Parshat Korach: Arguments for the Sake of Heaven

The Korach rebellion was the worst of many in the wilderness years. It involved senior figures – Korach himself, a member of Moses’ tribe, together with leading Reubenites, and 250 others, “well known community leaders.” So grave was it that it became, for the sages, a paradigm of the wrong kind of disagreement:

Every argument for the sake of heaven will in the end be of permanent value, but every argument not for the sake of heaven will not endure. Which is an argument for the sake of heaven? The argument between Hillel and Shammai. Which is an argument not for the sake of heaven? The argument of Korach and his company.

Meiri explains this teaching in the following terms:

The arguments between Hillel and Shammai: In their debates, one of them would render a decision and the other would argue against it, out of a desire to discover the truth, not out of cantankerousness or a wish to prevail over his fellow. That is why when he was right, the words of the person who disagreed, endured. An argument not for the sake of heaven was that of Korach and his company, for they came to undermine Moses, our master, may he rest in peace, and his position, out of envy and contentiousness and ambition for victory.

The sages are here drawing a fundamental distinction between two kinds of conflict: argument for the sake of truth and argument for the sake of victory.

The narrative of the Korach conflict is complex and difficult to disentangle. There were several factions, each with their own grievance. Firstly there was Korach himself. The genealogy given in the opening verse of the sedra – “Korach, son of Yitzhar, son of Kohath, son of Levi” – suggested to the sages the nature of his discontent:

My father was one of four brothers . . . Amram was the firstborn. Of his sons, Aaron was awarded the priesthood and Moses was given kingship. Who is worthy of receiving the next honour if not the second [brother, Yitzhar]? I, Yitzhar’s son should have been made prince of the clan, but instead Moses appointed Elizaphan, son of Uzziel [the fourth and youngest brother]. Should the youngest of father’s brothers be greater than I? I will dispute with him and undo whatever he does.

Korach was aggrieved that he had been passed over when leaders were appointed for the various clans. In Numbers 3: 30 we read that “The leader of the families of the clans of Kohath was Elizaphan, son of Uzziel.” 3 Elizapahan was the youngest of the four sons of Kohath. Korach was the son of Yitzhar, the second eldest of the brothers. Having already felt slighted that his father’s elder brother, Amram, had provided the Israelites with their two supreme leaders, Moses and Aaron, this further rejection was the final insult. He felt humiliated, and was determined to bring Moses and Aaron down.

Frustrated ambition lay behind the involvement of two other groups as well, the Reubenites and the 250 “leaders” from the other tribes. Here is Malbim’s analysis:

“The grievance [of Dathan and Abiram and On ben Peleth] lay in the fact that they belonged to the tribe of Reuben who, as the first born son of Jacob, was entitled to the highest offices of spiritual and political leadership. Instead, they complained, the priesthood and divine service had been given to the tribe of Levi and leadership of the tribes to Judah and Joseph.”

Similarly, the 250 men contended that, as “princes of the assembly, famous in the congregation, men of renown,” they should have been accorded the priesthood. They were against conferring a hereditary title on a tribe, but asserted that individual prestige and distinction should be considered. Ibn Ezra suggests that these 250 rebels were in fact firstborn who considered that the priesthood was their natural prerogative.

Reuben was Jacob’s firstborn, yet his tribe was systematically passed over when it came to leadership roles, leaving its members with a sense of grievance. In the case of the firstborn of other tribes and families, there was a different resentment, namely that after the sin of the Golden Calf the office of priesthood had been taken from the firstborn and passed to the Cohanim of the tribe of Levi.

In short, each of the three groups was motivated by malice, envy and a desire for revenge against the two men, Moses and Aaron, who seemed to have arrogated leadership to themselves, and then arbitrarily distributed it among the people.

The passage must be read this way, because of the glaring discrepancy between the reported words of the rebels, and Moses’ response. Initially the claim they make has a certain moral dignity to it:

They came as a group to oppose Moses and Aaron and said to them, “You have gone too far! The whole community is holy, every one of them, and the LORD is with them. Why then do you set yourselves above the LORD’s assembly?”

