Jefferson and Korach: Is Rebellion "Good for the Jews?"

Discussing Shay’s Rebellion (an armed insurrection by Western Massachusetts farmers) in a 1787 letter to James Madison, Thomas Jefferson wrote:

Malo periculosam, libertatem quam quietam servitutem.  (‘I prefer the tumult of liberty to the quiet of servitude.’)  Even this evil [rebellion] is productive of good. It prevents the degeneracy of government, and nourishes a general attention to the public affairs. I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical.

I thought about Jefferson’s claim that “a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical” while reading this week’s parashah, Korach.  Korach is infamous in Jewish history for his rebellion against Moses, or some would say, against G-d.  And I wondered, how might we evaluate Jefferson’s political theory in light of Jewish history?  Have Jewish rebellions proven to be “a good thing?” 

Here’s a partial list of what we might call “Jewish rebellions” to a greater or lesser degree.  As you read this list, I suggest that you “vote” as whether you consider each to have been “good” or “bad” for the Hebrews/Israelites/Jews.  Feel free to add any other "Jewish rebellions" that occur to you. Then, tally your votes.   

1.    Abraham rebels against accepting his father, Terah’s, idols
2.    Abraham challenges G-d about G-d’s intention to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah
3.    Moses, Aaron, and the Israelites rebel against Pharaoh.  
4.    The Israelites build a “Golden Calf” at Sinai. 
5.    A man gathers wood on Shabbat, contrary to G-d’s/Moses’s instructions. 
6.    Aaron and Miriam challenge Moses’s authority.   
7.    Korach and his followers challenge Moses’s authority. 
8.    Moses calls the Israelites “rebels” and strikes a rock in anger. 
9.    The Northern tribes rebel against Solomon’s son, Rehoboam, leading to separate Jewish kingdoms, Israel and Judah.   
10.    Maccabees rebel against the Syrian Greeks and assimilating Hellenistic Jews.
11.    Jesus – he was a Jew, after all – preaches reforms.  
12.    The Great Revolt against Rome, 66-73 CE. 
13.    The Bar Kochba revolt against Rome, 132-135 CE.
14.    Paul and his followers reject rabbinic Judaism and create Christianity. 
15.    Esther challenges Haman. 
16.    Karaites reject the oral Torah and rabbinic leadership. 
17.    Reform Judaism rejects authority of Jewish law. 
18.    Reconstructionist Judaism rejects existence of Divinity. 
19.    Warsaw Ghetto revolt.  
20.    Armed resistance against the British in Palestine. 
21.    Jews assist blacks in the American Civil Rights protests. 
22.    The Israeli War of Independence.
23.     Settler resistance to forced evacuation of Gaza.  
24.    “Women of the Wall” challenges gender segregation at Kotel.
25.    “Women for the Wall” challenges “Women of the Wall.” 

If you “kept score,” I suspect that your tally is not heavily one-sided.   Even allowing for gross simplification, we probably cannot say that “Jewish rebellions” have been, in the main, clearly “good” or “bad.”  

What we certainly can say is that we have a very long tradition of challenging authority.  Indeed, it can be said that Judaism is inherently subversive because we are bidden to pursue justice.  Since the prevailing authority is generally responsibility for perpetrating, and/or failing to right injustices, we must “subvert” that authority to fulfill our mission.  Undoubtedly, this has been one of the root causes of historical anti-Semitism.  

Moreover, a typical translation of the first verse of Psalm 91 is, “Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.”  But since written Hebrew has no vowels, the letters of the word typically translated “will rest” -- יתלומן -- can also mean “he will complain!”  

This renders the verse “Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High will complain in the shadow of the Almighty.”  It is not only in our nature to be “stiff-necked” and contentious, but, in pursuit of righteousness, our Divinely commanded obligation. 

Obviously, this is not a blanket justification for violence nor wholesale disregard for law and civic responsibilities.  But it does suggest that we should be circumspect in judging “rebellions” that others may regard as the necessary pursuit of justice. 

Jefferson continued:

Unsuccesful rebellions indeed generally establish the incroachments on the rights of the people which have produced them. An observation of this truth should render honest republican governors so mild in their punishment of rebellions, as not to discourage them too much. It is a medecine necessary for the sound health of government.

I hope and pray that no further violent rebellions by Jews will ever be necessary – certainly not in a sovereign Jewish state against Jewish authority -- but should it happen, may the victor’s mercy exceed their harsh judgment. 

Shabbat Shalom from the Negev. 

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