Robert E. Lee is not Moses

By Rabbi Steven Bayar

This is Rabbi Bayar’s most recent post for Rabbis Without Borders-My Jewish Learning. This post was published on June 28, 2015.

What does the rebellion of Korach against Moses have to do with the Confederate flag? Korach is a close relative of Moses who refuses to acknowledge his leadership. Korach leads a rebellion against Moses and Aaron. Moses challenges Korach to a sacrificial duel: whichever incense offering is accepted by God will indicate who is to lead Israel. In his anger Moses announces that Korach and his followers will be swallowed up by the earth, never to be seen again.

That is exactly what happens. The only artifacts left of Korach’s rebellion are the incense pans. God declares them to be holy and the Israelites are ordered to melt them together to form ornaments for the Tabernacle – as a permanent reminder and symbol of Korach’s rebellion.

As someone raised in the South that does have a hauntingly familiar ring to it. I attended high school in Central Virginia (not Northern Virginia thank you!), where the textbook pictures of the Civil War portrayed men in gray, where we went to school on Lincoln’s birthday (it was that long ago) but were given a holiday on (Robert E.) Lee (Stonewall) Jackson day. The Confederate flag flew as a symbolic remembrance of the War of Northern Aggression.

The question being asked by many today can be reframed in a Jewish way: If Korach’s rebellion was to be remembered for centuries by the incense pans of his aborted attempt at dominance – why can’t the Confederate flag be flown for similar reasons?confederate-flag-722

There is a major difference. Korach’s pans were placed in the holiest place of the victors as a reminder of the rebellion. It was a sobering symbol that people thirst for power in inappropriate ways. The Confederate flag remains a symbol of the vanquished – and is used as a symbol to keep alive the values and practices of slavery and hatred. The flag is divisive and culturally toxic.

It didn’t need to be that way. The flag could have been used as a sobering reminder of what happens when siblings cannot resolve their differences through democratic process. Too many people died for the hatred to be fanned by racist descendants who lack understanding of the issues and use their anger to destroy. If need be let there be one Confederate flag flown in Washington D. C. – at the Lincoln Memorial. All others must come down and with them all other symbols that enable this dynamic to continue.