Parashat Korach 5781
Rabbi Meir Sendor
Israel’s political system is going through dangerous convulsions at the moment, with some alarming similarities to the recent elections in the United States and to the toxic cancel culture that continues to plague American society. One of the essential skills necessary for a healthy democracy is the ability to disagree with mutual respect and camaraderie, a skill addressed in an important Mishnah in Pirkei Avot:
משנה מסכת אבות פרק ה משנה יז
כל מחלוקת שהיא לשם שמים סופה להתקיים ושאינה לשם שמים אין סופה להתקיים איזו היא מחלוקת שהיא לשם שמים זו מחלוקת הלל ושמאי ושאינה לשם שמים זו מחלוקת קרח וכל עדתו:
Any dispute that is for the sake of Heaven will ultimately endure; that is not for the sake of Heaven will not ultimately endure. What is a dispute that is for the sake of Heaven? This is a dispute between Hillel and Shammai. And not for the sake of Heaven? The dispute of Korach and his congregation.
This Mishnah needs some unpacking. There is asymmetry in the text. The example of a positive dispute names both sides – Hillel and Shammai. But the negative example lists only one side – Korach and his congregation. And how can you distinguish between an argument that is for the sake of Heaven and one that is not? And more generally, we usually think of a dispute as a negative relationship, and unanimous agreement as the ideal. Yet here the Mishnah praises disputes for the sake of Heaven and promises that they will not be resolved.
It’s clear in this week’s parashah that Korach and his congregation are challenging Moshe and Aharon – so why aren’t Moshe and Aharon listed in the Mishnah? The Mishnah is signaling that Korach was not really attempting to argue with Moshe and Aharon, but against them. This argument did not have two sides. Korach and his group confronted them to cancel them. Rabbi Yosef Alashkar in Mirkevet haMishneh notes:
יש כתות שאין כונתם כי אם להתגבר על חבירו, ולנצחו בטענות, ואעפ”י שידע בהם שהם כוזבות. ולכן כל אחד יבקש לסתור דברי חבירו באי זה אופן שיהיה… אמנם המחלקת שאינה לשם שמים, היא מחלקת קרח ועדתו עם משה, שלא היתה כוונתם כי אם לנצחון ולעקור שרש.
There are groups whose only intent is to dominate their colleagues, to win with their arguments even though they know they are false. Therefore they try to destroy the positions of their colleagues in any way they can… Indeed, a dispute that is not for the sake of Heaven is like that of Korach and his congregation against Moshe, for their intent was only to win and to uproot.
This is one sign of a dispute that is not for the sake of Heaven – when one side delegitimizes the other. By contrast, Hillel and Shammai and their respective students argued over serious legal issues – together. Both sides are named, a sign that, despite serious disagreement, each respected the other and their sincere concern for true and the good, for the sake of Heaven.
The motives of the disputants are also essential to determining the moral standing of the argument. Korach frames his argument as on behalf of the people, “the whole congregation, they are all holy, and HaShem is in their midst, so why do you lift yourselves above the congregation of God (Num. 16:3).” The midrashim and commentators see through this populist position as self-serving demagoguery. But even without reading between the lines, it’s clear that Korach is not trying to enlist Moshe and Aharon’s help to address discontent among the people. Rather than persuasive and collaborative, the tone is combative, the antithesis of the holiness and divine inspiration Korach purports to represent.
The Mishnah contrasts the cancel culture of Korach with the way that Hillel and Shammai and their respective students argued. The commentators note that the great sages Hillel and Shammai actually had only a few unresolved arguments over correct halakhic practice, but their students had many serious disagreements over fundamental issues of halakhah (see, e.g., Maimonides, Commentary on the Mishnah, Introduction). The Gemara Yevamot (14b) lists some of those thorny disagreements that dealt with marriage and divorce, which have significant impact on the personal status of individuals and their offspring and their eligibility to marry according to halakhah. Then the Gemara declares that even though they disagreed on these important points, even so:
לא נמנעו ב”ש מלישא נשים מבית הלל, ולא ב”ה מבית שמאי, ללמדך, שחיבה וריעות נוהגים זה בזה, לקיים מה שנאמר: האמת והשלום אהבו;
The school of Shammai did not refrain from marrying women of the school of Hillel, nor the school of Hillel from the school of Shammai, to teach you that they conducted themselves together in love and friendship, to fulfill what is said “love truth and peace (Zekhariah 8:19).”
