When Is Dissent Healthy and When Damaging?


Turn on the radio these days and you get an earful of the latest election news with the campaigns of President Barack Obama and his Republican challenger Mitt Romney trading barbs on a near-hourly basis.

In this environment of political oversaturation, this week's Torah portion, Korach, provides us with some juicy material to help understand our own role in the complex web of community, leadership and power that makes up any political system — whether it be biblical hierarchy or American democracy. Korach weaves together four rebellion stories, challenging us to ask when dissent is healthy versus when it is damaging.

The Levite Korach and 250 upstanding "men of repute" question Moses' and Aaron's authority: "You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst. Why do you raise yourselves above the Lord's congregation?" Moses responds by devising a test to see whose incense offering is accepted by God. The result? The Lord causes the ground to open up and swallow Korach's people into the earth, while the men offering incense are consumed by fire.

Do the "men of repute" have a legitimate claim, or are they led astray by one man's desire for power? Traditional commentaries side with Moses and Aaron, painting Korach as a power hungry rebel. But the Mishnah also understands that the question posed by the men is a legitimate one. "Why do you [Moses and Aaron] raise yourselves above the Lord's congregation?" Don't the people's opinions, contributions and leadership count, too? Is there room for difference and dissent?

Pirkei Avot 5:17 responds: "Controversy for the sake of heaven will come to fruition, while that which is not for the sake of heaven will not. Controversy for the sake of heaven: that of Hillel and Shammai. Controversy not for the sake of heaven: that of Korach." Controversy and debate are the cornerstones of the rabbinic system, exemplified by the two rabbis Hillel and Shammai who famously disagreed on many matters. Their disagreements were for the sake of reaching a greater truth. Korach's dissent was for the sake of his own power.

Which brings me back to the election year. America's tradition of debate should serve to strengthen our democracy. Debate gives us opportunity for nuance, transparency and difference of opinion — all foundations of a democratic society. Protest allows minority voices or voices without power to be heard. We have seen this in the protests of the Tea Party and in the protests of Occupy Wall Street. Both widen the range of political discussion in our country. In the best scenario, all this is done for the sake of heaven.

What we must guard against is controversy in the manner of Korach — dissent in order to divide, and in order to further one's own power. This kind of controversy also exists in American institutions; from Congress to political debates, from TV attack ads to protests on the street. If we believe that all the community is holy and therefore we each have something to contribute to the civil discourse, then all must act in a way that reflects this holiness.

It is up to us to try to discern which leaders are acting in holiness, and which for power. Likewise, we must scrutinize when dissent is for the sake of heaven, and when it is divisive and merely to further the dissenter's own power. Korach offers this as a sacred duty, ultimately giving each member of the community responsibility for the whole.

Rabbi Danielle Stillman is a Reconstructionist rabbi and the Hillel adviser at Ursinus College. Email her at: [email protected]



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