Join our email list

Critiquing Power

The following is a transcript of Episode 2 of the TEXTing Podcast. Note: This is a lightly edited transcript of a conversation, please excuse any errors.

Elana: Welcome to texting, where we consider issues relevant to Jewish life through the lens of classical and modern Torah texts. I’m your host, Elana Stein Hain. Texting is generously sponsored by the Walder Charitable Fund and Micah Philanthropies. If you’d like to follow along with today’s text, you can find the link to our source sheet in the episode description.

Since October 7th, people trying to understand the rise, or maybe just the acceptability of left-wing antisemitism have laid responsibility for it at the feet of an important progressive narrative, that society should be viewed as a struggle between the oppressor and the oppressed. While those perceived as powerless are always victims, those perceived as powerful are always perpetrators. 

And truly the right has its own version of critiquing power too. Its language and its concept are less about oppressor and oppressed and more about the elite versus the people, a more populist notion. 

So these are the waters that we’re swimming in. The critique of the elite or of power or of hierarchy and the strength of narratives about them that we use to interpret the world around us. But does this rigid understanding limit our ability to relate to power in constructive ways?

Today we’re going to learn a rabbinic text that examines this question while offering a more sophisticated reductionist assumptions. It’s the rabbinic expansion of the biblical story of Korach and his entourage. Those are the people who critique Moshe and Aaron’s leadership in Bamidbar chapter 16. But more on that later. 

My chavruta this week for thinking about these issues is Rabbi Yonah Hain. Yonah is a faculty member at Hartman, and he’s been the campus rabbi at Columbia University for over 17 years. Having taught advanced Talmud for decades, that means since his teens, he’s currently working on his doctorate in rabbinics. And yes, we are related by marriage. Our marriage. And he’s one of my favorite people to learn with. Welcome, Yonah.

Yonah: Thanks for having me, Elana. 

Elana: Do you wanna tell everybody, before we even introduce what the text is that we’re learning, how we got here?

Yonah: Sure. It’s a typical Friday night, our kiddos went to bed, and your favorite thing to do on Shabbat is to learn some Torah. And you said to me, I’m working on TEXTing and the pod, do you wanna learn this gemara with me? And we started reading the Gemara, studying this passage that we’re going to do, and pretty early on you realized that it was popping in a certain way, and you said, all right, all right, enough, enough, enough. Let’s save it for the podcast. Let’s save it for TEXTing. 

Elana: Just love it. Just love it. I mean, we also play games, you know, card games, Monopoly Deal. We don’t just learn Torah, but we are very blessed to have that kind of chavruta-ship, if you might call it. 

So just to let everybody know, what we’re gonna do today is we’re gonna look at a Talmudic passage about the biblical figure Korach and the people in his entourage. Just to remind people in the Torah, and we’re talking about Numbers, chapter 16. Korach appears as a figure who challenges the hierarchy of Moshe, Aaron, and the whole priestly class. Their elitism, their power over others, he argues, erases the importance of the average Israelite, as he says, for all of the congregation is holy. “Ki kol haedah, kulam kedoshim.” 

So the Talmud in Tractate Sanhedrin, page 109B, expands and expounds on the story. And what’s so interesting actually for a married couple to be studying this on air is that it chooses to look at two characters who are not named in the biblical text at all. It presents the story of the wife of Korach, and the wife of Korach’s erstwhile partner, On, the son of Pelet. He’s someone who appears at the beginning of the biblical story of rebellion, but then he disappears, and the Talmud credits — or blames — these two women and their respective arguments to their husbands with either causing their downfall or bringing redemption.

So let’s start reading.

Talmud Sanhedrin 109B. Rav says, On the son of Pelet, this is someone who had been Korach’s partner, his wife saved him. She said to him, what is the difference to you? If this one is the master, meaning Moses, you’re still just gonna be a student, and if this one is the master, meaning Korach of his uprising works, you’re still gonna be a student.

Meaning she takes a very pragmatic kind of approach. 

Yonah: You could also wonder if it is actually pragmatic, because I do agree, but I wanna get there with maybe a little bit of a circuitous route. And that is, maybe what she’s saying is, this is all about status. Your rank doesn’t change either way. 

Elana: Yeah, it’s kind of, when I look at it, I think to myself, she’s essentially saying to him, you guys think that your uprising is about making everybody equal and the same, and I think she’s basically saying, I, I don’t think it’s possible,

Yonah: Thinking about the fact that it’s our rabbinic tradition sharing this story, our rabbinic tradition was pretty invested in the teacher-student relationship, right? The language in the original is the Rabah and Talmidah relationship.

