WESTWOOD VILLAGE SYNAGOGUE
Dr. Abner Weiss, Rabbi
RABBI ABNER WEISS’S WEEKLY TORAH TEACHING
PARASHAT KORACH: 2011/5771
TOXIC AND HEALTHY CONFLICTS
And Moses sent to call Datan and Aviram, the sons of Eliav, and they said: We shall not come up [to you—lo na’aleh]. … Will you put out the eyes of these men? We will not come up [lo na’aleh]. (Num. 16:12-14).
The major theme of parashat Korach is the great rebellion against Moshe. As such, it is the archetypal biblical example of dissention [machloket]. Because of the ugly nature o the Korach rebellion, machloket has had very negative connotations, and has come to be regarded as a major social vice.
But machloket is an essential aspect human nature. According to the Maharal of Prague, it is the inescapable consequence of the human’s having been created in the Image of God [be-tzelem Elokim]. The divine image reflects God’s majesty and absolute autonomy. Creatively independent and self-sufficient, God enjoys unquestioned sovereignty. Reflecting this charismatic attribute, the human being, too, is sovereign. This was God’s mandate to the very first human beings. They were to be fruitful and multiply, to fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea, the fowl of the heavens and every living thing that crawled on the face of the earth. (Gen. 1:28). Humans were endowed with majesty and power. But, according to the sages “no two kings can wear the same crown.” (B.T. Chullin 60b) Competition and conflict were thus inevitable.
Indeed, the first siblings, Cain and Abel, were fiercely competitive, with Cain eventually killing his brother. According to the Midrash, cited by the Maharal, there was far more at stake than simple jealousy. The brothers were involved in a serious machloket about inheriting Adam’s sovereignty over the world (Gen. Rabbah 12:7, on Gen. 4:8). The machloket between Jacob and Esau was not totally dissimilar. It was about succession to their father Isaac’s spiritual majesty and the promise of future national glory.
Why then did Korach and his followers get such bad press? Their claim appears to be no different from the claim made so many centuries earlier by other contenders for family power, influence and majesty. If, according to the Maharal, this characteristic is hardwired into the human spiritual genetic structure, how could Korach and his followers be blamed for doing what all people created in the image of God are programmed to do?
It would seem that the scriptural condemnation of the leaders of the rebellion was based upon Moshe’s response to their challenge. Initially, he had allowed Korach and his followers a “cooling off” period, suggesting divine arbitration on the following day. He then went even further, inviting two of the prominent leaders of the rebellion to meet with him, presumably to open a dialogue about resolving the conflict. However, his gesture was rebuffed. Datan and Aviram rejected his invitation to talk: And Moses sent to call Datan and Aviram, the sons of Eliav, and they said: We shall not come up [to you]—[lo na’aleh]. … Will you put out the eyes of these men? We will not come up [lo na’aleh]. (Num. 16:12-14). They uttered their bone-chilling repudiation of mutuality and understanding twice in the space of a single verse. They arrogantly insisted lo na’aleh twice. They left no room for conversation. It was either to be their way or no way. The implication of their arrogant lo na’aleh retort was: “Because we are right, you must be wrong.”
The Maharal points out that the word machloket is constituted by surrounding the Hebrew word chelek [portion] with the Hebrew letters mem and tav. These letters form the Hebrew word met [dead]. A machloket about power and unreasonable claims to the portion [chelek] of another party often results in internecine conflict and death. (Netivot Olam, Netiv ha-Shalom I). This is the origin of war and unlawful encroachment on what belongs to another. It defined the toxic machloket of Korach and his followers against Moshe and his brother.
