Parshat Korach: Not for the Sake of Heaven

Everybody knows that Korach’s strife was bad news for Am Yisrael, but we would be wrong to conclude from the events of our parsha that argument is something to be avoided. In the famous mishna in Pirkei Avot, Korach and his men are the prototype of negative debate, but that same mishna points out positive manifestations of argument as well.

Every argument which is for the sake of heaven will endure, whereas that which is not for the sake of heaven will not endure. What was an argument for the sake of heaven? That of Hillel and Shamai. What was an argument that was not for the sake of heaven? That of Korach and his assembly (Pirkei Avot 5:17).

Differentiating between the two types of arguments is no simple task. My teacher Rav Amital, of blessed memory, once explained tongue in cheek that an “argument which is for the sake of heaven will endure” means that when two parties argue and each side is convinced that he is arguing for heaven’s sake, then both sides will be equally stubborn, neither side will ever give in to the other, and the argument will thereby “endure” and never be resolved.

The solution cannot be to seek avoiding disagreement at all costs, for disagreement is one of the essential aspects of our identity. What could be more Jewish, more Israeli, than to argue, debate and disagree? As the saying goes, “two Jews, three opinions,” and though this may occasionally be too true to laugh about, to do away with the culture of debate would be lose a significant part of our identity. What is line between  the destructive strife to be avoided, and the valuable debate we must strive for?

All are Equal, but Some are More Equal than Others

Let us turn, now, to our parsha. Korach and his followers challenge Moshe and Aaron, “Everybody in the entire assembly is holy, and G-d among them. Why do you put yourselves above the congregation of G-d?” (Bamidbar 16:3).

Does not this seem to be an awesome, even holy and justified claim? Korach presents a vision of social equality based on the fundamental understanding that all people are holy beings, created in G-d’s image. Only a short while ago, Am Yisrael was called by G-d a “holy nation and a kingdom of priests” (Shmot 19:6). Doesn’t Korach have a point?

In response, Moshe falls on his face and calls for a sign from G-d to determine who is truly meant to lead (Bamidbar 16:4-5). Then he castigates Korach and his ensemble, calling them sinners and wicked men (ibid 26). Why doesn’t he respond to the content of Korach’s claim? No doubt Moshe has plenty to say on the matter, and elsewhere it even seems that he would agree with some elements of Korach’s claim.

Mr BigshotMoshe chose to ignore the content of Korach’s challenge because he understood that Korach himself didn’t believe in the truth of his claims. On the contrary, his true motive was to attain power for himself. By rousing the nation against Moshe, Korach covers up his own intent – to rule in Moshe’s stead. He enlists the populist approach to gain the people’s support, just as in Animal Farm, George Orwell’s satirical allegory about the communist revolution, in which the pigs enlist the support of the farm animals under the motto “all animals are equal,” yet with time, the animals learn the hard way that while all animals are equal, “some animals are more equal than others.”

In light of this, we can understand the mishna’s statement in Pirkei Avot, that an argument “which is not for the sake of heaven will not endure.” When an argument is driven by selfish motives, in which the points being made are only a cover for an ulterior goal and the disingenuous debater does not believe his own claims, nothing positive will come of it.

Truth is Inclusive

The proper definition for “debate,” in my eyes, can be found in the Rambam. He defines “for the sake of heaven” to be “seeking truth.” This definition has two cornerstones: truth, and the search for it. When I am positive that I know exactly what is true, and all I have to do is convince my opponent of the error of his ways and to accept the truth as I tell it to him, then we conduct a debate of the deaf. Neither of us is listening to the other, because neither of us is searching. An argument of this type has no resolution; it can only deepen the rift. But when a person sees himself as in the process of searching and is open to hear and listen to that which the other side has to say, the argument becomes a place from which to grow. One shouldn’t expect that in the course of an argument someone will abandon their primary principle or thought, but, by remaining open, they can gain insight which can enrich their opinion and, through meeting with an alternative point of view, come to a deeper understanding.

A complex comprehension of the concept of truth, as appears in the rabbinic sources and is developed through kabbalah, is vital to this process. After stating that G-d’s stamp is truth, the Talmud Yerushalmi offers an insight into the Hebrew word for truth, emet. It points out that its letters, aleph, mem, and taf, are the first, middle and last letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Anything which represents only one side is partial, and cannot be wholly true. Truth is comprised of all.

There is a similarity between the Yerushalmi’s approach to truth and the basic kabbalistic approach. Everything contains a spark of G-dliness, and truth is the correct balance between all things. It is interesting to note that the stormiest debates which often rock Israeli society are the arguments between the right and the left, and we would be wise to take to heart the words of the oldest kabbalistic book, Sefer HaBahir. After explaining that Gabriel is the angel of the left side, and Michael is the angel of the right side, it states: “And in the middle is truth, which is Uriel” (Sefer HaBahir, 108).

This doesn’t mean that truth is necessarily a compromise, in which each side is willing to give up on half in order to meet in the middle. The middle is the place which is prepared to accept and acknowledge the positive aspects of each side. This point of view, a contemplation willing to see the good in the opposing side, can bring renewed thinking to what previously seemed to be an intractable problem.

The archetype of positive debate, as the mishna states, is the ongoing disagreement between the house Hillel and the house of Shamai. The gemara says that a heavenly voice descended from on high and called out “These and these are the words of the Living G-d” (Eruvin 13b). This seems a sufficient support to the claim we made earlier – a healthy argument is one in which both sides contain truth. But it goes even further than that. According to the gemara, the reason that the halacha follows the view of Beit Hillel is because of the way they related to their opponents’ opinions. When teaching their students, Beit Hillel would always precede their own opinion with that of Beit Shamai  (Eruvin 13b). Unlike Beit Shamai, Beit Hillel believed in the value of including the dissenting opinions, of holding space for opposing truths. As a friend of mine once summed it up, had the halacha followed Beit Shamai, we would not know Beit Hillel’s opinion.

It is the one who recognizes the value of his own opponents’ arguments whose view will ultimately be accepted. Their attitude of humility and acceptance shows why the halacha follows their rule: Beit Hillel holds the deeper truth.

That which is said regarding Hillel and Shamai is true, by and large, of Torah study altogether. The halachic literature – the mishna and the gemara – are built upon a culture of debate, and one who studies it must delve into the dissenting opinions as well, not only those which were accepted. It seems that the Talmudic works – whose contents are debate and whose method of study is usually in chevruta (study pairs), a method prone to disagreement and discussion – endure not despite the arguments that fill it, but because of them.


Rav Yaakov Nagen
Yakov Nagen (Genack) is a Rom at the Hesder Yeshiva of Otniel and a member of “Beit Hillel”.

This article was translated from the Hebrew by Netzach Sapir


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