And I think coming from a rabbinic tradition, it actually almost points, to me, it points us in the direction that On the son of Pelet’s counterpart is being pragmatic, because otherwise it makes a big difference whether or not you study with Moshe or you study with Korach. You serve Moses, you serve Korach.

Elana: Yeah, but I just wanna point out it, she’s not caring about the content. She’s only appealing to his concern of, well, oh you’re right, someone else is gonna be above me. And meaning it’s not, oh, Korach would be better because his content is better. It’s, we don’t care about his content. You, you’re gonna be second tier here, you’re gonna be second tier there. And if you don’t like second tier, I’ve got news for you. You don’t have any other option. Right?

Which is interesting ’cause it is ignoring the content differences. Or at least the perceived content differences from On’s perspective that led him to follow Korach in the first place. Like, it’s kind of ignoring it. All about power, power politics.

So let’s see what On says back to her, right? Because it does give us a little bit of an insight, right? What, what’s Rav trying to do here? He’s trying to build both a psychological and a philosophical portrait, right? Like, what’s the portrait of a person who’s joining a revolution and then kind of stops and is like, wait a minute, I’m not sure where I wanna go here. 

And so On actually says back to his wife, well, oh, what, what should I do? I was part of the planning and I took an oath with these people that I would be with them, right? It’s almost like he doesn’t say no, I, I’m still, you know, loyal to the cause. He doesn’t say, no, you’re wrong, Korach is really going to make me his equal. Or no, you’re wrong, being a student of Kroach is better than being a student of Moses. 

He essentially says, back to power, well, I have no power to change it. I’m now stuck. What am I supposed to do?

Yonah: He’s swayed by Korach and then his spouse. 

Elana: It’s great.

Yonah: And she wins him over and he says, well, now what am I gonna do?

Elana: Well, that’s amazing because it’s like, okay, the most compelling narrative today is what’s bringing me in. So whether Moses is the leader, he’s gonna be the student, or Korach is the leader, he’s gonna be the student, or his wife is the leader, he’s gonna be the student. 

Well, so she comes up with something really quite interesting and creative. She said to him, and this is taking the language that Korach and his group.

Yonah: Yeah, it might actually be worthwhile for folks to spend a minute reading that chapter in Numbers. 

Elana: Yes. Number 16, a hundred percent. Cause she says to him, using the very language that we mentioned in the intro of Korach, saying to Moses and Aaron, hey, we’re all holy. Why are you people getting the highest rank? And she uses holiness in a different way. She says, I know that the entire assembly is holy as it is written for all the assembly is holy. Right? 

Which is quoting the complaint, but she does not mean it as everyone is holy. And therefore, why Moses and Aaron, do you think you’re holier than everybody else and get ranked? She means it in the following way. 

She said to him, sit here, for I will save you. She gave him wine to drink and got him drunk and laid him down inside their tent.

Yonah: So she got rid of him. 

Elana: Right, and what does she do? She sat at the entrance of the tent and exposed her hair. Anyone who saw her when they came to their house stepped back. That’s what she means by everyone is holy. Not everyone here is of equal rank, and therefore, Moses and Aaron, why do you think you’re holier than we are?

But everyone in this congregation is holy in the sense that they will not violate the rules of modesty. When they see a married woman who looks like she may be preparing for bathing, they will run the other way. And it’s interesting that again, she turns their argument of, we are all holy, so we should be equal and have the same things as you, Moses and Aaron into, I know how holy these people are. They have good virtue.

Yonah: So let, let’s try to understand what our rabbis, what their moves are here. We seem to have three constituents here. The On character, On’s spouse character, and then the movement. And the movement is very essential here. Not only because On’s wife uses their terminology, but she is exploiting, or using as leverage, knowing the ins and outs of their movement. So can we play a game? Good guy, bad guy?

Elana: Sure. 

Yonah: Good guy, bad guy, was a game that we would play, or actually a game that our children would play with us back when they were very young and they would read a story and everything had to be black or white. And it’s a good starting point from, I would say, Biblical analysis of characters, but then also, especially when you add the rabbinic lens to try to start with these extremes and then add layers to it. So On: Good guy, bad guy?

Elana: Ah, someone who got swept up.

Yonah: Achashverosh? Fool?

Elana: You know, it’s so funny, Achashverosh, I’m so much more inclined to look at the bad guy, cause he has power. 

Yonah: Right? Right. 

Elana: I mean, he’s, but was he swayed by Haman? 

Yonah: He’s Rabah, he’s never Talmidah. 

Elana: He’s always, he’s always master and he’s never student, even though the truth is, if you look in the scroll of Esther, cause we’re talking about the Purim story, he’s manipulated by Hamman. He gets manipulated all the time. 

