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Korach and the Daughters of Zelofchad – Arguing for the sake of Heaven? – Parshat Korach

For a printable PDF version click here: Parshat Korach 5774

I’m not sure how many mothers will have slept well this week.  The image of those three boys, kidnapped in the prime of their lives in an absolutely vicious and unjustified act of cruelty, keeps turning over in my head.  In the ten years that I have lived in Israel I have never seen such unity and outpouring of love and prayer that I have seen in the last few days.  We may argue, bicker and fight but when tragedy strikes the love we have for each other and the feeling of togetherness triumphs.  This week’s parsha teaches us so much about this.  It teaches us to listen to the other, even when we think we are right, it teaches us to analyse our motives scrupulously in any argument, and it beckons us to always come in peace and closeness to our brethren even when we have a difference of opinion.  I pray deeply that the ‘togetherness’, respect and love we have witnessed this week will merit the safe return of our boys, our brothers, our children.  May they be returned healthy in body and soul to their loved ones and to their nation. This weeks shiur is dedicated in the hope and wish for the speedy and safe return of:

גיל-עד מיכאל בן בת גלים

אייל אוריאל בן איריס תשורה

נפתלי יעקב בן רחל דבורה

The centrality of Argument in Judaism:

There is a famous joke amongst Jews – two Jews, three opinions.  It is true we are known for our tendency to argue amongst ourselves.  Our long history is replete with moments of internal crisis and conflict, from the time of the Bible, to the division of the kingdom, to the Maccabees and Hellenizers,  the Pharisees and Sadducees to the varying responses to the destruction of the Temple, to the Bar Kokchba revolt, to the response to modernity.  At every stage in our national development we have been plagued by conflict, and yet at the very heart of the oral law is the notion of argument.  Without differing voices, contrary opinions, thought-out argument Judaism is but an empty vessel.  In Tanach we see humans consistently challenge God’s justice or decree – from Abraham and Sodom to Moshe at the Golden Calf, to Gidon at Ophra, to Iyov’s challenge to theodicy, to the many challenges by the prophets. The submissive, peaceful, accepting Jew simply doesn’t show up much throughout Tanach. In addition the essence of Rabbinic debate was what we term today dialectical thinking.  The entire corpus of the oral law is filled with debate, argument, and outright disparaging narrative, such as Rabbi Yochanan and the oven of Achanai.  What we uncover in the pages of the Talmud are deep thought processes, ideas that challenge the teacher and student, questions that touch the very heart of existence and are often full of paradox.  There is not one page in the Talmud that is not filled with disagreements between sages.   Central to the interpretation of law and faith is argument, thought, paradox as we see through our encounter with the Talmudic sages who frequent the pages of the Talmud.  They knew that only through argument, dialectical thought, paradoxical thinking could one reach a conclusion as such. There is no space in the Talmud for quiet reflection, or peaceful submission to an idea.  From our inception as a nation we were taught to encourage our children to question, ask , grow, think.[1]  We were beckoned to challenge the status quo, act in accordance with our intuitive moral reasoning[2]; we were invited on a journey that sought to attune our analytical skills and creative capacity of interpretation as a nation and individuals, making room for passion and ambiguity as one.[3]

The Rebellion of Korach: A justified Cause?

Yet in this week’s Parsha we encounter quite the opposite – a clear criticism and swift removal of those who dare to argue against God or Moshe their leader.  The rebellion of Korach, Datan, Aviram and their followers is a difficult and challenging narrative.  The story draws us between different scenes.  Rather than presenting a singular narrative we find a few parallel stories being told simultaneously. The text itself is already suggesting through its homolitical make up, its very theme- that of conflicting opinions.  On the one hand each group represents typical popular challenges to leadership, – rebellion against ‘autocratic’ rule and the democracy argument that we are all equal in the eyes of God. On the other hand, each faction attests to have its own individual grievances that must be addressed by Moshe.  Moshe is being pulled in all directions and the challenge is ripping the nation apart at its seams.  It must be dealt with quickly and dispelled instantly before the discontent threatens to wipe out the entire people.  The notion of conflict stands as a central component of the story. Can we not be blamed for thinking that Korach’s rebellion houses the ideals that God has been trying to impart to the people.  Unity of cause, challenging of the status quo, innovative and creative reasoning?  Yet Korach and his followers are swallowed into the ground.  The punishment for these dissenters is strange.  In order to answer the question above we need to delve into the minds of Chazal and see from their perspective where Korach’s argument differs from others.  In Mishnah Avot we are told:

