Controversies “for the sake of heaven”

I lead a study group on the Torah portion of the week on a bi-weekly  basis at Beth Israel. This morning, I had the opportunity to teach an interpretation on a text which I have been thinking about for years.

The text is found in Pirke Avot and presents the idea that a machloket, a disagreement, which is “lishem shamayim”, “for the sake of heaven” would have lasting significance while one which is not for the sake of heaven will not have lasting significance. An example of each is then given. The example of the disagreement which is not “for the sake of heaven” is that of Korach and his band while the example of the disagreement for the sake of heaven is that of Hillel and Shammai.

Korach, the main character in this morning’s Torah portion, is a Levite who, along with Datan and Aviram and 250 others complain to Moses and Aaron that they have taken power inappropriately. The entire community is holy says Korach so “why do you elevate yourselves about the community of God”? While the rebellion itself leads to many interesting questions, I want to return to the text of Pirke Avot and note, as do many of the commentaries, that it is odd that the argument is referred to as the disagreement of “Korach and his band” as opposed to Korach and his band against Moses and Aaron. This is especially noteworthy because in the other phrase, Pirke Avot notes that the example of the disagreement “for the sake of heaven” is that of Hillel and Shammai, the two Talmudic Rabbis who disagreed with each other on matters of Jewish law. So, in one part of the teaching, we have Korach and his band (listing only one of the parties of the disagreement) while in the other, we have Hillel and Shammai (giving the opposing parties). This is unsettling because mishnaic texts, such as Pirke Avot, are generally taught in very precise ways and this text is not precise because of the lack of parallelism in the language.

The dominant Rabbinic interpretation of this text is that in fact Korach and his band were constantly disagreeing with each other and in fact, while they were rebelling against Moses and Aaron, they were not unified but rather were constantly fighting with each other for their own personal gain. So, in this case, the text in Pirke Avot is in fact parallel. There is a disagreement between Korach and his band and there is disagreement between Hillel and Shammai.

But, I prefer another explanation.

I start from the perspective that Korach and his band represent only one side of the argument. They might not have been unified but their disagreement at its core was against Moses and Aaron. But, then, what about Hillel and Shammai and the lack of parallelism in the text?  I would argue that Hillel and Shammai also represent only one side of the disagreement. I would argue that Hillel and Shammai, like Korach and his band are “on the same team”. Hillel and Shammai may disagree on the specifics but they agree on the general principle that Jewish law is important, that we must seek to understand Torah and that we must seek to understand what God wants from us. They may disagree on the specifics but they are, in the long run, on the same side of the argument between those who care about Jewish tradition and those who do not.

Hillel and Shammai did not “hate” each other, they didn’t call each other names, they didn’t ignore each other. They taught what they taught and, I like to think, at the end of the day, shook hands and studied and prayed together. They were clearly approaching the “big questions” in the same way, disagreeing only about details and how to achieve the goals God set for us. The fact that both of their opinions are stated in the Talmud (and similarly opinions of other disagreeing Rabbis are stated) clearly points out that both opinions are to be respected even as one is considered the favored interpretation by later generations.

As I taught this class this morning, I referred to something I had heard many years ago. Tip O’Neill, former speaker of the house (and, by the way, my congressman when I lived in Boston), paid tribute to President Gerald Ford’s time in congress by noting that at the end of the day in congress, Democrats and Republicans would leave behind their animosity and act as friends and colleagues. But, O’Neill noted when Ford was a congressman, “there was no time clock”, in other words, he always acted colleagially even with those with whom he disagreed.

We don’t see much of that in congress today for sure and we are all less fortunate because of it. And in  our Jewish communities, we don’t see it as often as we should. Understanding that we have the same ultimate goals and are trying, each in our own way, to achieve those goals is one of the most important principles we need to remember as Jews. We are all on the same team. Let us recognize that our differences of opinion as long as they are for constructive reasons will have lasting and positive significance.

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