Yonah: And through what is he often manipulated?

Elana: His wife.

Yonah: And what substance?

Elana: Getting drunk. Getting drunk. Look, you have a whole legacy here. You have a Biblical legacy here of the woman who protects the man, the man is supposed to be this very strong, has like power, power, but it turns out he needs the woman, who’s viewed as a, more vulnerable in society, to use her power to save him or to change a situation, right?

So you have a famous Biblical story of someone by the name of Yael who sees a foreign general coming by, and she tricks him. And she’s the one who defeats the foreign general. How? By basically bringing him into her house, giving him something to drink, getting him drunk, and then killing him, right? Meaning, the question here of how power is manifest, it’s just all over this part of the story. 

Yonah: So O: Good guy, bad guy? Elana seems to say. Um, what’s the word? Pawn No, there’s a better one.

Elana: Pawn is good. No, pawn is good. 

Yonah: Patsy? Patsy!

Elana: Patsy! Yes, patsy. 

Yonah: That’s what I want. So let’s continue. On’s wife: good guy, bad guy?

Elana: I’m gonna go with, On’s spouse. Good gal. Good gal. But I wanna just be clear, it doesn’t mean that there isn’t a place in the world to think about how power is wielded and whether certain hierarchies are inappropriate or wrong, or it doesn’t mean, right, this whole conversation is not, oh, it’s impossible. You can never critique a leader. You can never think about whether their leadership is being done in the right way. 

But it’s clear that the way that the rabbis are reading this is, they’re reading this as, this is a conversation about whether hierarchy can ever be justified as the possibility of having power, even not in obvious ways. And that it’s not just, you know, you need dimensional in terms of that, right? 

I mean, I would even say, On, as being part of this movement, felt like he was incredibly powerful. And then when she said, and, and when you tell them you don’t wanna be part of it, he says, well, I don’t have the power to do that. Right? So the way that power is negotiated here is really interesting. 

Yonah: So the final constituent group, the movement, the challengers, the rebellion. They are perceived as, let’s presume in this Rabbinic passage as being wrongheaded about their challenging of the leadership of Moses and Aaron, but they are committed to it seem, it seems like a sexual ethic that is considered holy. 

Elana: Correct. Meaning these people are good people. They are good, good, good people. And anybody who looks at them 

Yonah: I don’t know if they’re good people. Just because you have some piety that doesn’t make you good. 

Elana: No, but what I’m saying is that saying that everyone is holy doesn’t mean it’s not empty.

Yonah: Well, what the rabbis are doing is they’re saying it’s not just a demonization of the Korach movement. 

Elana: Correct.

Yonah: It would’ve been much easier to come up with a plan where she got all of them drunk and therefore they left him alone, or some other entrapment.

Elana: Right. And what she says is there’s virtue and this part of the story ends with, in the meantime, while On is drunk, asleep, and nobody’s willing to come to their house to look for him, the assembly of Korach was swallowed into the ground. So he gets saved. You know, when you say wake me up when it’s over, she actually did that for him, which sometimes, you know, I wouldn’t mind that.

There’s a parallel side to the story, right? That was Rav’s story about On’s wife. She seems to be a pragmatist. She seems to recognize multiple versions of power. She seems to be somebody who is not really, I would say she doesn’t really think that the power structures are as linear, nor are they as malleable as you think. It’s, she cares about virtue. And not just positionality, but she also recognizes positionality. 

But now let’s move to Korach’s wife. Now Korach, he’s the guy. He led the rebellion and it didn’t go well, right? Korach’s wife said to him, see what Moses is doing. He’s the king. He appointed his brother to be the high priest and he appointed his brother’s sons to be priests, right? Do you see what Moses does? Power grab? This is nepotism, right? 

And then she continues. This has ramifications. It’s not just empty status, it has financial ramifications. If somebody comes in offering the priestly portion called Terumah, Moses says, let it be for the priest, meaning my brother, my nephews, and more than that, if somebody brings in a tithe, which does actually go to you, Korach, cause you’re a Levite, and the Levites get the tithes, which is great, financial, we’re supporting the Levites, right? Like Korach’s not just any regular guy in the Jewish people, he’s part of the Levite class, right? 

But guess what? If the first tithe comes, which you as the Levites take, you know what Moses says? He says, by the way, Levites, you have to give 1/10th of what we just gave you to the priest.

I mean, insult to injury here, insult to injury. Right? We’re not as important. And even whatever it is that we get, we have to give a little bit, we get taxed, to give a little bit of that to the priest. And then she says one more thing, which I wanna actually push. She also points to not just what’s the status of Moses choosing his family members. Not just the financial repercussions and the insult of the Levites getting their 10th, but then having to give some of it to the priests. 

