Divrei Torah Blogs

Korach 5770: Whatever happened to "arguments for the sake of heaven?"

Argument Whatever happened to the idea of "arguments for the sake of heaven?"  It seems argumentation in Israel, and in the world, is becoming increasingly vicious, violent, and disrespectful.  It's one thing when the arguments are between avowed enemies, although even there hate is always ugly.  But it's especially shameful when such vitriol passes between people who share much in common, such as among Americans who may say horribly nasty things about people who support a different political party, or here in Israel among Jews who are supposed to be "am echad," one nation.

In this week's Torah reading, a selection from the book of Numbers, we read the story of the rebellion of Korach, and how his argument, even though he had good points, was doomed to failure because it was motivated by greed, not for "the sake of heaven.  I have written about that before, you can read the whole story here

What I find especially troubling is how here in Israel "religious" Jews, especially the charedi ("ultra-Orthodox") are becoming increasingly disrespectful and intolerant towards people who hold other views, even views that have been accepted by mainstream Orthodox authorities — let alone their attitudes towards people with completely different outlooks such as Conservative, Reform, secular, etc.

In contrast to Korach, the Talmud cites the arguments of Hillel and Shammai as examples of arguments that are "l'shem shasamayim," for the sake of heaven:

The Talmud (Eiruvin 13b) records how for three years there was a dispute running between the schools of Hillel and Shammai. The disciples of Shammai would say “the halacha, the law, follows our opinion,” and disciples of Hillel would say, “no, the halacha follows OUR opinion.” After three years of going back and forth with no resolution, a heavenly voice called out: eilu v’eilu divrei Elokim chayim, these and those are the words of the living God, (but the halachah is in agreement with the rulings of Beth Hillel).

Do those who are intolerant skip that page when they study the Daf Yomi?

Do they think that Hillel and Shammai — and the other rabbis whose various opinions were all accepted as "words of the living God" — were only debating minutiae, and not big issues?  Some of the different opinions in the Talmud are certainly as far apart as differences of opinion between the charedi and the Conservatives of today.  A few examples:

R. Yochanan said you don't have to wait at all between meat and dairy; Mar Ukba's father said 24 hours. 

R. Yosi said it's OK to eat chicken together with cheese, and although the other rabbis all disagreed, they acknowledged that in his community people could do that.

Hillel and Shammai had different definitions of what could make someone a mamzer ("bastard," although not due to being born to an unwed mother), yet they still allowed their followers to intermarry.

Rabban Gamliel and Rabbi Yehoshua couldn't even agree on what day was Yom Kippur (although in this case R. Yehoshua eventually conceded–grudgingly–to R. Gamliel, due to R. Gamliel being the head of the Sanhedrin).

Just as in our day, rabbis in the Talmud debated about "political" issues — in their case whether or not to cooperate with Roman authorities.  Some thought it was OK to turn Jewish bandits over to Roman justice.  Others disagreed.  Some felt it was obligatory to pay your taxes to Rome; others felt it was OK not to pay them.

Yet despite some fundamental differences of opinion in halacha — and in politics — for the most part they were able to maintain respect for other opinions, and acknowledge even someone whose answer was very different than their own could be speaking l'shem shamayim, in the name of heaven.

Why can't we accept diversity?  Why can't we respect each other?  Why do we have to try and force everyone to bow down and acknowledge our way is right?

If the charedi want to have private bus lines with segregated seating, let them — just don't impose that on public buses to people who don't hold with that.

Why can't we have three — or more! — sections at the Western Wall?  Men, women, and mixed?

When secular people visit a religious neighborhood, like Mea Shearim, it is appropriate to honor the standards of the place and dress modestly.

We will never all think alike.  And that's a good thing.  But what we DO need to do is respect other people's right to think differently.

Shabbat shalom,

Reb Barry

Barry Leff

Rabbi Barry (Baruch) Leff is a dual Israeli-American business executive, teacher, speaker and writer who divides his time between Israel and the US.

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