In the end, every argument for the sake of heaven will be of permanent value, but every argument not for the sake of heaven will not endure. Which is an argument for the sake of heaven? The argument between Hillel and Shammai. Which is an argument not for the sake of heaven? The argument of Korach and his company. [4]

Here the Rabbis are teaching us the essence of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ machloket – argument.  The answer will depend on the motivation.  Because Korach harboured power seeking motives his argument was thrown out, whereas Hillel and Shammai who were arguing for the sake of heaven, are praised.  Furthermore we are told that the reason the Halakha follows the house of Hillel as opposed to that of Shammai is due to the following:

Rabbi Abba said in the name of Shmuel: “For three years there was a dispute between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel, the former saying: ‘The law follows our views,’ and the latter saying: ‘The law follows our views.’ A voice from heaven proclaimed: ‘Both are words of the living God, but the law follows Beit Hillel.” For what reason did Bet Hillel merit have the law follow the rulings of Hillel? Because they were gentle and modest and would teach the words of the House of Shammai  before they would  teach their own opinion. [5]

An argument for the sake of heaven suggests an openness to ideas.  In modern terminology we could suggest what the Rabbis are proposing is a ‘pluralistic’ approach to debate. One must listen to each opinion carefully, hear the words of your opponent, dissect their argument until you have understood its nuances and intricate reasoning, and only then can you present the opposing view.  In other words, one must not just superficially ‘listen’ to the other side, rather one must engage in an open-minded, honest, authentic debate, ‘hearing’ and encountering the other and their view.  There can be no absolutism in arguments and no wielding of absolute power. By its very nature dialogue requires an open, honest and intellectually rigorous approach.  In the famous story of Rabbi Yochanan and Reish Lakish we experience the truth and purity of machloket:

Rav Shimon  the son of Lakish passed away, and Rav Yochanan grieved after him considerably. The Rabbis said ‘Who shall go to bring comfort to his mind?’ They answered that Rav Elazar Ben Pedat should go, for he is a brilliant scholar.’ Rav Pedat went and sat before Rav Yochanan. To every statement of Rav Yochanan, Rav Pedat would respond that there is a Braita supporting his position. Rav Yochanan eventually said to him: “You are supposed to be like Raish Lakish; when I would make a statement to him, he would raise twenty four objections, to which I would give twenty four answers, and as a result of the debate we would have a deeper understanding of the Sugya, the topic under discussion. However, you constantly say ‘we learned a Braita that supports you.’ Of what use is this? Do I not already know that I have said well?!” Rav Yochanan would go about, tear his clothes, cry and say ‘Where are you, son of Lakish’  and he would scream…and then he passed away.”[6]

Machloket by its nature has the potential to create or destroy. [7] It can be a tool to better and deepen our understanding of our own approach and that of another, or if utilised as Korach does, to create rifts and strife, it can destroy.  Ultimately what the mishna in Avot is telling us is that it is not the content of the dispute that determines its value but the state of the dispute, for what purpose is it being carried out. It is fascinating that if one looks carefully at the Mishna one notices an inconsistency in the structure of the text.  The mishnah presents Hillel and Shammai against Korach and his cohorts, but really it should be Hillel and Shammai against Korach and Moshe.  I believe in structuring it this way the Rabbis are hinting at a very deep message about conflict and argument. Korach’s argument was never about him and Moshe, it was about him and himself.  For an argument to be for the sake of Heaven we must look at the person face to face, or as Buber describes we must have a true   I-Thou relationship.  We must see the other as an end in himself and not as means; we must ‘hear’ his voice and meet him with respect and dignity.  We must acknowledge the presence of another opinion, even if we disagree.  We must realise we only have a ‘part’ of any truth.  The very word machloket insinuates this. The word chelek – part is at the heart of the word.  In a Machloket that is for heaven’s sake, I will recognise that I only own ‘part’ of reality, that my truth is not absolute, but only an element of a greater whole.

