Korach was swallowed up by the ground, but his spirit is still alive and well, and in the unlikeliest of places – British and American universities.
Korach was the embodiment of what the Sages called, argument not for the sake of heaven. They contrasted this with the schools of Hillel and Shammai, who argued for the sake of heaven. The difference between them, according to Bartenura, is that argument for the sake of heaven is argument for the sake of truth. Argument not for the sake of heaven is argument for the sake of victory and power, and they are two very different things.
Korach and his followers came from three different groups. Korach was from the tribe of Levi. Datan and Aviram came from the tribe of Reuben. And there were 250 leaders from different tribes. Each had a specific grievance. The 250 leaders resented the fact that leadership roles had been taken from them after the sin of the Golden Calf and given instead to the tribe of Levi. Datan and Aviram felt aggrieved that their tribe – descendants of Jacob’s firstborn – had been given no special status. Moses’ reply to Korach – “Now you are trying to get the priesthood too … Who is Aaron that you should grumble against him?” – makes it clear that Korach wanted to be a Kohen, and probably wanted to be Kohen Gadol, High Priest, in place of Aaron.
The three groups had nothing in common except this, that they wanted to be leaders. Each of them wanted a more senior or prestigious position than they currently held. In a word, they wanted power. This was an argument not for the sake of heaven.
The text gives us a clear picture of how the rebels understood leadership. Their claim against Moses and Aaron was “Why then do you set yourselves above the Lord’s assembly?” Later, Datan and Aviram said to Moses, “And now you also want to lord it over us!”
As a general rule: if you want to understand resentments, listen to what people accuse others of, and you will then know what they themselves want. So for example, for many centuries various empires accused Jews of wanting to dominate the world. Jews have never wanted to dominate the world. Unlike almost any other long-standing civilisation, they never created or sought to create an empire. But the people who levelled this accusation against Jews belonged to empires which were beginning to crumble. They wanted to dominate the world but knew they could not, so they attributed their desire to Jews (in the psychological process known as splitting-and-projection, the single most important phenomenon in understanding antisemitism). That is when they created antisemitic myths, the classic case being the protocols of the Elders of Zion, invented by writers or propagandists in Czarist Russia during the last stages of its decline.
What the rebels wanted was what they attributed to Moses and Aaron, a form of leadership unknown in the Torah and radically incompatible with the value Moses embodied, namely humility. They wanted to “set themselves above” the Lord’s assembly and “lord it over” the people. They wanted power.
What then do you do when you seek not truth but power? You attack not the message but the messenger. You attempt to destroy the standing and credibility of those you oppose. You attempt to de-voice your opponents. That is what Korach and his fellow rebels tried to do.
The explicit way in which they did so was to accuse Moses of setting himself above the congregation, of turning leadership into lordship.
They made other claims, as we can infer from Moses’ response. He said, “I have not taken so much as a donkey from them, nor have I wronged any of them,” implying that they had accused him of abusing his position for personal gain, misappropriating people’s property. He 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,” implying that they had accused him of making up certain instructions or commands, attributing them to God when they were in fact his own idea.
The most egregious instance is the accusation levelled by Datan and Aviram: “Isn’t it enough that you have brought us up out of a land flowing with milk and honey to kill us in the wilderness?” This is a forerunner of those concepts of our time: fake news, alternative facts, and post-truth. These were obvious lies, but they knew that if they said them often enough at the right time, someone would believe them.
There was not the slightest attempt to set out the real issues: a leadership structure that left simmering discontent among the Levites, Reubenites and other tribal chiefs; a generation that had lost all hope of reaching the promised land; and whatever else was troubling the people. There were real problems, but the rebels were not interested in truth. They wanted power.
Their aim, as far as we can judge from the text, was to discredit Moses, damage his credibility, raise doubts among the people as to whether he really was receiving his instructions from God, and so besmirch his character that he would be unable to lead in the future, or at least be forced to capitulate to the rebels’ demands. When you are arguing for the sake of power, truth doesn’t come into it at all.
