Today is November 14, 2019 -
When it comes to booking speakers, the Jewish Federation finds itself in a precarious position. If we bring in a conservative speaker that represents the political right, we hear about it. If the program is too liberal and far to the left, we hear about it. If the speaker presents a stance that is “too neutral,” we hear about it. Too religious? Not religious enough? We hear about it. The Jewish people are diverse. We have many opinions, and we love to argue. How is it that we have managed to survive and thrive for thousands of years?
Our tradition actually teaches us that there is a proper manner in which to conduct an argument.
In Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers), we read:
“Any controversy, which is for the sake of Heaven, will result in something permanent, but when it is not for the sake of Heaven, it will have no permanence. Which controversy was one that was for the sake of Heaven? The controversy between Hillel and Shammai. Which controversy was not for the sake of Heaven? The controversy of Korach and his company.”
Hillel-Shammai arguments are legendary. Perhaps the most famous story is recounted in the Talmud. During a heated exchange, a Heavenly voice is heard: “elu v’elu… These and also these are the words of the living God…” This clearly suggests God’s pleasure and approval of this discussion.
The controversy with Korach is a different story. In this week’s parsha, we read about Korach, Moshe’s cousin who was also from the tribe of Levi. Korach led a rebellion against Moshe. He questioned Moshe’s leadership, as well as the appointment of Moshe’s brother, Aharon, as High Priest.
Korach was not questioning God’s actions or the idea of a leader from Levi. Rather, Korach’s attack was personally directed at Moshe. God reacted by opening the earth, swallowing Korach and his 250-person rebellion. This clearly demonstrated God’s displeasure and disapproval.
Late 19th century writer Elbert Hubbard wrote, “If you can’t answer a man’s arguments, all is not lost; you can still call him vile names.” This is simply not the Jewish way. We are much more in tune with the late 18th century French writer, Joseph Joubert, who stated: “The aim of argument, or discussion, should not be victory, but progress.” Like Hillel and Shammai, we argue to teach, learn, and discover truth with respected dissenters. When we resort to name calling, we have not only lost the argument, but possibly God’s favor as well.