Perhaps the ambiguity in the biblical text as to what Korach and his cohorts were arguing about is purposeful, since it was not the content that was important but the means by which it was conducted that made it repugnant.  The repeated mantra of Datan and Aviram לא נעלה – we will not go up, typifies their entire mindset.  Their refusal to engage in a face to face dialogue with Moshe represents a deeper negation of dialogue and conflict management or growth.  Conflict here represents a parochial, insular approach to reality, my way or no way.  There is no attempt to hear the other or even listen.  They only see their way, they don’t see that they only have one ‘part – chelek’ of the argument.

On a more philosophical note there is also a dissonance in the idea of disputes even in the Talmud itself.  There are instances where machloket seems to be abhorred such as the story of Rabbi Eliezer and the oven of Achnai, as well as a similar story where Rabban Gamliel was forced to carry his stickand money bag on what he believed to be the day of Yom Kippur so as to prove the correctness of Rabbi Yehoshua. What lies at the heart of the disagreement is the way in which truth is seen.  If we believe that one absolute version of the truth exists then we will have no room for the ‘truth’ of another.  If however we see truth as being manifested in varying ways and formswe will be more open to hear the opinion of another.  There are also times for a multiplicity of approaches and moment times for authoritative law. [8]  In the narrative of ‘The oven of Achnai’ a law had to be made.  It was time for absolute decision not a multiplicity of approaches.  Perhaps Korach’s rebellion reflects this same idea.

The generation of the Midbar are living in a time of absolute truth. They all saw, heard and experienced God.  They all are fully aware that Moshe and Aaron have been divinely appointed, in this decision there is no room for dispute.  This is not oral law with its plethora of opinions and interpretations, this is Divine command directly given and directly received. Here there is no room for ‘interpretation’.  Hence what Korach, Datan and Aviram challenge is not the ‘opinion’ or ‘truth’ of a fellow interpreter but rather the very ‘truth’ of God himself.  For this reason his machloket is less of a machloket more of a quarrel, a quarrel that will lead to social strife and undermine the very governance of God. In order to highlight this point further I want to look at a later narrative.

The Benot Tzelofchad as a Subversive Sequel:

At the end of Sefer Bamidbar in Parshat Pinchas, having already moved on to the second generation, we find a rather moving episode.  There we are told of  five sisters whose father Zelofchad has died but left no sons to inherit his portion in Israel.  The daughters approach Moshe and request that they, his daughters, inherit his portion. They tell Moshe and all the elders that their father dies but was not one of the congregation of Korach.  Moshe turns to God who tells him that the daughters should inherit the land.  I want to suggest that this narrative stands as a subversive sequel[9] to that of Korach’s rebellion.  It is not by chance the Torah reminds us here of Korach rebellion.  There is a common thread that runs through the two stories.  Both are about people coming to challenge the status quo, stating an argument of equality.  Both stories feature the ‘dissenter’ coming before all the people and both feature a challenge to Moshe personally.  However it is in the difference between the two that the message lies.  After The daughters of Zelofchad present their proposition, Moshe turns to God who tells him ‘כן בנות צלפחד דברת’ which is translated as ‘The daughters of Zelofchad speak correctly’.  I want to translate it literally – ‘Yes, the daughters of Zelofchad speak….and hence shall inherit the land’.  What God says to Moshe is that these women have learnt the significance of speech.  They understand what it is to truly ‘speak’, they engage in a true face to face encounter.  They do not come to argue for the sake of argument, but rather for the sake of their father’s legacy. The midrash tells us that they were learned women, they had analysed, thought and dissected the idea in their heads.  But equally, they were willing to listen to Moshe and God and accept whatever decree they would give.   Moreover unlike Korach who is described as ויקומו coming up against Moshe, they are described as ותקרבנה they came close/drew near to Moshe.  The way in which they presented their argument was what made all the difference.  They had learnt, despite the certainty of their view, to make space for the other.

