Thursday, June 26, 2008

Modernity is Hell: Korach and Hobbes

I have plans to go to London in a couple of weeks for the International Milton Symposium. When people ask me about my upcoming academic trip, and I tell them I'll be speaking about 'Milton and Hobbes,' they gently correct me: 'you mean, "Calvin and Hobbes"'? No, it's not early senility, and not a slip of the tongue, and not a Bill Watterson spin-off, and not a tiger and a boy, but the poet, John Milton, and the philosopher, Thomas Hobbes. So, given my current scholarly interests and the time of year, I've been thinking a lot about Hobbes, and his predecessor in the desert, Korach. I'm picturing some of my graduate students now giving a collective eye-roll, and saying to themselves: 'there you go again Kolbrener, yoking the most heterogenous ideas by violence together!' Korach and Hobbes: p-lease...! And yet...

I sometimes wonder about interesting historical figures to have at my shabbos table (a strange thought, i know); I think Hobbes would be a great candidate--though he would probably scare the children. He scares me! Hobbes, the first philosopher of modernity, saw a world--or maybe he helped invent it--of only bodies, just an interacting 'motion of limbs.' Though Hobbes devotes half of his book to discussions of religion, he allows no place for spirituality among those limbs: there's just the physical world, nothing divine. Out of Hobbes's universe of only physical bodies and their conflicting desires comes the need for the Leviathan--who through his 'rule by the sword' provides the only barrier to endless war, and the life of man which he describes (so very cheerfully!) as "nasty, brutish and short." In a world without spirit or common rationality, there are only competing political interests: she may dress up her interests in certain value systems and beliefs; and he in others, but everything always boils down to politics and interest. The sensible person (ie Hobbes) will say: in such a world of warring passions and interests, the best thing to do is to give into the authoritative and authoritarian Leviathan, and just let him keep the peace. In a world without anything else holding people together, raw authority holds sway. It's all power.

Enter Korach, the Leviathan of the desert. Korach questions Moses's authority, Moses--the most humble of all men, G-d's true prophet. And how does he challenge Moses? He says: 'You are a politician! you've set up your brother Aharon in a cushy position as High Priest; your nephew as next in line; and you take the leadership position for yourself! You're running a corrupt government based upon protexia (for non-Israelis, nepotism); and you benefit the most!' As a way of winning favor, Korach then morphs into Spinoza and says, 'we are all holy, Moses; not just you; spread some of the power around.' (I admit I'm being overly academic here, but for those not in the know, Spinoza was the seventeenth century philosopher--an honest to goodness heretic--who made possible the scene, centuries later, of Shirley MacLaine on an East Hampton Beach, shouting, "I am God!"). Korach doesn't believe in Torah min Ha'shmayim--Torah from Heaven: Korach 'deconstructs' Moses's actions, and finds their true meaning: 'It's your doing Moses!; your Torah keeps you in control!; your Torah reflects your preferences; you don't like cheeseburger's Moses; you are of the levitical class and like the day of rest; that's why you gave us this Torah of yours!' All Korach sees is his own desire for power, so he can't see anything else (everyone, I think, knows someone like this). So even in Moses, the spiritual man par excellence, he only sees politics and power.

Our sages tell us that there are two kinds of dispute, one for the sake of Heaven, represented in the dispute of Hillel and Shammai; the other of Korach and his followers. The dispute of Hillel and Shammai is beloved by G-d, because each are engaged and committed to bringing to light aspects of the Torah. And though they disagree--and sometimes say opposite things--they are united through their love and learning of the Torah. Here, we return to the mystical power of the number three. For two are transformed into one through the point that brings them together. In this way, as the Maharal puts it, three is at once less and greater than two. Jewish algebra: three unites into the number numerically less than two (one); but one is superior to two for representing unity. Hillel and Shammai are united in their disagreement (having a meaningful disagreement is hard to do!)--through the Torah.

Korach however is forever stuck in the world of two. He is not paired with Moses, but with his fellow politicians, the company of two hundred and fifty men who follow him to their death. Korach pursues not the unity which comes from dispute in the name of heaven, but the dispute of politics and division. The dispute which Korach pursues was created on the second day of creation, the day the waters above and below were separated (a cosmic division)--the only one of the six days of creation which G-d does not call 'good.' It is also the day, our sages tell us, when gehinom--hell--was created. Hell is the day of division without the hope of coming together, of separation and absence, a vacuum filled up only with the warring desires of men whose lives are 'nasty, brutish and short.' And so Korach projects a world based upon his own selfish desires and political machinations. But as Korach and his followers sink into the abyss of the fiery earth that swallows them, the rest of the people of Israel cry out, 'Moshe Emes, v'Toraso Emes,' 'Moses is True and his Torah is True!' The Torah of Moses makes possible a world where the division of two turns into the unity of three!