On the face of it, they are arguing for complete equality among the people. They are all holy. They have all heard the word of G-d. There should be no distinction of rank, no hierarchy of holiness, within Israel. Did not Moses himself say, on an earlier occasion, “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets”? Yet from Moses’ reply, it is clear that he has heard something altogether different behind their words:

Moses also said to Korah, “Now listen, you Levites! Isn’t it enough for you that the G-d of Israel has separated you from the rest of the Israelite community and brought you near himself to do the work at the LORD’s tabernacle and to stand before the community and minister to them? He has brought you and all your fellow Levites near himself, but now you are trying to get the priesthood too . . .”

The rebels’ rhetoric was pure incitement. They did not mean it, and he knew they did not mean it. Like the Russian revolutionaries in 1917, though they spoke the language of equality, what they wanted was power. This was argument not for the sake of truth but for the sake of victory.

What is extraordinary is the sequence of events that follows. First, for the one and only time in his life, Moses asks for a miracle – indeed stakes his leadership upon it:

Then Moses said, “This is how you will know that the LORD has sent me to do all these things and that it was not my idea: If these men die a natural death and experience only what usually happens to men, then the LORD has not sent me. But if the LORD brings about something totally new, and the earth opens its mouth and swallows them, with everything that belongs to them, and they go down alive into the grave, then you will know that these men have treated the LORD with contempt.”

He is immediately answered:

As soon as he finished saying all this, the ground under them split apart and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them, with their households and all Korah’s men and all their possessions. They went down alive into the grave, with everything they owned; the earth closed over them, and they perished and were gone from the community.
It is impossible to imagine a more dramatic vindication. Korach and his followers have been swallowed up by the ground. G-d has answered Moses and demonstrated that He is with him and against the rebels. Yet this did not end the argument. That is what is extraordinary. Far from being intimidated, cowed, apologetic and repentant, the Israelites return the next morning still complaining – this time, not about who should lead whom but about the way Moses had chosen to end the dispute:

“The next day the whole Israelite community grumbled against Moses and Aaron. “You have killed the LORD’s people,” they said.”

You may be right, they imply, and Korach may have been wrong. But is this a way to win an argument? To cause your opponents to be swallowed up alive? This time, G-d suggests an entirely different way of resolving the dispute:

The LORD said to Moses, “Speak to the Israelites and get twelve staffs from them, one from the leader of each of their ancestral tribes. Write the name of each man on his staff. On the staff of Levi write Aaron’s name, for there must be one staff for the head of each ancestral tribe. Place them in the Tent of Meeting in front of the Testimony, where I meet with you. The staff belonging to the man I choose will sprout, and I will rid myself of this constant grumbling against you by the Israelites.”

So Moses spoke to the Israelites, and their leaders gave him twelve staffs, one for the leader of each of their ancestral tribes, and Aaron’s staff was among them. Moses placed the staffs before the LORD in the Tent of the Testimony.

The next day Moses entered the Tent of the Testimony and saw that Aaron’s staff, which represented the house of Levi, had not only sprouted but had budded, blossomed and produced almonds. Then Moses brought out all the staffs from the LORD’s presence to all the Israelites. They looked at them, and each man took his own staff.

The LORD said to Moses, “Put back Aaron’s staff in front of the Testimony, to be kept as a sign to the rebellious. This will put an end to their grumbling against me, so that they will not die.” Moses did just as the LORD commanded him.

What ends the dispute is not a show of power but something quite different – a demonstration of the gift of G-d to make what is dead come to life again. Aaron’s rod became the symbol of priesthood and of spiritual leadership generally. The priest does not rule the people; he blesses them. He is the conduit through which G-d’s life-giving energies flow. He connects the nation to the Divine presence. What makes a spiritual leader is not ambition but humility. Moses answered Korach in Korach’s terms, by a show of force. G-d answers in His terms, showing that leadership is not self-assertion but self-effacement.

What the entire episode shows is the destructive nature of argument not for the sake of heaven – that is, argument for the sake of victory. In such a conflict what is at stake is not truth but power, and the result is that both sides suffer. If you win, I lose. But if I win, I also lose, because in diminishing you, I diminish myself. Even a Moses is brought low, laying himself open to the charge that “You have killed the Lord’s people.”

