The Egalitarian Impulse in Judaism 

photo montage photographs wall equality population people faces individuals persons korach egalitarian

Was Korach right or wrong when he said, “All the congregation are holy and the Lord is in their midst” (Num. 16:3)? He may have been insincere, disingenuous, and manipulative. But was he speaking the truth? That is a not unimportant question. To what extent is Judaism egalitarian?

Even to ask the question is, in some circles, to risk ridicule. Did Judaism not have its hierarchies? There were Levites and priests and a high priest. There were kings and royal courts. These were not open to everyone. Specifically, they were not open to women. And they were dynastic. They were prerogatives of birth. The priesthood was limited to male descendants of Aaron. The kings, at least in principle, were descendants of David.[1] At least one of these hierarchies, that of the Levites and the priesthood, had already been instituted before the Korach rebellion. Indeed that was one of the events that provoked the rebellion.

So it seems clear that he was wrong. Yet Moses never challenged that particular statement. So – was he wrong, and if so, how?

Nahmanides suggests that Korach was not arguing for egalitarianism in the modern sense of the word. Rather, he was protesting the transfer of priestly and Levitical duties to the tribe of Levi after the sin of the Golden Calf.[2] Until then, that role had gone to the firstborn males in each family and tribe, in memory of the time when God “passed over” the houses of the Israelites during the tenth plague, the killing of the firstborn. Korach was saying not that everyone was equally holy, but rather that the original plan – in which the firstborn were consecrated as holy – was fairer than the system that replaced it. At least that had been a structure in which each family and tribe could feel equal. They were all represented in the service of the Sanctuary. Now all that had gone to just one tribe. That, Korach argued, was incompatible with the spirit of Judaism. Had God not commanded, “Speak to the whole congregation of Israel and say to them: Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy” (Lev. 19:1–2)? That is democratised holiness, distributed throughout the people, the holiness that allows each family and tribe to feel equidistant from God. In transferring priestly functions to a single tribe, Moses was in danger of creating a dynastic elite set apart from the rest of the population.

Yeshayahu Leibowitz argued for a different interpretation.[3] Korach said, “All the congregation are holy.” He was basing himself on Moses’ own words in the command of tzitzit: “You will thus remember and keep all My commandments and be holy to your God” (Num. 15:40). But there is a difference, said Leibowitz, between “are holy” and “be holy.” One is a statement of fact, the other is a command. Think of a class of children whose teacher has told all of them, “Be good.” It would not follow that all of them are good. They are all commanded, but not everyone obeys. Korach was making an elementary mistake in confusing a fact and a command.

There is a third possibility, that the mistake Korach made was in saying “all the congregation are holy [kulam kedoshim]” instead of “all the congregation is holy [kulah kedoshah].” In Judaism, holiness is collective, not individual. A davar shebikedusha, a holy act, like saying the Kedushah in the Reader’s Repetition of the Amidah, requires a quorum of ten adult males, the minimum halachic definition of a community. In fact, this very rule was derived by the Sages from the episode of the spies, ten of whom brought a negative report of the land – the event that, according to Nahmanides, led to the Korach rebellion. In this view Korach made the mistake of thinking that what applies to a community as a whole applies to each of its members – which clearly is not the case. The community is holy but that does not mean that everyone within it has the same level of holiness.

On each of these interpretations Korach was wrong. But in an earlier essay, “A Cloak Entirely Blue,” I argued that in fact Korach was right. His mistake lay not in saying that all the congregation were holy. His mistakes lay in his assertions – first, that a group of people of equal dignity do not need a leader; second, that leaders “set themselves above” those they lead; third, that there was no need to change the structures of holiness after the sin of the Golden Calf. But his opening sentence articulated an important and fundamental truth.

Judaism was the world’s first attempt to create a society of equal dignity under the sovereignty of God. It was the inspiration behind the statement in the American Declaration of Independence that “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal [and] that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” Far from being self-evident, this statement would have been regarded as absurd by the ancient Greeks. Plato believed that that society was divided into three classes – rulers, soldiers, and the masses – who were as different as gold, silver, and brass.[4] Aristotle believed that some people are born to be free, others to be slaves.

