Sometimes a simple phrase helps us understand a complex issue. I recall one of the most well known lines from the movie “Forrest Gump”: “My momma always said, ‘Life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.'” When I am in the middle of a difference of opinion I often think of another simile, “Controversies are like sharing an orange. You never know who wants what.” This refers to resolving conflicts. Consider two people who want to share one orange. If they cut it in half, each would receive the exact same amount. That would seem to be a fair resolution. But what if one of them wanted to make orange juice and the other needed to shred the rind for a cake recipe? Neither would be satisfied. Only when you understand the desires of both sides in a dispute can you reach a fair resolution. If one took the pulp and the other the rind, then both get what they needed.
I think of that when we read the Torah portion Korach, about that demagogue who challenged the leadership of Moses. He and his followers were swallowed by the earth when the ground under their feet opened up as a clear demonstration that their arguments displeased God. What was wrong with Korach’s complaints?
The rabbis in Perkei Avot, The Ethics of the Fathers 5:19, compare two ways of disagreeing: “A controversy for the sake of heaven, like that of Hillel and Shammai, will ultimately continue to exist; a controversy not for the sake of heaven, like that of Korach and his cohorts, will not continue to exist.”
What was so positive of the controversies of Hillel and Shammai? When the Talmud (Tractate Eruvin 13b) describes those disputes it proclaims, “Those and those [the teachings of the Hillel and Shammai] are the words of the living God. If so, then why is the normative law decided in accord with the school of Hillel? Because they [disciples of Hillel] are pleasant and accepting, always teaching their view together with the view of the school of Shammai and even citing the position of Shammai before citing their own position.” Differences of opinion are worthwhile if you have a pleasing attitude and if you take the time to understand fully the position of those who hold the opposite opinion. Then you honor their ideas by learning about them in depth and citing them before your own positions. You need to know who wants to made juice and who wants to bake a cake.
That was not the way of Korach. Perhaps he ignored his opponents, and relied on grandstanding and false accusations. Perhaps he ridiculed Moses and did not seriously try to understand his positions. One Midrash says that Korach acted liked a demagogue by twisting the laws of the Torah. Did he say that it must be “my way or the highway”? While I am no Pollyanna who thinks that understanding will always lead to agreement, it can reduce the vituperative argumentation that we hear so often today. It would make clear that there is permanent worth in opinions that are diametrically opposed to each other.
I worry about how controversies play out today in Washington, Trenton, and even at some of our communal boards! Can we truly understand those we oppose? Can we try to? Can rabbis of diverse movements ultimately differ about many issues in a respectful way? Can those who read David Brooks on the Op-Ed page of “The New York Times” also make a point to read Paul Krugman, who disagrees with him so often?
Hillel gives us a way to avoid the destructive debates of Korach and have our debates lead to constructive solutions.