Detail from "The Death of Korah, Dathan and Abiram" by Gustave Doré, 1865
Detail from "The Death of Korah, Dathan and Abiram" by Gustave Doré, 1865

This week’s Torah portion warns us about demagogues and populism

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The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek in memory of Kenneth Gordon.

Numbers 16:1-18:32

The Book of Numbers doesn’t have as many famous stories or figures in it compared with the earlier books of Genesis and Exodus, but it does have a few gems. 

Take Korach, for example. With some notable exceptions, few individual Israelites stir up as much of a negative association in the Torah as the rebellious Korach, after whom this parashah from the Book of Numbers is named.

In this Torah portion, Korach, an influential figure among the ex-slaves, incites an outright mutiny against the leadership of Moses and Aaron. He argues before the people that Moses in particular has taken on far too much power and authority for himself, that the Israelites as a whole — and as a holy people — are just as entitled to be a part of the decision-making process as Moses is.

Korach, a Levite, along with a number of other prominent Israelites, publicly challenge the leadership of the two brothers. “You have gone too far!” they say. “For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation?” (Numbers 16:3)

At first glance, this challenge does not seem unreasonable. These words appear to paraphrase God’s own previous exhortation to the people of Israel in Leviticus 19:2 (“You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God am holy”). It sounds as if Korach and his followers are simply advocating for a more democratic, egalitarian approach to leadership and community.

But the scene raises an important question: Is Korach an altruistic democrat, trying to wrest power from a small cadre of unelected leaders and place it into the hands of “the people”? Or is he being malicious and manipulative in order to further his own aims and ambitions?

For the rabbis, the answer was the latter.

Some of the grievances of the Israelites were valid. And it’s true that Moses and Aaron were reluctant to share power with others. But in the eyes of our rabbinic sages, Korach was in fact using populist and manipulative language and arguments to incite the masses only so that he could take power himself.

Korach tried to channel all of the smoldering discontent to his own benefit. He didn’t really care about the Israelites. All he cared about was himself.

Populism can be very seductive. Passion and grievance can sway opinions and drive people to voting booths.

He was a demagogue and a politician in the worst sense of the word, a person of ambition who feigned compassion and interest in the condition of others while secretly attempting to advance his own career goals.

That is why he is viewed with such antipathy and contempt in the Torah.

We find echoes of Korach in the politics of our own day across the world. There are a number of current political leaders who practice demagoguery in order to serve themselves and their personal aspirations: Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Viktor Orban, Jair Bolsonaro, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, even Bibi Netanyahu.

Ultimately, these men are focused on the aggrandizement of self rather than the benefit of their society. And they practice their dark political art while utilizing one of the cornerstone techniques of demagogic populism: the demonization of others, including political opponents.

It is emotion and anger, rather than reason, that animate their strategy.

Trump has claimed that refugees and migrants “poison the blood” of the United States and “ordinary” Americans. Netanyahu has argued that those who oppose his policies in Israel and/or in Gaza are somehow “anti-Zionist” and against the security and well-being of the State of Israel.

Populism can be very seductive. Passion and grievance can sway opinions and drive people to voting booths. When a demagogue appeals to nationalism, when he calls those who challenge him “enemies of the people,” it can unlock deep-seated fears and serve as a powerful motivating force for what are, in actuality, selfish objectives.

So how do we avoid the slippery slope between the laudable goal of majority rule and the much more dangerous outcome of demagogic populism?

We must proceed with caution. In their commentaries on and interpretations of the story of Korach, the rabbis make it clear that they were suspicious of charismatic, populist, yet ultimately autocratic leaders. They often wind up leading their people down dark paths.

Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, tells him soon after the Israelites leave Egypt that it is not good for him to rule alone. He suggests that Moses appoint others to help him, a sort of “assembly” of intelligent, mature and morally upright advisers. Moses takes Jethro’s advice, and delegates many of his responsibilities and decision-making to them.

Moses may not have been charismatic and may not have been a populist — his people seem ambivalent about his leadership — but he was wise, selfless and always on his people’s side.

While, as we see in the Torah and today, populism and political disruption can be attractive, they are not necessarily conducive to a just society. It’s relatively easy to erode or destroy democratic systems and institutions. What is much harder is the middle path, leadership that affirms the will of the people yet at the same time directs them toward a greater mission and a higher purpose.

Rabbi Niles Elliot Goldstein
Rabbi Niles Elliot Goldstein

Rabbi Niles Elliot Goldstein is the spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Shalom in Napa Valley and the founding rabbi of the New Shul in New York City. He is also the author or editor of several books including "Gonzo Judaism" and "God at the Edge."