Korach: Arguing for the sake of heaven and living interconnectedly
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Korach: Arguing for the sake of heaven and living interconnectedly

Fair Lawn Jewish Center/Congregation B’nai Israel, Conservative

Our parshah this week recounts the rebellion of Korach and his band. Korach, first cousin to Moshe, Aharon, and Miriyam, along with three men from the tribe of Reuven, gather 250 men in uprising against Moshe and Aharon. Korach and his men say to them in Bamidbar 16:3, “You have taken too much power! For all the people are holy, all of them, and Hashem is with them. So why do you elevate yourselves above Hashem’s community?” 

“Yeah! That’s a good point!” I instinctively react. “We all stand at Har Sinai and receive God’s Torah! What makes Moshe so special that he gets to be in charge?”

Of course, through dramatic irony (the Torah is not called the Five Books of Korach) we anticipate the fate of this band of contrarians. While they are permitted to make a show of winning God’s favor, they are rejected and then swallowed alive by the earth, erased from the community. God’s judgment is clear and swift. Moshe, God’s representative on earth: right. Korach: wrong. End of story. But not the end of Korach’s legacy. If he is erased from existence, why would the Torah preserve Korach’s story? Why would someone given such a fate receive the notoriety of a Shabbat named after him?

Korach’s dispute and methodology are recorded as the archetypal foil for healthy Jewish disagreement. Pirkei Avot 5:17 teaches: “Every dispute that is for the sake of Heaven, will in the end endure; But one that is not for the sake of Heaven, will not endure. Which is the controversy that is for the sake of Heaven? Such was the controversy of Hillel and Shammai. And which is the controversy that is not for the sake of Heaven? Such was the controversy of Korach and all his congregation.”

Hillel and Shammai had many disagreements recorded in our Talmud, ranging from how we should light our Chanukah candles to whether certain widows were eligible to remarry in the mainstream Jewish community. Unlike the important but fully ritual topic of Chanukah menorahs, rulings on marriage law, especially in the ancient Jewish world, carry grave human consequences. Any child born to parents ineligible to marry under Jewish law is a mamzer, a person cast to the community’s margins simply by nature of their birth, permitted to marry only other outsiders, perpetuating a Jewish undercaste. Much of Jewish marriage law, in particular divorce law, is formulated to prevent couplings that could result in mamzerim. The law builds fences to prevent this injustice.

Within our case, a legal marriage in the eyes of Beit Hillel would result in mamzerim according to Beit Shammai, and in a parallel case, a legal marriage in the eyes of Beit Shammai would result in mamzerim according to Beit Hillel. In other words, what one group sees as permissible and laudable, the other sees as immoral and dangerous. 

It is the heaviest of Jewish arguments, whether or not a potential human being is a full citizen of the community. You could imagine each school saying of its rival, “since they permit the unpermitted to marry, we can’t trust them to know anything about anything; they are a separate people from us.”

That never happened. Following the recording of this dispute, in Masechet Yevamot 14b, we learn that the students of Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai married women of the families of the rival schools. 

Despite disagreeing about the deepest and most painful of Jewish divisions, a disagreement regarding marriage no less, Hillel and Shammai’s disciples intermarried with one another. They remained one Jewish family. At no point did these two sparring groups say, “Those others are fully wrong. They’re not Jews anymore.” Rather, in resolution of a three-year-long dispute between the two schools, in Masechet Eruvin 13b, a Divine Voice rules, “These and these are the words of the Living God and the Law follows Beit Hillel.” That same definitive Divine Judgment that swallowed Korach declares valid both the opinions of Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel. Both opinions are the words of the God Who Continues to Live in Relationship with the Jewish People.

So, what constitutes an argument for the sake of Heaven? An argument for the sake of Heaven is one that is grounded in respect for the other as a fellow Jew. The Gemara teaches later on the same page as “these and these,” that Beit Hillel merited to have the law follow their judgment because they were respectful and willing to hear and even teach the legal opinions of Beit Shammai. They did not react with their instinct. They debated with thought out compassion. And although they disagreed, they remained not just one Jewish people, but one intramarried Jewish family.

To argue for the sake of Heaven requires recognizing that although I may be correct today, I and my fellow are both in the process of living intersecting Jewish lives, trying to follow God’s Torah, and thus cannot cut each other off from existence or cancel each other. It is to say, “I disagree with you fully, but you remain my sister and I’m not going to give up on you.”

Korach only said, “Moshe, you are wrong,” meaning you are wrong today and you need to leave. Hillel and Shammai’s actions said, “One of us is right today, the other might be right tomorrow, we’re still one people and we’re not going to split off into two separate religions.” Hillel and Shammai seldom agreed on anything, but they continued to live not just side by side, but interconnectedly. God made Korach disappear.

Although we can disagree and uphold our deeply held beliefs, we must do so with respectful and true listening.  If one of us does try to change the mind of another, we must do so with the humility that tomorrow our own minds will or could be changed. Korach’s erasure reminds us that we cannot be Korach, no longer on earth, we must be Hillel and Shammai, in community together.

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