Korach, The National Week of Conversation, Antisemitism, and Us

 In Contemporary Life, Torah

Korach, The National Week of Conversation, Antisemitism, and Us

Rabbi Bonnie Koppell

 

This week’s parsha is named for Korach, who, in my humble opinion is one of the people in the Torah who gets a bad rap.  What did Korach do that was so terrible?  He challenged Moses’ authority, wondering who put Moses in charge and why leadership is not shared more with the community? I feel for Moses, who gets nothing but complaints during his forty years of service.  And yet- Korach ends up swallowed by an earthquake for the sheer sin of disagreement and questioning authority.  A missed opportunity to engage with someone who had a different perspective.

It sounds all too familiar.  This Sunday we enter a week called America Talks:  The National Week of Conversation, and we have never needed it more.  Pearce Godwin, founder of the Listen First Project, writes about “toxic polarization,” and our Torah portion is a lesson in exactly how toxic it can become when we can’t figure out how to communicate about our differences.  No one knows this better than Congressional Representative Gabby Giffords, who says that “solving our profound challenges . . . is impossible to do in a diverse country without crossing lines of difference.”[1]  Here at Temple Chai, we are working hard to listen to each other with respect and care.

Godwin cites 4 reasons for people’s refusal to engage, what he calls “the 4 ds.” There are those who suffer from the delusion that the other side will just disappear, those who abandon hope and believe that we are doomed, those who have just isolated themselves and duck responsibility, and those who plan to leave the country- that is, to dash out.

More than any other mitzvah in the Torah, we are commanded to care for, reach out to, and love those who are different. To open our hearts and minds to those who are outsiders, to those with whom we disagree.  Imagine if Korach and Moses had been able to share a civil conversation about their issues?

As a Jewish community, we face a dramatic resurgence in antisemitism.   The recent war between Israel and Hamas exacerbated the issue, but the truth is that antisemitism has been on an upswing for quite some time.  Last year Gary Rosenblatt, editor of The Jewish Week, posed the question, “Is It Still Safe to Be a Jew in America?”[2]  How is it that those who hate us are unable to enter into civil conversation about their disagreements and misunderstandings with the Jewish people?  Increased violence is surely not the way to resolve conflict.

We are less than 3% of the US population, and yet the targets of the majority of hate crimes.  If we are feeling vulnerable, it is with good reason.  The CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, Jonathan Greenblatt, notes that “more of the millions of Americans holding antisemitic views are feeling emboldened to act on their hate.”

Antisemitism is so prevalent that both the Jewish News and the Arizona Republic have recently published editorials focusing on this phenomenon.  Phil Boas, wrote a major piece on May 30th (2021) entitled, “American Jews Being Subjected to Violence.”  He quotes Steven L. Pease’s assessment that, “If there has been one powerful lesson for Jews over the last 2,000 years, it is to keep your head down. . .When things begin to go badly in war, the economy, or some other maelstrom, Jews were typically the first scapegoat. . .’Be cautious’ is a message Jews have learned well.  Even when things are going well, circumstances can change quickly.”

And just last week our own Jewish News (June 4, 2021) included its own perspective on “Antisemitism in America,” with a long list of recent incidents and a call to pass an antisemitism hate-crime law.  Responding to Rosenblatt’s question, the editors conclude that, “We must do everything we can to make it safe to be a Jew in America.”

Certainly legislation that recognizes and penalizes antisemitism, that uniquely penalizes antisemitism, is a priority.  Yet, as we enter into this National Week of Conversation, perhaps we can be inspired to do more?  Perhaps we can be inspired by this week’s parsha regarding what NOT to do.  Perhaps reaching out and getting to know each other, listening to those who disagree with us, can bring about greater understanding and accord?  Perhaps we can at least agree to disagree in a civil fashion?  It might have worked for Korach and it just might work for us too?

I am not suggesting that we be naïve. Sincere outreach and dialogue cannot mean that we abandon a commitment to our own security.  As Hillel so aptly expressed- “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?”[3]  Yet- it can’t end there, it can’t end, as it did for Korach, with those who disagree with us being swallowed up in the earth.  I pray that none of us wants to live in a world where to there is only one right way to think.  Let’s renew our own respectful engagement with those with whom we disagree, even, maybe especially, with those in our own community, during this National Week of Conversation.

 

[1] Quoted in Godwin, Peter, “We Need to Listen, Talk it Out,” Arizona Republic

[2] The Atlantic, March 2020

[3] Pirke Avot 1:14

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