Korach and the Elections (Ideas #109)

A recent survey conducted by the Gutman Institute revealed that 51 per cent of Israelis polled believe that corruption is a necessary tool for an Israeli politician to rise to power. I am not sure what is more tragic: the acceptance of such as a reality by so many Israelis, or the fact that the Jewish people have generated a polity with so much corruption as to bring about such a perception.

Of course, the workings of contemporary democracy are not as obvious as meets the eye. Like any system that allocates power, it can be easily misused. Proper checks and balances notwithstanding, all political systems need to, inter alia, contend with the problem of personal charisma. Charisma gives a politician the possibility of bringing the entire system to its knees. The fall of the Weimar republic as a result of Hitler’s charisma is only the most obvious example.

On one level, Korach teaches the difficulties posed by the charismatic personality. Korach speaks out an appealing vision – he asks why Moshe and Aharon should dominate the Jewish people when all of the people are holy. Indeed, it they were holy enough to stand at Mount Sinai, why couldn’t each person lead themselves? (Moshe himself expresses the wish that the entire Jewish people reach the level of prophecy, but whereas Moshe expresses it as a wish, Korach pretends it is a fact.)

In fact, Moshe’s response to Korach gives us a strong indication that Korach was less than genuine in advancing his populist claim – he proposes a test to see whether Korach and his deputies should be the leaders or whether Moshe and Aharon should be the leaders. Note that the idea implicitly put on the table by Korach, i.e. that each person could rule himself, does not even appear as an option. The fact that Korach and his followers are so willing to accept Moshe’s test shows that, like many “men of the people,” Korach’s claim to represent the Jewish masses was only a self-interested ruse that would merely bring the replacement of one elite by another.   

We don’t know how the story would have ended up had Korach really sought to represent the interest of the people. The Torah does not give a verdict about it - perhaps because it does not believe in the plausibility of such a case. That is to say, for a leader to truly represent the people is no simple matter, since a leader can only speak for the masses if he is literally of them. The problem is that, as soon as he steps out of line to assert leadership, he is no longer one of the masses.

Certainly, history is full of great leaders who have sincerely sought to represent the masses and liberate them from the domination of the various power elites that have run societies in different times and places. Yet, inevitably, they have ended up just replacing one leadership with another.

The problem is that becoming a leader often teaches one that he has the ability to convince others. Even if he starts as a humble man who wants only to advance the group’s interests, he inevitably notices that his charisma has the potential to advance his personal interests. Moreover, the potential rewards are almost as limitless as what other people can do for him. As such, it may be no coincidence that these seducers of the masses are often found out to be seducers of women as well.

True, charisma can be used for good ends. Still, the will to completely avoid the temptations available by the misuse of charisma is extremely rare.

In several Western nations, there has been a recent debate about the relevance of a political candidate’s religiosity and moral fiber. Some have argued that a politician’s personal life remains his private affair, so long as he is an able statesman and administrator. To me, such a claim is the epitome of one-dimensional thinking. Many commentators have pointed out that Korach was not a man of small stature and, nonetheless, the temptations of his own charisma seem to have gotten the better of him. How much more so must we be wary of lesser individuals.

As elections are in the air, both in Israel and the United States, I certainly do not recommend that we ignore the candidates’ political views. But perhaps the Torah tells us that we should care at least as much about their moral fiber.