Arguments for the sake of Heaven combine a cooperative search for truth with mutual trust and peaceful collegiality.
This is also the message of a well-known passage in the Gemara Eruvin (13b):
אמר רבי אבא אמר שמואל: שלש שנים נחלקו בית שמאי ובית הלל, הללו אומרים הלכה כמותנו והללו אומרים הלכה כמותנו. יצאה בת קול ואמרה: אלו ואלו דברי אלהים חיים הן, והלכה כבית הלל. וכי מאחר שאלו ואלו דברי אלהים חיים מפני מה זכו בית הלל לקבוע הלכה כמותן – מפני שנוחין ועלובין היו, ושונין דבריהן ודברי בית שמאי. ולא עוד אלא שמקדימין דברי בית שמאי לדבריהן.
Rabbi Abba said in the name of Shmuel: For three years the school of Shammai and the school of Hillel disagreed, these saying the law is according to us and those saying the law of according to us. A heavenly echo came forth and said “these and those are the words of the Living God, and the halakhah is according to the school of Hillel.” But since these and those are the words of the Living God, for what reason did the school of Hillel merit to have the halakhah set according to them? Because they were gentle and self-effacing and also taught the positions of the school of Shammai. And not only that, they stated the positions of the school of Shammai before their own positions.
Rabbi Abba and Shmuel remind us that the Torah is not narrow human law, it’s the living law of the Living God. Human law and opinion are limited, and we tend to think that there is only one correct answer, one correct opinion. The Torah is the law and truth of God the Infinite, Ein Sof, multidimensional, transcending our small minds and limited perspectives and requiring the combined best efforts of us all to fathom it and fulfill God’s Will in this and all worlds. So even what seem like contradictory opinions can all be necessary for the full understanding of Torah truth.
But if both these positions of Shammai and those positions of Hillel are correct, why, according to the revelation of the heavenly echo, should the decisive halakhah be according to the school of Hillel? The reason given, that the school of Hillel demonstrated respectful etiquette by quoting the opposing positions first, seems extraneous to the veracity of their argument. But in fact this respectfulness is of the very essence of halakhic truth. The Mahara”l in his commentary on Avot, Derekh Hayyim, explains that vigorous debate helps bring to light all aspects of God’s multidimensional halakhah, to broaden and deepen our understanding. This effort has to be cooperative, all positions need to be factored in. Therefore the debate needs to be mutually respectful and include all opinions and positions offered towards the search for the true and the good. Such collegiality and intellectual humility is a sure sign that everyone is working together for the sake of Heaven.
This is why disagreements for the sake of Heaven are promised to endure and not be resolved: all sincere and thoughtful positions are necessary aspects of the full, living truth. This message is expressed in the medium by which the Talmud records halakhah. It doesn’t just give final positions on points of law. Rather, it records arguments upon arguments, bringing all known and all conceivable positions and opinions on each issue, and often not resolving the debate at all. All thoughtful perspectives can help us towards understanding and fulfilling God’s Will in the world.
The ability to argue vigorously over serious issues in friendship and respect is part of our heritage, and a part of the secret of our survival as a people. The intemperate, cancel-culture rhetoric coming from some politicians and religious leaders who should know better is alarming. It’s urgent that we remember the true spirit of our great sages of Torah, that we are all on the same team, with the good of our nation at heart, and by working together our arguments for the sake of Heaven will endure – and, with God’s help, our nation will endure, to discover our true divine destiny in this world.