Between the Lines—Korah

Weekly Midrash Learning with Rabbi Andy Shugerman

Mishnah Avot 5:17 (5:19 in Siddur Sim Shalom)

כל מחלוקת שהיא לשם שמים. סופה להתקים. ושאינה לשם שמים. אין סופה להתקים. איזו היא מחלוקת שהיא לשם שמים. זו מחלוקת הלל ושמאי. ושאינה לשם שמים. זו מחלוקת קורח וכל עדתו

Any controversy for heaven's sake will have enduring value, but a controversy not for heaven's sake will not have enduring value. Which [kind of dispute] is a controversy for heaven's sake? The debates between [the schools of] Hillel and Shammai. [Which kind of dispute is a controversy] not for heaven's sake? The rebellion of Korah and his associates.

Can we as Jews agree to disagree? That generally depends on the matter of disagreement, but there is great truth within the old joke that consulting two Jews will produce at least three different opinions. We have taken great pride in the dynamism of our discourse, embracing our ability to support competing viewpoints especially because we also recognize that limits on acceptable dissent do exist. Recent trends in Israel and the Diaspora have proven that we need to revisit the mishnah above from Pirkei Avot for wisdom about our response to controversies today.

This text's juxtaposition of Korah with Hillel and Shammai draws our attention to the semantic range of the term machloket (dispute). On the one hand, the biblical "rebellion" in this week's Torah portion directly challenges Moses's leadership and unique relationship with God. On the other hand, the longstanding rabbinic "debates" between the schools of Hillel and Shammai never delegitimized either party. In fact, a famous Talmudic passage (Eruvin 13b) explains that the positions of "both these and those are the words of the living God," but that the halakhah generally follows Hillel because his students would teach Shammai's opinions and reasoning before expounding their own.

With that Talmudic passage in mind, the great German rabbi and religious thinker Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808–1888) wrote the following about the mishnah above in his commentary on Pirkei Avot:

When in a controversy both parties are guided by pure motives and seek noble ends . . . and when both parties seek solely to find the truth, then, of course, only one view will constitute the truth and only one of the two opposing views can and will prevail in practice. But actually, both views will have permanent value because, through the arguments each side has presented, both parties will have served to shed new light on the issue under debate, and will have contributed to the attainment of the proper understanding of the question discussed. They shall be remembered as . . . retaining an abiding memory of the differences and the attempts on both sides to prove the validity of their views . . . thus advancing the cause of the genuine knowledge of truth.

Rabbi Hirsch's understanding of controversy rests upon a belief that the pursuit of truth or justice motivates the rival parties rather than selfish ends like political or material gain. Unfortunately, American and Israeli politics have become so polarized that the factions rarely offer a fair and honest consideration of their rivals' positions before engaging in critique.

We have an obligation to uphold Hillel's example of ancient leadership and must reject the black-and-white rhetoric that others are "either with us or against us." While other groups may threaten us and seek to harm our vital interests, we must recognize our shared destiny as a people not with a political litmus test but with an affirmation of our collective role as God's partners in Creation. We will neither achieve our goals nor honor our tradition by delegitimizing the views of other Jews.