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Parshat Korach: 2 Jews, 3 Opinions When argument goes awry.

Updated: Jul 30, 2023

There is the famous adage: 2 jews 3 opinions. There is something quintessentially Jewish about argument. From the moment God invites Avraham to argue with him about Sodom, to the centrality of argument in the Talmud, argument has been the life force of the Jewish people from time immemorial. 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 literary 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 -the democracy argument - we are all equal in the eyes of God. On the other, each faction attests to have its own individual grievances that must be addressed by Moshe – what today we might call minority/group rights. 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. But can we not be blamed for thinking 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? What makes Korach’s rebellion wrong and Avraham’s argument right? What makes Korach the villain and the prophets the saints?

Mishna Avot pondered the same question and gave this answer:

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. (Pirkei Avot 5:17)

The Mishna in Avot is suggesting 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? If one appropriates ‘argument’ to expand ones horizons, hones one views, be willing to doubt and question ones position then it is accepted. If however, one sits in an echo chamber interested only in one’s own voice, one’s own agenda the ivory tower of one’s own position, argument will never be for the sake of heaven.

Looking carefully at the Mishna one notices a structural inconsistency. The Mishnah presents Hillel and Shammai against Korach and his cohorts; but it really should be Hillel and Shammai against Korach and Moshe. 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 as reflected in the very word machloket. At its root is the word Chelek - part. In a Machloket that is for heaven's sake, I will recognise that I only own 'part' of any reality. That my truth is not absolute, but only an element of a greater whole. True argument as in Hillel and Shammai requires humility not arrogance (hence we go according to Hillel’s opinion since he taught Shammai’s opinion first). We must be certain of our position but possess enough modesty to appreciate that in some instances we may be wrong and be ready to paradigm shift.

Korach’s rebellion was less about a cause and more about a person. It was less about social justice and more about social media, it was less about democracy and more about oligarchy, it was less about influence and more about power. It was less about cognitive humility and more about hegemonic discourse.

Today social media and divisive politics has exposed us once again to the danger of a ‘Korach’ genre of discourse. Today argument is for the sake of victory, self-interest and personal agendas rather than to foster a common good, a shared dialogue and being enlarged by the ‘other’. Today more than ever we are supremely aware of the danger of language, speech and a voice that is channelled towards destructive means rather than constructive purpose.

It is therefore not surprising that the text uses the very image of the ‘mouth’ as the medium of punishment for Korach and his congregation. A group that uses speech, their voice, their mouthpiece to plant division rather than cohesion, to spread the seeds of discontent rather than nurturing the growth of gratitude and harmony will ultimately be consumed by the vehicle of their own destruction – the ‘mouth’ of the earth.

We would do well to listen to the enduring words of Rav Kook which reflect a much needed antidote to the Korach 'genre’ of argument:

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. (From the Siddur of Rav Kook 'Olot Haraya' page 330)

May our generation, one that has the unprecedented potential to use our voices in the widest and broadest channels, be the one to harbour arguments for the sake of heaven and not for the sake of our own agendas.

Shabbat Shalom

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