To be sure, Korach’s egalitarianism was not the twenty-first-century variety. We should not be anachronistic in attributing to people in the past concepts that did not exist in the past.[5] But he was right in thinking that a profound impulse towards egalitarianism exists at the heart of Judaism.

This has three sources. The first and most famous is the statement in the first chapter of the Torah that God created human beings in His image and likeness. The Sages of the Mishnah were unequivocal in their understanding of this idea:

It was for this reason that man was created singly, to teach you that anyone who destroys a life is considered by Scripture to have destroyed an entire world, and anyone who saves a life is as if he saved an entire world. And also, to promote peace among the creations, that no man would say to his friend, “My ancestors are greater than yours.” And also, so that heretics will not say, “There are many rulers up in heaven.” And also, to express the grandeur of the Holy One, Blessed Be He: For a man strikes many coins from the same die, and all the coins are alike. But the supreme King of kings, the Holy One, Blessed Be He, strikes every man from the die of the first man, and yet no man is quite like his friend. Therefore, every person must say, “For my sake the world was created.”

Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5

This is a remarkable theological statement. It tells us, first, that we are each of infinite value: “an entire world.” Second, we each have the same ancestry; we are all children of Adam and Eve. No one is entitled to say, “My ancestors are greater than yours.” Third, difference does not make a difference. Even someone not in my image – whose colour, culture, caste, or class are unlike mine – is still in God’s image. This, rather than any secular philosophy, is the basis for the ideas of equality, liberty, and justice in the West.[6]

Then there was the covenant at Sinai. The concept of covenant was well known in the ancient Near East. Many such treaties have been preserved. Two things were unique to the covenant at Mount Sinai. The first was that God was one of the partners. The idea that a god, let alone the God, might bind Himself with a moral bond to a people was unknown, almost inconceivable. The second was that the other partners were the people as a whole. All other ancient covenants were between rulers: emperors, pharaohs, heads of state. Time and again the Torah emphasises that the entire people, collectively and individually, gave their assent.[7] Equally the sages went out of their way to suggest that God offered the covenant to the women before the men.[8] Here, according to tradition, women were enfranchised in the most significant decision in Jewish history. When it came to the revelation itself, all the people heard the voice of God. At that moment, Moses had no privileged position. They were all equally recipients of revelation; equally voices in the collective assent; and equally bound by the covenant and its collective responsibility.

The third factor behind the Korach rebellion, I suggest, is the point made by Victor Turner about liminal space – in this case, the wilderness. As we noted earlier, he argued that in liminal space, no-man’s-land, there is community rather than society. The normal structures of hierarchy do not apply. There is intense bonding. Leadership is respected but only so long as people feel that the leader has their interests at heart, that he knows what he is doing, and that he is minimising the risks to the group. So the fact that in the middle of the journey, the holy task of ministering to God was taken from the firstborn of each tribe and handed over to a single tribe was bound to be more inflammatory than had that decision been made before setting out or at a later stage after the conquest of the land.

Korach, in other words, had fundamental principles – humans as the image of God, the entire people as partners to the covenant, and priestly functions distributed throughout all the tribes – on his side, as well as time and place. He was right to suggest that there is a basic egalitarianism at the foundations of Judaism.[9] His mistakes lay elsewhere.[10] Stepping back from the Korach revolt and looking at Tanach and

Jewish history as a whole, we see that hierarchy was introduced into Judaism only in response to crisis. The restriction of priesthood to the sons of Aaron, and of secondary holiness to the Levites, only happened according to the Torah because of the sin of the Golden Calf. Had that not happened, sacred duties would have stayed the prerogative of the firstborn of all the tribes. Monarchy was only introduced after the breakdown of law and order in the last days of the judges.[11] Despite the fact that the Torah contains a command to appoint a king, still God said that in seeking a king the people were “rejecting” Him (I Sam. 8:7). It can be argued that neither monarchy nor the special status of the tribe of Levi and the family of Aaron were part of the original plan.[12] They were responses to human weakness and failure.