But she even goes back to the ceremony discussed in Numbers, chapter eight, where there is this incredibly ritualized expression of the holiness of all of the Levites. They go through this ceremony where their hair, all of their hair on their body has to be shaven. They’re presented before the altar. It’s like a very, I would say pomp and circumstance in a way. She doesn’t view it as pomp and circumstance, right? 

She says, and furthermore, he shears your hair and waves you around in front of the altar, as if you are as insignificant as excrement, as though he was jealous of your hair and wanted you to shave it. Right? What do you make of Korach’s wife, who is the instigator?

Yonah: So she has a multi-pronged argument here. But I think it’s also fascinating that the response is not going to be like that of On, where he basically just capitulated and was swayed immediately. Korach challenges. 

Elana: Right. He does challenge, and this is what he says. Korach says, wait, wait, wait, wait, wait, wait, wait, wait. Something doesn’t make sense here. If all the Levites, when we all shaved our bodies, Moses is a Levite also. He’s part of that same tribe. He says, didn’t Moses also shave his body like the rest of the Levites? He says there’s a, he’s like the way, there’s a flaw in your logic. Like if you think it was like something that’s supposed to embarrass us, to shave our bodies and present us before the altar, Moses did it too. 

But she’s got an answer for that too. She said to him, since this is all done for his own prominence anyway, then you know what he figured? And she uses a verse from the book of Judges, so she says, he probably just said to himself, let me die with the Philistines. Meaning he was willing to humiliate himself in order to humiliate you.

Yonah: Yeah, and I think what we see here is the spouse of Korach has an ability and a worldview where she can set forth data points that are seemingly neutral or in this shaving instance, seem to be virtuous and she can pivot them. No, no, no. This is just like the nepotism and just like the corruption. This is him just feigning humility and, you know, lowering himself and slumming it with the rest of you. But he’s scum. 

Elana: Right, t’s like, what do you say, if you’re a hammer, everything’s a nail, right? Meaning she sees what she views as Moses’ corruption, power, politics, nepotism, disrespect — everywhere.

Yonah: And this is what happens with all of our political footballs. 

Elana: Yep.

Yonah: You know, look at how virtuous this was. Are you kidding me? They only did that because of X, hermeneutic of suspicion or of generosity? 

Elana: A hundred percent, right. But then she does something even more interesting, I think, which is, she says, you don’t understand this whole approach of, you know, there’s one small group that gets everything. And the rest of us are left out to dry, or worse yet are exploited for the purpose of that group, and she takes the example of the blue string on the fringes on the tzitzit, which is in Numbers 15, it’s right before this story starts, right? That’s why the rabbis are reading it and she says the following.

“And furthermore, he told you to make only a fringe, only a string of sky blue color. But if sky blue dyes considered something so great, then you should take out robes that are made of entirely sky blue dye, and dress all of the students in your academy in sky blue robes.” 

Meaning, in other words, she says, the same way,he wants to be the most important string he has you, he’s sort of manipulating your mind to think, yes, of course. I have an entire white garment and there’s only one, only one string gets to be blue, right? Moses is the blue string, right? The whole thing should get to be blue. No fair, right? So she’s giving him multiple symbols of the kind of like power critique that she’s offering. It’s actually kind of sophisticated.

Yonah: So what’s interesting is she says, no, no, no, no. I have a different interpretation of Moshe’s intent with regards to the shaving, but furthermore, I have more ammo against him, that he’s into nepotism and corruption, and he has a bad ideology because we should all be the blue dye. 

Elana: Right, and this little section, which is all Rav, right, or all attributed to Rav, is, “This is the meaning of that which is written, and quotes a verse from Proverbs, chapter 14, ‘The wisdom of women builds her house.’” That’s referring to the wife of On son of Pelet. And the end of the verse, “Folly plucks it down with her hands.” This refers to the wife of Korach, right.

Now, and then of course, what you’re looking at are these two people having an argument within their home about how to interpret what’s happening outside of their home.

Yonah: How should we participate with the causes of the day? How should we show up to lead our movement? 

Elana: Yeah, it’s, it’s a really, it’s really quite interesting.

Yonah: And what riles us up? And what saves us from our worst impulses?

Elana: Yes. Now I wanna end by looking at, after this story, there’s a bit more within this passage in the Talmud in Sanhedrin going on to 110A, which I think also connects back to this whole theme of, these things start at home, right? It’s how you are processing the big world out there through your home. And also the suspicion that can’t be undone once you have a narrative about someone or something that is made mostly out of interpretation, right? An unwillingness to actually engage with the issues. And it goes like this. 