Hobbes describes a modern world in which many of us still live, a world without anything to unify but power, a world of politics and faction, self-interest and endless division. Korach's dispute provides a legacy for Hobbes which he gives to the modern world: Hell.

5 comments:

Yaakov A. Mascetti said...

Well, Bill, it's just a pity you didn't mention here Milton's Satan - he speaks the Hobbesean language of separation and individualism, is self-centered and his "rebellious head" is the sole realm in which he moves and acts. I enjoyed reading the post, although I really have to tell you that the groups that are mostly pro-separation and pro-isolation today are those who shout out "Mi le-H elai!" - meaning, those who claim that they have the true interpretational key to the Torah are those who separate themselves from the rest of the people. And the reason for this separation - we saw it yesterday too in Gan Hapaamon and in Kikar Hashabat -- is always the same: there is the urge to separate the pure from the impure, the true from the fake, the authentic from the imitation. So, yeah, Korach is one hell (!) of a politician, but so are those who, today, shout out "Mi le-H' Elai!" Where there is no space for brotherhood and "arevut ze la-ze," there is only power, imposition and brutishness... Hobbes is not the ultimate secular thinker of modernity, and modernity is definitely not hell - he was a pragmatic thinker, one who intended to delineate the "mechanical" workings of the world. You are the one who taught us, way back in 2000, of the "spring" that initiates movement in his automata, that mysterious internal force that drives the machine he describes in the foreword to his Leviathan, no? To make Hobbes and Korach the anti-heroes of a non-spiritual world is, I think, just not right. Korach is, sadly, an archetype of a need to separate, to divide - that I agree with. But that separationism is to be found everywhere today - in those who live in a mechanical world and in those who live in a world impregnated with spiritual meaning. Thanks for the thought-provoking post!

Anonymous said...

לדעתי, גיבורה של פרשת קורח הוא משה. לעומת הקנאה ורדיפת הכבוד שמפגין קורח, משה ענו ובורח ממחלוקת. אומר האור החיים הקדוש על הפסוק: "ויקום משה וילך אל דתן ואבירם" - "קימה היתה לו במה שהלך לדתן ולאבירם אשר חרפוהו ולא רצו לבוא אצלו והשפיל עצמו הוא והלך אצלהם.." ומוסיף הרב גרילק במאמר על קורח ומביא את דברי האמורא ריש לקיש, שלדעתו הליכה זו של משה רבינו לדתן ולאבירם היתה מצד הדין וההלכה ואם לא היה הולך היה נחשב למחזיק מחלוקת קורח ועדתו.
בין אם הליכתו היתה מצד הדין ובין אם הליכתו נעשתה לפנים משורת הדין, לפנינו אדם ענק שבענקים שהתנהגותו בשעת משבר ראויה לדעתי ללימוד.

Lindsey Shapiro said...

It seems to me that not only does Korach fail to see anything beyond Moshe's political power, but that his spiritual deficiency prevents him from seeing "beyond" the material world in general. His questioning of Moshe's position and those of other family members reveals an inability to accept that so much of Torah is concelaed. Sometimes we have to sensitize ourselves to the hidden messages that Hashem is sending us: at others, understanding is accepting that we can't understand. Korach has no conception of this and ,therefore, continues to relentlessly insist on answers that will neatly conceptualize his world. In the political, totalitarian world of Hobbes everything is certain. On the other hand, a life according to Torah almost obligates one ( and there is a certain oxymoronic irony here)to endure the tenuous nature of the spiritual life. Indeed, Emmanuel Levinas, the Jewish and French philosopher suggests that Moshe's speech impediment enables him to lead with humility. Complete articualtion of ideas is arrested in favor of openness and infinte understandings of the "beyond". Taking responsibilty for myself, my family and ultimately my people is a function of this kind of humility in which full control is surrendered to Hashem. This may explain Korach's punishment- a swallowing up by the underworld- albeit physical, but neverthleless, beyond the visible, material world we think we know.

mikeyboy said...

Hobbes sounds kind of like Seneca, who put a Stoic veneer over kowtowing to autocracy in the early Roman empire. Bill, this is an awesome blog...I'm going to send the link to my husband and his family, my brother- and sister-in-law, and my father-in-law...an assemblage of frum Jews, Harvard graduates, and retired Air Force colonels (you can guess which are which).

Tr8erGirl said...

Nu.....................