Korach 2021: The Pitfalls of Institutional Power

What does our tradition teach us about balancing institutional power and individual will? The stories of Korach, Rabbi Eliezer, and a more recent Jewish communal conflict help us to see the wisdom of our ancestors, and the warnings they gave us.

In this week’s Torah portion, Korach, a Levite, challenges Moses and Aaron’s authority, saying, “For all the community are holy, all of them, and God is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above God’s congregation?” This moment of fracture in the Israelite community tested the boundaries of the balance between individual agency and institutional power in the ancient Israelite community. Moses, rather than relying on his own institutional authority, had God to tell him precisely what to do in this crisis, as he said: “You shall know that God has sent me to do all these deeds, that it was not from my own heart through this: If the rebels die in a normal way, it is not God who has sent me. But if God creates a new thing, and the ground gapes open its mouth and swallows them, you will know that these men have despised God.” Shortly thereafter, an enormous hole opened up and swallowed all those who had rebelled against the authority of Moses and Aaron.

We today do not have the same luxury of direct Divine mandate when it comes to striking the balance between the individual and the communal power structure. But our rabbinic ancestors already experienced this shift. One of my favorite Talmudic stories echoes this very issue. Two rabbis, Yehoshua and Eliezer, argue about whether an oven is kosher for use or not. As proof of his righteousness, Rabbi Eliezer invokes God to perform miracles on his behalf, but ultimately Yehoshua’s opinion is adopted with the support of more rabbis than Eliezer, and quoting the Torah, saying “It is not in heaven,” meaning that these kinds of decisions are in the hands of humanity, not God’s. 

There’s a second act to this story that is much less often told. After the argument, the rabbinic council excommunicates Rabbi Eliezer entirely. Rabbi Eliezer rends his clothes, a traditional Jewish sign of mourning, and immediately a number of miraculous events of natural destruction occur, including a strong storm threatening to capsize the boat of the president of the rabbinical council, Gamliel, who recognizes this as God’s response to his having excommunicated Eliezer. Gamliel apologizes to the Heavens, claiming his actions were for peace, not to exacerbate conflict or increase his own honor, and the storm subsides. Gamliel’s sister, also Rabbi Eliezer’s wife, warns that should Eliezer be left to his own devices, some other form of premature death would come upon Gamliel. Shortly thereafter Gamliel dies suddenly, at the same time that Eliezer is left alone to pray.

Rabbi Eliezer says to his wife: From where did you know that your brother would die? She responded: This is the tradition that I received: All the gates of Heaven are apt to be locked, except for the gates of prayer for victims of verbal mistreatment.

This supernatural death aligns well with the miraculous sinkhole swallowing those who rebelled against Moses and Aaron. It could even be said that it leaves Eliezer vindicated in the eyes of posterity, although he lived out his days disconnected from his community. It is clear in this story that the excommunication and ostracization of Rabbi Eliezer are viewed by both the characters and by God as having been verbal mistreatment. That’s not often how we think of this kind of social conflict, but it provides a clearer perspective as to the way they function. By all of the rabbis banding together against Eliezer, and using their institutional power embodied ultimately in their president Gamliel excommunicating Eliezer, language allowed them to construct a barrier against Eliezer’s participation in their society, to the detriment of all.

Last month, a group of almost 100 rabbinical students, from Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist and non-denominational schools, signed a letter seeking a new approach for American Jews to Israel and Palestine. In it, they write:

”This year, American Jews have been part of a racial reckoning in our community. Our institutions have been reflecting and asking, “How are we complicit with racial violence?” Jewish communities, large and small, have had teach-ins and workshops, held vigils, and commissioned studies. And yet, so many of those same institutions are silent when abuse of power and racist violence erupts in Israel and Palestine. So many of us ignore the day-to-day indignity that the Israeli military and police forces enact on Palestinians, and sit idly by as Israel upholds two separate legal systems for the same region. And, in the same breath, we are shocked by escalations of violence, as though these things are not a part of the same dehumanizing status quo.”

In the aftermath of its publication, many powerful rabbis denounced these students. Some, too, used their institutional power to disenfranchise these up-and-coming leaders of our people-  as a condition of retaining their internships, a few students have been forced to publicly apologize for signing the letter, others have been asked to have their name removed from the letter. A small number lost internships outright. I’ve heard from some of the rabbinical students who signed the letter that they felt abandoned and betrayed by their rabbis and their community.

In this story, I see echoes of rabbi Eliezer and the sages of his time. Eliezer was cast out to mourning, to grief, and to his life being unbearably altered. This, too, has happened for many of the young Jewish leaders who signed this letter. But their story is not yet done. In our story from the Talmud, it was not Eliezer who lost his life, but instead Gamliel, the embodiment of institutional power.

What can we learn from this parallel struggle? Constructing ideological boundaries around community, and enforcing them through a human-made hierarchical power structure, can itself lead to terrible discord and damage. The model we see in our Torah story is a Divine one - one in which God is physically and verbally present to direct the ongoing construction of boundaries via Moses and Aaron. In the Talmud story, God is there - but is overthrown by the will of the rabbinic council and president, to terrible results for all. This story shows us that a middle way is possible.

When institutions are given equal value to humans, the power dynamic inevitably leads to the reduction of human value. Eliezer’s individual opinion, held against the institution, led to a personal devaluation of Eliezer. The rabbinical students’ call for change within the general Jewish institutional world led to a personal devaluation of their individual agency and sense of belonging in community. Our tradition tells us each human life is to be valued as a world unto itself, but does not say the same for institutions. In fact, quite the opposite. We have, again and again, restructured our culture and society, allowing institutions to fall by the wayside in order to maintain respect for the individual. Our very movement, the Reform movement, was founded as one that adopted brand new institutional structures to meet the needs of its day.

The story of Korach shows us the bounds of hierarchical change when the Divine presence dwelt tangibly amongst the Israelites, but the story of Eliezer shows us the bounds of hierarchical power  when humanity comes to be in charge of its own destiny. 

May we learn from this story to treat our institutions as flexible, durable, and finite; remembering that they are not, as humans, created in the Image of God. May we remember institutional power must be wielded carefully, and in defense of our ultimate value - the sacredness of every individual human life, and may we remember that the gates of prayer for the victims of mistreatment remain open. Shabbat shalom.