“And Moses heard and fell on his face,” in Numbers 16:4, which is what happens, how he reacts to Korach coming and saying, this entire, we are all holy. Why are you, you know, putting yourselves in a more powerful station? And Moses falls on his face. And the rabbis make a big deal of this, cause they’re sort of like, what is it that’s so troubling to him? And especially the “And Moses heard,” and the rabbis read this as, you know, “vayishma,” he heard, as, what was the “shmuah,” what was the rumor or the report that he heard that elicited that kind of reaction from him? 

And Rabbi Shmuel son of Nachmeni says in the name of Rabbi Yonatan, he heard that they suspected him of adultery with a married woman. And then it gives, you know, quotes to back it up. But this I find to be a fascinating coda to this conversation about the wives and the husbands, and when are you suspicious? When are you not suspicious? 

Essentially, the critique of power turned into an utter and in this case, baseless, vilification and assassination of character that could not be proven or disproven because it was simply a rumor gone wild.

Yonah: Yeah. You know, in Moshe’s life he has siblings who are chatting about his marital life, and he has people who are suspecting about his marital life. And there’s certainly a layer to this of ethical accusations and there’s certainly a layer to this of the thanklessness of leadership, but I think there’s also a layer to this that is the irrefutably involved, the helplessness. Moshe’s just overwhelmed. 

Elana: It’s so interesting cause I’m really thinking about, you know, we’re recording this as Israel is defending itself from genocide claims in front of the International Court of Justice, which is something no other country has ever had to do as it is fighting a defensive war against, on a seven front war against openly genocidal groups and that question of refutability, is it refutable? Even if you marshal all the evidence should be if we trust, if we trust

Yonah: Well it’s one of those things where the damage is already done. 

Elana: Right. Once you, once you’ve even suspected it,

Yonah: They never make those claims about me. 

Elana: Right. Does that tar ever come off? Right. Similar to the the hospital, the claim of Israel bombing that hospital at the very beginning of the war. But yeah, I think some of what’s negotiated here, it, it just feels very relevant again, without trying to undermine the reality sometimes of critiques of the way the power is used.

But it does seem that, you know, the difference between those, and I’m thinking about On’s wife, the difference between those who would see power in multiple ways and multiple places, and those who would be suspicious of those who have power, at every turn, like Korach’s wife, wwe have questions about the lenses through which people see the world. And to what degree can those lenses be just absolutist. 

And what’s interesting about these stories, and the way that the rumor mill story kind of closes it up is that in these conversations you have two interlocutors with each other and no one else. Everything they hear is either challenged or explained by one other person. 

What would’ve happened if in the conversation — by the way, with On’s wife also — but certainly with Korach’s wife, what would’ve happened if there had been a third party there to challenge, to talk, to think, right? It really speaks to the question of what’s the company that you keep and are you ever challenged in what you’re thinking? And when you are challenged, do you step back and, and ask yourself. 

And that’s people on different sides of different issues, right? It’s really a question of to what degree are we just holding to our narratives? Because that’s what’s comfortable and that’s how we understand the world. To what degree are we trying to learn it?

Yonah: Yeah, I think that narrative’s term is really the essential takeaway for me, where you have some people who don’t have a narrative constructed and can be swayed by whichever way the tide pulls. And then you have other people like Korach’s wife, who are described as having a narrative, and that confirmation bias dictates how each data point is understood and fashioned to make a worldview. 

Elana: Yeah. And then you have the masses of the world where when you start the rumor, the, once, once the flame is lit, there’s driftwood everywhere.

Yonah: Thanks, Elana. 

Elana: Well, thank you everybody for learning with us, and a special thanks to my chavruta this week, Yonah Hain. TEXTing is produced by Tessa Zitter and our executive producer, Maital Friedman, with production assistance from Tamar Marvin. M Louis Gordon is our senior producer. This episode was mixed by Ben Azevedo at Bear Cave Audio with music provided by Luke Allen.

You can now sponsor an episode of this show. Follow the link in the show notes or visit We will acknowledge your gift on a future episode. We’re always looking for ideas, for texts to learn in future episodes, or for themes that you wanna hear about. So if you have something that you’d like to hear about, or you have comments about this episode, please write us at [email protected].

For more ideas from the Shalom Hartman Institute about what’s unfolding right now, sign up for our newsletter in the show notes and subscribe to this podcast everywhere podcasts are available. See you next time, and thanks for listening.

More on
Join our email list


The End of Policy Substance in Israel Politics