the scenes and having an omniscient, God's-eye-view of the narratives - words, emotions, and interactions to which other people in the story, including Korach, were not privy.

So again, that is another vote of sympathy for Korach. However, it's also one for Moses, whom we know - from our God's-eye-view - is being falsely accused. He and his brother did not "lift themselves" above anyone. Moses took on the job as leader with extreme reluctance, and every step of the way since then has been difficult, fraught with tough decisions, hardships and quarrels. He's had to intervene with YHVH on behalf of the people to keep them from being destroyed. His marital life has suffered for it. And if he had a silver shekel for every gray hair on his head he'd sprouted on account of the supposed "privilege" of being their leader... To then be accused of taking the leadership for his own benefit??

So I very much relate to Moses' exasperation. Not only is he falsely accused, but Korach is clearly a charismatic figure and manages to touch a nerve with people who are likewise unhappy with the status quo. And the fact is, it hasn't exactly been rosy in the desert. Yes, the Sinai theophany was pretty spectacular, but even there the people couldn't bear to hear God's voice. Building the Tabernacle was a positive, feel-good project, but then of course Nadav and Avihu got burnt alive on the day of the inauguration. From hunger to hopelessness to idolatry to rebellion to death by sword, fire and plague, it's been one miserable experience after the next. That also has to be part of Moses' frustration. All these trials and tragedies happened under his watch.

If Korach had simply said that the wilderness journey could be going better, that would be one thing. If he even went so far as to suggest that Moses and Aaron's leadership strategies need fine-tuning, or to disagree with the structure of governance, that too would be within the bounds of reasonable criticism. But to impugn their very character, their motivation as leaders, to suggest that they "lifted themselves" above the nation presumably for no reason other than their desire for power, that they were in the business of taking for themselves rather than tirelessly giving, looking out for the well-being of the people at the expense of their own families, their lives, probably their very sanity at times - that is an entirely different type of criticism. It's not strategic differences. It's not an accusation of error or even negligence. It's the presumption of maleficence, corruption, deliberate self-aggrandizement at others' expense.

My takeaway message is this: There is unfortunately no shortage of corruption in this world. But unless we have actual inside, first-hand knowledge, unless we know for certain, we should not be in the business of accusing people of possessing nefarious motives, of covertly planning to harm others, or even being involved in whatever they do solely for purposes of self-enrichment. Because it's a form of blood libel, character assassination.

To criticize a person for poor judgment, ignorance or incompetence - that is fair game (though preferably done tactfully as opposed to abrasively). But to question someone's character simply because it "appears" or "feels" intuitively right to do so, or because it's "convenient," e.g. it serves a political or ideological agenda - that itself is morally corrupt. Accusing someone of "taking" is itself an act of taking. (Indeed the Torah portion opens, "And Korach took...") It is stealing a person's honor, their good name. I say "stealing" because it is something that rightfully belongs to them and was unjustly wrested away. And yet we do it so casually, so freely.

I'll give a mundane example. I was stuck in traffic one day and noticed the source of the pileup - a man was standing by a car, right there in the middle of the road, engaged in a conversation with the driver for what must have been a full two minutes, with all the other cars just sitting there waiting. How utterly self-centered and inconsiderate! I was nearly at the point of getting out of my car and giving him a piece of my mind... And am I so deeply glad I didn't, because a moment later the man walked around to the back of the car and began pushing it.

I had, in my mind - and nearly to his face - impugned this man's character. It "looked" as if he was completely thoughtless and self-absorbed. But of course the very opposite was true. He was going out of his way to offer another person help. He was actually giving, not taking.

Clearly, the main principle that needs to operate here is dan lechaf zechut, judging people favorably. This is not just a religious platitude. Not knowing how to engage in favorable judgment is in fact the source of so many harmful, unjust accusations - from day-to-day experiences like the above example, to outright conspiracy theorizing and blood libels. To neglect favorable judgment is to ascribe guilt and questionable motives without real evidence, stealing a person's good name. If we think of ourselves as critical thinkers and seekers of justice, if we want to prevent misrepresentations and wrongful accusations from snowballing into intense, prolonged disputes, then the issue of judging favorably and not impugning the character of others ought to be something we make serious efforts at putting into practice.


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