A Heart of Many Rooms:

What we have seen throughout our discussion is thatwhen it comes to making a Halakhic decision one must come to an authoritative final answer. However the path to that answer can take many roads and be seen from many perspectives.  So too with Torah and Judaism, especially in today’s world.  We must learn to have our views and opinions challenged, we must learn to live with the question and not always the answer.  We must seek constructive and productive arguments through which we listen to the other in an I-Thou encounter and through which we grow and are enriched.  And perhaps most important of all we must constantly question our motives, are they pure? Are they true to ourselves and God? Are the genuinely in line with the Divine task we have been given?

David Hartman wrote a book entitled ‘A Heart of many rooms’ celebrating the many voices within Judaism.  In it he writes about celebrating diversity and plurality within Judaism in order to bridge the chasms within modern Jewry.  There are many issues to be debated with his approach and of course practical and Halakhic problems that may arise from his views.  However, as with every opinion and approach, we must seek what we identify with and what goodness we can take, and so I quote a beautiful passage from the book that I feel resonates deeply with what we have learnt and with Jewry today:

There is beautiful metaphor in the Tosefta that describes the religious sensibility the Talmud tries to nurture: ‘Make yourself a heart of many rooms and bring into it the words of the House of Shammai and the words of the House of Hillel, the words of those who declare unclean, and the words of those who declare clean’. (Sotah 7:12)In other words become a person in whom different opinions can reside together in the very depths of your soul.  Become a religious person that can live with ambiguity, who can feel religious conviction and passion without the need for simplicity and absolute certainty. 

In this type of interpretative tradition, awareness of the validity of contrary positions enhances, rather than diminishes, the vitality and enthusiasm of religious commitment…..The Mishna or the Talmud may determine the official law by choosing among opposing views on the basis of accepted mechanisms of decision making, but they never eliminate the rich variety of opinions or diminish the creativity of the moral imagination that is able to make sense of opposing opinions. [10]

May we have the courage to think for ourselves in an open manner that makes space for the other whilst validating our own belief.  May the unity of our nation, that we have witnessed for such a tragic reason, persist and be maintained so that we not only respect each other when times are bad, but also celebrate together when things are good. May we hope, dream, argue and build together for the betterment of our people and the world.  I want to leave you with the eternal words of Rav Kook whose beauty and truth echo through all the generations:

כי הבניין יבנה מחלקים שונים, והאמת של אור העולם תבנה מצדדים שונים, וכל השיטות יתבררו, ואלו ואלו דברי אלוהים חיים, מדרכי העבודה והחינוך השונים […] שבזה יתישרו הדברים ולא יהיו סותרים זה את זה. וריבוי הדעות שבא על ידי השתנות הנפשות. דווקא הוא מעשיר את החוכמה וגורם להרחבתה ויוכר שאי אפשר היה לבנין השלום שיבנה אלא על ידי כל אותן ההשפעות הנראות כמנצחות זו את זו .

The Temple will be built from many different parts and the truth of the worldly light will be built from different perspectives, and all the opinions will be made clear, and ‘these and these are the words of the Living God’, the differing paths of education and worship will come together, joining things that will not contradict each other.  The multiplicity of opinions that come through the diversity of souls are what enriches wisdom and causes a broadening and understanding that without which we could not build peacefully, it will be built through the influences that seems to defeat each other.[11]

Shabbat Shalom

[1] Moshe call to the people to והגדת לבנך to tell their children – not just to ‘speak’ but  to create a dialogue, a debate, a conversation.

[2] Moshe, Bat Paroah, The midwives, Miriam, Yocheved.

[3] God sought to move the people from a slave mindset to that of a free man, seen primarily in Sefer Bamidbar.  See my articles from the last few weeks at

[4] Pirkei Avot 5:17

[5] Talmud Bavli Eruvin 13b

[6] Baba Mezia 84a

[7] See bereshit raba 4:6

[8] For an in-depth analysis see David Hartman: Conflicting visions: Pluralism and Revelation

[9] I am adopting the term subversive sequel from Judy Klitsners fascinating book ‘subversive sequels of the Bible’.  Though she does not bring this example, her methodology has aided me greatly in noticing sequels to narratives I would not have necessarily noticed beforehand.

[10] David Hartman: A Heart of Many Rooms p21-22

[11] From the Siddur of Rav Kook ‘Olot Haraya’ page 330

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