Fortunately, humankind is not exclusively programmed for this dangerous variety of machloket. There is another type of machloket that is altogether positive. Rabbinic literature is replete with what has been called machloket le-shem Shamayim [radical disagreement for the sake of heaven]. The rabbinic method of clarifying the truth is based upon dialogue between scholars who attack weaknesses in each other’s arguments, rejecting conclusions based upon premises that are deemed inaccurate. The sages correctly declare that kinat soferim tarbeh chokhmah [the zealous competitiveness of scholars increases wisdom]. (B.T. Bava Batra 21a). The ongoing conflict between the followers of Hillel and Shammai is the most striking example we have of machloket le Shem Shamayim. What one school declared pure, the other declared impure. What one ruled permissible, the other ruled forbidden. What one deemed kosher, the other deemed unfit for consumption or use. So radical was the disagreement between the two schools, that the unity of conduct of the Jewish people was dangerously undermined. Ultimately, a heavenly voice declared, “Eilu ve eilu divrei Elokim chayyim [both these and those are the words of the living God], but the law is according to the school of Hillel.” (B.T.Eruvin 13b; Berakhot 6b).
The Maharal wonders how such radically conflicting opinions can equally represent an accurate grasp of the truth of the Torah. He suggests that we can live with this paradox only by accepting that God alone possesses absolute truth. Humans are at best capable of grasping only limited aspects of the truth, just as invisible light reveals itself in the different colors of the spectrum when it is refracted through a diamond. Each color is a facet of the light, but none is itself the whole light. Pure light remains invisible to the naked human eye. Similarly, both Hillel and Shammai each accurately and authentically grasped an aspect of the truth. Each, therefore, was correct, although they were in radical disagreement each with the other. The heavenly voice validated the relative nature of human understanding. But it also declared that the authority of the one side must prevail in order to preserve the religious unity of the Jewish people.
The notion of machloket le shem Shamayim underlies the fundamental structure of Jewish law. The Mishnah presents the authoritative consensus of the majority as law, but it also preserves minority opinions, thus tacitly acknowledging the merits of the “loosing” sides’ positions. The Mishnah in this way reinforces the principal that the “truth” of one side’s conclusion was necessarily the outcome of fierce intellectual debate and honorably motivated argument and disagreement. The great medieval halakhic decisors often dispute the views of their peers—as contemporary respondents also do in clarifying issues in Jewish law. The tradition of machloket le shem Shamayim has continued through the ages.
Rabbi Jack Riemer recounts a tale about the great Chasidic master, Rebbe Naftali of Ropshitz. The Ropshitzer claimed that he remembered an encounter with two angels just before he was born. The first showed him the passages in the Talmud that say: A scholar should be tough and unbending, like a flaming fire of wrath. (B.T. Shabbat 63a; Yoma 23a; Ta’anit 4a). The second angel showed him a contradictory Talmudic passage, indicating that a scholar should be gentle, and humble. (Shemot Rabbah 41). The first angel then showed him the passage: A man cannot become a scholar without sacrificing himself and his family for the sake of learning. (B.T.Avot 6:4; Kallah 8a). But the second angel showed him the passage that says that a person should be more concerned for the welfare of his family than for his own. (B.T. Chullin 84b). Finally, the first angel showed him the passage that declared: A person should be satisfied with a minimum of food and drink in this world. (B.T. Avot 6:4; Kallah 8a). But the other angel showed him the teaching that stated: A person who abstains from the pleasures created by God in this world is a sinner. (B.T. Nedarim 10a). “Ever since then,” said Rabbi Naftali, “I have tried to pay heed to the advice of both angels. I have tried my best to hold onto what they both say—at the same time.”
Human truth is partial and relative. We are often confronted with the tension of living with contradictory truths. Like the Ropshitzer, we have to learn to cope with the paradox that “eilu ve eilu divrei Elokim chayyim [both these and those are the words of the living God].”
Machloket is as inescapable characteristic of the human experience. But we can sublimate our baser instincts. We can choose to become involved in machloket le shem Shamayim rather than in the toxic machloket exemplified by Korach and his followers.
The Maharal offers a third alternative. The virtue of shalom [peace] is the most admirable of conflict resolution strategies. The Hebrew letter shin of the word shalom has three “heads.” The outside “heads” represent the opposing extremes. The middle “head” symbolizes the compromise between the opposing positions. However, the middle “head” is not actually in the middle. It inclines more to one side than to the other. Compromise recognizes the merits of both disputants. It permits each side to feel itself the winner, graciously giving the other more than it really deserves. (Netiv ha-Shalom II). It thus preserves the dignity of the divine image in both, making neither a loser, and allowing each a victory of sorts. It restores peace. It is the way of shalom.