Argument not for the sake of heaven has resurfaced in our time in the form of the “cancel” or “call-out” culture that uses social media to turn people into non-persons when they are deemed to have committed some wrong – sometimes genuinely so (sexual harassment for example), sometimes merely for going against the moral fashion of the moment. Particularly disturbing has been the growing practice of denying or withdrawing a platform at university to someone whose views are deemed to be offensive to some (often minority) group.
So in March 2020, just before universities were shut down because of the Coronavirus crisis, Oxford University Professor Selina Todd was “no-platformed” by the Oxford International Women’s Festival, at which she had been due to speak. A leading scholar of women’s lives she had been deemed “transphobic,” a charge that she denies. At around the same time the UN Women Oxford UK Society cancelled a talk by former Home Secretary Amber Rudd, an hour before it was due to take place.
In 2019 Cambridge University Divinity School rescinded its offer of a visiting fellowship to Canadian Professor of psychology Jordan Peterson. The Cambridge University Students Union commented, “His work and views are not representative of the student body and as such we do not see his visit as a valuable contribution to the University, but one that works in opposition to the principles of the University.” In other words, we don’t like what he has to say. All three of these, and other such cases in recent years, are shameful and a betrayal of the principles of the University.
They are contemporary instances of arguments not for the sake of heaven. They are about abandoning the search for truth in favour of the pursuit of victory and power. They are about discrediting and devoicing – “cancelling” – an individual. A university is, or should be, the home of argument for the sake of heaven. It is where we go to participate in the collaborative pursuit of truth. We listen to views opposed to our own. We learn to defend our beliefs. Our understanding deepens, and intellectually, we grow. We learn what it means to care for truth. The pursuit of power has its place, but not where knowledge has its home.
That is why the Sages contrasted Korach and his fellow rebels with the schools of Hillel and Shammai:
For three years there was a dispute between the schools of Shammai and Hillel. The former claimed, ‘The law is in agreement with our views,’ and the latter insisted, ‘The law is in agreement with our views.’ Then a Voice from heaven (bat kol) announced, ‘These and those are the words of the living God, but the law is in accordance with the school of Hillel.’
Since both ‘these and those are the words of the living God’, why was the school of Hillel entitled to have the law determined in accordance with their rulings? Because they were kind and modest, they studied both their own rulings and those of the school of Shammai, and they were even so humble as to mention the teachings of the school of Shammai before their own.
This is a beautiful portrait of the rabbinic ideal: we learn by listening to the views of our opponents, at times even before our own. I believe that what is happening at universities, turning the pursuit of truth into the pursuit of power, demonising and no-platforming those with whom people disagree, is the Korach phenomenon of our time, and very dangerous indeed. An old Latin motto says that to secure justice, audi alteram partem, “Listen to the other side.” It is through listening to the other side that we walk the path to truth.
 Mishnah Avot 5:17.
 This is a composite of the views of Ibn Ezra and Ramban.
 See Vamik Volkan, The Need to have Enemies and Allies (1988).
 Babylonian Talmud: Eruvin 13b.
QUESTIONS FOR THE SHABBAT TABLE:
- Are the leaders in your country more similar to Hillel, Shammai, and Moses, or Korach?
- Where can you see arguments in society today that are not “for the sake of heaven”?
- Why is it so important to listen to the other side even when you are sure you are right?
The Family Edition of Covenant & Conversation is an accompanying resource available to download each week from www.RabbiSacks.org/CCFamilyEdition (or via the main Covenant & Conversation email). It helps parents and educators take Rabbi Sacks’ ideas from this essay and make them more accessible for teenagers. Each week, we will include three key questions here for you, from the Family Edition, to spark discussion around your Shabbat table.
For more educational content as well as discussion pointers when answering these questions, please see the Family Edition!