The opposite is the case when the argument is for the sake of truth. If I win, I win. But if I lose I also win – because being defeated by the truth is the only form of defeat that is also a victory. There is a magnificent passage in the Talmud that gives expression to this idea:

Shimon the Imsonite – others state, Nehemiah the Imsonite – used to interpret every eth in the Torah, but when he came to the verse You shall fear [eth] the Lord your G-d, he retracted. His disciples said to him: “Master, what is to become of all the ethin you have interpreted?” He replied, “Just as I received reward for the exposition, so I will receive reward for the retraction.” When R. Akiba, however, came, he taught: ‘Thou shalt fear eth the Lord thy G-d’ implies that the scholarly disciples are also to be feared.

Shimon, a contemporary of Rabbi Akiva, held that no word in the Torah is superfluous. What then of the word eth, whose only function is to indicate the object of a verb, but which has no meaning in and of itself? Shimon’s answer was simple. In each case, eth came to include something not explicitly stated in the text. He used this principle successfully in a long series of interpretations – until he came to the command, “You shall fear [eth] the Lord your G-d.” Here, he suddenly realized, the principle broke down. What else could one include in this verse? To place the fear of something else alongside the fear of G-d was surely blasphemy.

Like a true scientist, Shimon realized that a single counter-example refutes a rule. Not only did he admit defeat in this case, but drew the logical conclusion that if the rule was refuted, he would have to retract all other interpretations based on it. In effect, he jettisoned his entire life’s work. [As it happens, his decision was premature. Rabbi Akiva later solved the problem. You shall fear [eth] the Lord your G-d, he said, includes scholars. “The reverence one should have for one’s teachers should be like the reverence one has for G-d himself.”]

Here, almost two thousand years ago, is the first articulation of a principle made famous in the 20th century by the late Sir Karl Popper in his work on scientific methodology, Conjectures and Refutations. A scientific theory, Popper argued, can never be conclusively verified. However many times the sun has risen in the morning, it is always possible that tomorrow it will not. But a scientific theory can be conclusively refuted. Therefore it is refutation that advances scientific knowledge – or as Shimon the Imsonite put it: “Just as I received reward for the exposition, so I will receive reward for the retraction.” To be defeated by the truth is the only defeat that is also a victory.

In another famous passage, the Talmud explains why Jewish law usually follows the view of the school of Hillel as against their opponents, the school of Shammai:

[The law is in accord with the school of Hillel] because they were kindly and modest, because they studied not only their own rulings but also those of the school of Shammai, and because they taught the words of the school of Shammai before their own.

They sought truth, not victory. That is why they listened to the views of their opponents, and indeed taught them before they taught their own traditions. In the eloquent words of a contemporary scientist, Timothy Ferris:

All who genuinely seek to learn, whether atheist or believer, scientist or mystic, are united in having not a faith, but faith itself. Its token is reverence, its habit to respect the eloquence of silence. For G-d’s hand may be a human hand, if you reach out in loving kindness, and G-d’s voice your voice, if you but speak the truth.

Judaism has sometimes been called a “culture of argument.” It is the only religious literature known to me whose key texts – the Hebrew Bible, Midrash, Mishnah, Talmud, the codes of Jewish law and compendia of biblical interpretation – are anthologies of arguments. That is the glory of Judaism. The Divine presence is to be found not in this voice as against that, but in the totality of the conversation. Yet Jewry has been debilitated, time and again in its history, by disagreement, dissension, fractiousness and conflict. That is not its glory but its disgrace.

How can the very attribute that is the virtue of its texts be the vice of its people? The answer lies in the teaching with which we began. It depends on the nature of the argument. Is it, or is it not, “for the sake of heaven”? Is it a battle for truth or for victory? In the battle for truth, both sides win. In the struggle for victory, both sides lose.

The difference is not mysterious or elusive. In an argument for the sake of truth, each side is willing to listen to the views of its opponents and take them seriously. Each uses reason, logic, shared texts and shared reverence for texts. Neither uses ad hominem arguments, abuse, contempt, or disingenuous appeals to emotion. Each is willing, if refuted, to say, “I was wrong.” There is no triumphalism in victory, no anger or anguish in defeat. The story of Korach remains the classic example of how argument can be dishonoured. The schools of Hillel and Shammai remind us that there is another way. “Argument for the sake of heaven” is one of Judaism’s noblest ideals – conflict resolution by honouring both sides of the conflict and by humility in the pursuit of truth.