One Minute Torah – Korach and Democracy

I wish every voter in America would read How Democracies Die, by political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt. I especially wish those with perspectives […]

I wish every voter in America would read How Democracies Die, by political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt. I especially wish those with perspectives different from mine — whether more liberal or more conservative — would read it, and explain to me if and how you think these men have got it wrong.

As Levitsky and Ziblatt explain in their introduction, they “have been colleagues for fifteen years, thinking, writing and teaching students about failures of democracy in other places and times.” Never did they think they would have to turn the analysis on our own country, and ask “Is our democracy in danger?” Until now.

Many democracies, they explain, have at some point faced a would-be authoritarian ascending to power. When that happens, the checks and balances written into the constitution are insufficient protection. Scholars know this, because several democracies with constitutions almost identical to ours have fallen. Rather, every democracy depends on “soft guardrails”, unwritten cultural norms that allow other branches of government to hold a leader in check.

At the heart of each of these norms is a mutual tolerance of political rivals. We may disagree passionately on some of the issues, but on other issues we may find common ground. Even more importantly, in a healthy democracy politicians recognize that though today their party might lose, tomorrow their party might win. They will not use every legal means possible to ensure their own victories. That would be like throwing the game board in the air after losing a round. Rather, they show restraint, recognizing that the shared value of continuing the game is greater than the partisan value of their side’s victory.

Our parshah this week depicts an attempted power grab by a populist leader, Korach, for whom the parshah takes its name.  Korach and his allies do not simply view Moses as a political rival, they treat him as a mortal enemy.  They beset him with ad hominem attacks:

 רַב־לָכֶם֒ כִּ֤י כָל־הָֽעֵדָה֙ כֻּלָּ֣ם קְדֹשִׁ֔ים וּבְתוֹכָ֖ם יְהוָ֑ה וּמַדּ֥וּעַ תִּֽתְנַשְּׂא֖וּ עַל־קְהַ֥ל יְהוָֽה׃

You have too much! For all the community are holy, all of them, and Adonai is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above Adonai’s people? (Numbers 16:3)

When Moses calls to Korach’s allies, Datan and Aviram, to meet him face to face, they refuse to even engage.

Moses responds to his attackers extremism with extremes of his own. He even borrows the other party’s language, quoting them verbatim and throwing it back at them:

רַב־לָכֶ֖ם בְּנֵ֥י לֵוִֽי, You have too much, sons of Levi!  (Numbers 16:7)

Moses calls them out for a public contest, and God comes down forcefully on Moses’s side. The ground opens up, and the dissenters are swallowed inside forever.

In a theocracy, winner-takes-all politics can be successful. But in a democracy, they cannot. Levitsky and Ziblatt document other countries in which opposition parties responded to extremism in kind. In each case, the opposition party’s scorched-earth politics played perfectly into the hands of the would-be authoritarian, and hastened the democracy’s downfall. But in cases when opposition parties showed restraint, and especially when they were able to reach out to political rivals and work together to maintain the soft guardrails, crises have been averted.

How Democracies Die is a sobering read. Its authors believe that our democracy is in danger. So far, the guardrails have held. But they have been weakened over the past two decades, and battered over the past three years. We have survived democratic crises in the past: Watergate, McCarthyism, FDR (attempting to pack the court, taking a third term in office, and the Japanese internment camps), the Civil War and Reconstruction, and the turbulent decades after the American Revolution. But in the case of Reconstruction, a very high price was paid to reestablish political norms. The final chapter of the book, Saving Democracy, offers principles for shoring up our democracy today, without backsliding on the ultimate democratic value of equality for all.

With the Democratic primaries approaching, I hope you will read this book. Encourage others to do so as well. And let our conversations about it be a model for the kind of respectful disagreements that we desperately need from our politicians.

Machloket, the art of dispute, is at the heart of rabbinic tradition, just as it is at the heart of politics. Hillel and Shammai, founders of rabbinic Judaism, were constantly disagreeing, and the Talmud lifts them up as the ideal of scholarly engagement. Theirs was machloket l’shem shamayim, dispute for the sake of heaven, for at the end of the day they remained fond friends. In contrast, the Talmud identifies the dispute of Korach as machloket lo l’shem shamayim, a dispute not for the sake of heaven.  His was not a respectful debate of differences of opinion, but a no holds fight between enemies. The disputes of Hillel and Shammai gave rise to a rich tradition that defines Judaism to this day. The dispute of Korach ended in violence.

As we celebrate this weekend 243 years of American Democracy, let us work and pray for at least another 243 more.  This will require transforming arguments that have become like Korach, back into debates like those of Hillel and Shammai.