Only thus can we understand the direction taken by Judaism in the long period between the return of Ezra and the destruction of the Second Temple. What emerged was, by historical standards, an extraordinarily egalitarian structure, based not on kings and priests but on Torah study and the dignity of Knesset Yisrael, the congregation of Israel as a whole. In place of sacrifices offered by priests came prayer offered by everyone. In place of rule by kings came governance by “the townsfolk” or “the notables” (tuvei ha’ir) – not quite representative democracy but a move in that direction nonetheless.

Above all, though, came the belief that status was conferred by scholarship, Torah study. On this, the rabbis’ remarks were forceful and unambiguous:

With three crowns was Israel crowned…. The crown of priesthood was bestowed on Aaron and his descendants. The crown of kingship was conferred on David and his successors. But the crown of Torah is for all Israel. Whoever wishes, let him come and take it…. A Torah scholar of illegitimate birth takes precedence over an ignorant high priest.

Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Talmud Torah 3:1–2.

Alongside statements like these went the creation of the world’s first system of community-funded, universal education (Bava Batra 21a).

Significantly, the rabbis traced their descent not from kings or priests – the two dynastic roles in Judaism – but to the prophets:

“Moses received the Torah from Sinai and handed it on to Joshua, who handed it on to the elders, the elders to the prophets, and the prophets to the men of the Great Assembly.”

Mishnah Avot 1:1

Prophecy was not a dynasty. It was available to anyone of the right character, dedication, and spirituality. The rabbis also understood that since knowledge is power, and the distribution of power is the central concern of politics, the distribution of knowledge is the single greatest issue affecting the structure of society. It was not on the streets or behind the barricades but in the house of study that the rabbis achieved the revolutionary ideal of a society of equal dignity under the sovereignty of God.

Korach and his fellow rebels were wrong in their attempt to seize power, wrong in their challenge to Moses and Aaron, and wrong in their failure to understand the task of leadership in the wilderness years. They were not good men. But in one respect they were right. All the congregation were holy and the Lord was in their midst. It took more than a thousand years, and several tragedies, before this could become a liveable ideal. But it remains the greatest ever vision of a society under the sovereignty of God.

[1] This rule was systematically broken twice, first when the northern ten tribes seceded after the death of King Solomon, second when kingship was resumed after the victory of the Maccabees against the Seleucids. The Hasmonean kings were not descendants of David.

[2] See Numbers 3:9–45; and Numbers 8:13–20.

[3] Y. Leibowitz, Notes to the Weekly Torah Readings [Hebrew] ( Jerusalem: Akademon, 1988), pp. 96–98.

[4] Plato, The Republic, 415a.

[5] That is one reason why the Torah does not attempt to abolish slavery despite the fact that it surely believes slavery to be inconsistent with human dignity. See on this Rabbi N. L. Rabinovitch, Pathways in Their Hearts [Hebrew] (Jerusalem: Maaliyot, 2015), pp. 38–45.

[6] See Nicholas Wolterstorff, Justice: Rights and Wrongs (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008); Jeremy Waldron, God, Locke, and Equality (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002); Nick Spencer, Freedom and Order: History, Politics and the English Bible (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2011).

[7] Ex. 19:8; 24:3, 24:7.

[8] Mechilta, Parashat Yitro, BaChodesh 2 and Exodus Rabbah, parshat Yitro, 28:2.

[9] See Joshua Berman, Created Equal (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008). This was taken for granted by many of the Christian revolutionaries in the Middle Ages. Famously, John Ball, leader of the Peasants’ Revolt (1381) said, “When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?” The concept of a “priesthood of all believers” was one of the fundamental elements of the Protestant revolt against the Catholic Church.

[10] As noted above.

[11] See I Sam. 8.

[12] On monarchy, see in particular Rabbenu Bachya and Abarbanel to Deut. 17:15. Of course, not everyone agreed. According to Maimonides, monarchy was part of the Divine plan from the outset.

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