How did Korach manage to convince people to join his rebellion?
If you look carefully at the parshah, you will find that there is only a single quotation attributed to Korach. He says to Moshe,
“You have taken too much! The entire congregation is Holy and God is within them. So why have you elevated yourselves over the congregation of God?”
What was the root of Korach’s argument?
This was not an uprising of the people against the 1%. Korach and his main followers were themselves the 1%.
He had with him 250 men, all leaders of the congregation. The Torah tells us elsewhere about these leaders.
Did Korach seduce them by promising them power? Unlikely. They were already heads of thousands and ten thousands. There was not much more he could give them.
Did he bribe them with money? Also unlikely. They were described as as anshei emet – men of truth – and sonei batza – men who despise money.
According to Rashi, these were sincere men and Korach persuaded them with words.
Korach’s lone quotation, the line cited above, was the argument that convinced the leaders of Israel to turn on Moshe, the man who had performed miracles before their eyes and freed them from two centuries of Egyptian bondage. We must understand what he was saying.
Korach’s main argument was that the nation should stop following a single leader and start following the wisdom of the crowd.
This is not to be understood as simply as Korach was advocating for democracy. He meant it in the way that author James Suroweiki described in his 2006 book entitled The Wisdom of Crowds
. He argues that the collection of information in large groups results in decisions that are often better than decisions made by individuals. Author Clay Shirky’s book Here Comes Everyone
explores the same theme and relates it to new technologies.
To give an example from the modern Jewish world, a Rabbi recently posted an article reflecting on the 30th yaartzeit of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, the greatest authority on Jewish law in the latter half of the 20th century. In one of the eulogies for Rabbi Feinstein, the speaker lamented that we may never see the rise of a Rabbi who had at his fingertips the vast collection of Jewish texts that Rabbi Feinstein commanded.
Here we are 30 years later, and in fact a Rabbi has risen that has access to even more Jewish sources than Rabbi Feinstein. The Rabbi’s name is Rabbi Google. Today Rabbi Google answers more questions on Jewish law than any Rabbi in history.
Korach’s argument against Moshe was in essence, why are we standing by and watching you, a single individual, channel the word of God? God is within the entire congregation. Surely we can communicate better with God if we channel him through the collective of the entire nation. Why are you insisting that you are superior to The Crowd?
The leaders were persuaded and they joined Korach’s rebellion.
Korach’s argument is more persuasive than ever in the age of the internet. Why should I ask a Rabbi – or for that matter a doctor, a lawyer, or any authority in a given field – when I can just ask Google? Has the internet obviated the need for professionals by giving us instant access to a higher authority?
Google CEO Eric Schmidt believes it has. He predicts that as the internet continues to grow it will eventually develop its own artificial intelligence that will reflect the collective intelligence of the entire world.
The concept of the Wisdom of Crowds is not without its critics. Digital Heretic and author Jaron Lanier articulates the fallacies in Korach’s argument.
One argument against the Wisdom of Crowds is the Crowd will give you the most popular answer. But the most popular answer is not always the most correct answer. The top results in any Google search, whether Jewish, medical, legal or other is not necessarily from the most reliable source.
This past week billionaire real estate mogul and reality star Donald Trump announced his candidacy for president of the United States. In an interview the next day Trump joked that he might ask talk show host Oprah to be his vice president. “Me and Oprah – we would win easily.”
Later he said that he was joking about Oprah, but there is a lot of truth to his joke. Is it inconceivable that Trump and Oprah’s popularity could launch them to the White House? Oprah would probably be the most popular person in the race, but would she be the most prudent choice?
But there is a more subtle critique. One that was highlighted this week by another presidential hopeful, Bernie Sanders.
Bernie Sanders is opposed to Super Pacs that allow billionaires to funnel massive donations towards political candidates. He refuses to take money from Super Pacs. The average donation to his campaign is $42. He has so far raised $8 million.
In an interview this week a reporter asked him how he expects to compete against Hillary Clinton who will raise as much as $2 Billion for this upcoming election?
“That is a good question. But you are not asking about Bernie Sanders. You are really asking if any
person who is not beholden to Billionaires can possibly be elected to higher office in this country. I am going to try my best, but you may be right. It may be too late.”
Sometimes what we are told is the wisdom of Crowds is in reality the wisdom of a few individuals disguised as The Crowd.
Jaron Lanier uses the website Wikipedia to demonstrate this point.
The impression given by Wikipedia is that it is a website that represents the collective wisdom of the world. But the truth is very different.
Wikipedia boasts 500,000,000 unique visitors to the site each month. That means that half a billion people, 1/14th of the world’s population, are getting much of their information from Wikipedia. But where does that information come from? In order to be an editor for Wikipedia you must open an account with them. According to Wikipedia, of the half of a billion people who use the site, only 19 million users have accounts. And it gets worse. Of the 19 million accounts, only 69 thousand are active at least once a month. That means that .0001 percent of Wikipedia users are feeding the content for the rest of the Crowd.
What seems like the Wisdom of The Crowd is really just the wisdom of the few.
According to the Midrash, there was someone at the time of Korach who saw through his argument.
At the beginning of the parshah, Korach had a follower named On Ben Pelet. He appears in the first confrontation against Moshe, but then he disappears and we never see his name mentioned again.
The Midrash tells him it is because he had a wise wife who saved his life.
When he returned home after the initial confrontation, he told his wife all about Korach’s rebellion and presumably about Korach’s argument. But his wife was less than enthusiastic about her husband following a rabble rouser. She asked him, “What do you gain from this? Your position is the same whether Moshe or Korach is in charge.” I imagine he tried to rehash to her all of Korach’s platitudes about the Wisdom of the Crowd, but eventually he conceded to her logic. Because she was right.
The Midrash tells us that he was a billionaire in his time. When he started the rebellion he gave out garments made entirely of techelet threads, the royal blue used for the thread of the tzitzit. He and his followers, at least 250, maybe more, came out wearing these garments arguing figuratively that a whole garment of techelet – the crowd – is preferably to a single thread – Moshe.
But think about that for a second. Today, a single set of four techelet threads for a talit is $70 on tekhelet.com. Can you imagine how much a full garment of Tekhelet must have cost Korach? He spent a fortune funding his campaign. And it wasn’t so that The Crowd could rule. He used his money and his know how to sway the masses, and he was successful even with some of the most influential and intelligent people of his day.
Moshe also saw through Korach’s charade. When the rebellion began Hashem said to Moshe, step aside and let me destroy this people. Moshe, the great leader that he was, once again comes to our defense. This time he argued,
Almighty God, of the spirits of all men, shall one man sin and you be angry at the entire congregation?
Why did Moshe say, “one man sins” if Korach had throngs of followers with him?
Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch explains Moshe’s argument as follows,
You know how easily the minds of the masses can be swayed to wrong ideas by the influence exerted by a single person.
There are many lessons in this week’s parshah. But one of the most important is to be aware of the false God that Korach in his day and Google today present before us. The internet is not an oracle, it is a tool. Understand what it is and how it can be used, for good and for bad.
When Hashem forbade idolatry in the ten commandments He was really saying to us, “Thou shalt think.” He created us with discerning minds and He wants us to use them.
We must always be vigilant to not fall prey to the whims of the masses, or of individuals who claim to represent the masses.
The Wisdom of Crowds is an illusion. But your wisdom is real.
Blessed are you Hashem who gave us His wisdom to flesh and blood.
Hashem did his part by giving wisdom to each of us. Our job is to use it.