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Parshat Korach: On echo-chambers. polarisation and the importance of arguing well



Everywhere you go in Israel, you will see the sign "יחד ננצח" - together we will win. Many speak about the imperative to unite and speak in one voice. But Judaism has never been about speaking in one voice. The adage "two Jews, three opinions" captures the quintessentially Jewish nature of argument. From the moment God invites Abraham to argue with Him about Sodom, to the centrality of debate in the Talmud, argument has been a vital force in Jewish life for millennia. Perhaps what we require today is a focus on how to argue well, rather than calls for superficial unity. This week's Parsha reads as a clear condemnation of argument. At first glance, it reads much like the posters of late - 'together we will win'. On closer analysis, we see that the Parsha is actually teaching us some important lessons about unity - it is not about not arguing but rather about the way in which we argue. Unity will not come through unanimous agreement; it will come through every side knowing how to disagree and compromise without giving up on their principles. Maybe the posters should read "Unity through our diversity" - דרך ההבדלים אנו מתאחדים.


The rebellion of Korach, Datan, Aviram, and their followers challenges our assumptions about the centrality of argument to Judaism. The story oscillates between different scenes, offering parallel narratives that reflect its very theme—conflicting opinions. On one hand, each group represents common challenges to leadership, such as rebellion against autocratic rule and the democratic argument that "we are all equal in the eyes of God." On the other hand, each faction claims its own individual grievances that Moses must address—what we might today call minority or group rights. Moses is being pulled in multiple directions, and the resulting turmoil threatens to tear the nation apart. This conflict must be addressed swiftly to prevent the discontent from annihilating the entire people and their mission.


But can we not sympathize with Korach's rebellion, which seems to embody the very ideals that God has been teaching? Unity of cause, challenging the status quo, and innovative reasoning—what makes Korach's rebellion wrong and Abraham's or the Benot Zelofachad's (at the end of the book of Bamidbar) argument right? What distinguishes Korach as a villain and the others as righteous?


Adam Grant, in his book "Think Again," emphasizes the importance of engaging in constructive disagreements. He argues that good arguments help us think more deeply and see things from different perspectives, thereby fostering growth and understanding. When we argue well, we do so with the intent of learning and improving, not just winning. Centuries earlier the Mishna in Pirkei Avot reached the very same conclusion when its stated:


"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 suggests that it is not the content of the dispute that determines its value but the intent behind it. If one engages in argument to expand horizons, refine views, and willingly question one's position, it is considered valid. However, if one remains in an echo chamber, interested only in one's own voice and agenda, the argument will not be for the sake of heaven.


Upon closer examination, the Mishna reveals a structural inconsistency. It contrasts Hillel and Shammai with Korach and his cohorts, but it should logically be Hillel and Shammai against Korach and Moses. By structuring it this way, the Rabbis convey a profound message about conflict: Korach's argument was never truly about him and Moses; it was about him and himself. For an argument to be for the sake of heaven, it must involve seeing the other person face to face, as described by Buber's concept of an I-Thou relationship. We must see the other as an end in themselves, not as a means to an end. We must 'hear' their voice and meet them with respect and dignity, acknowledging the presence of another opinion even if we disagree. We must realize that we possess only a 'part' of any truth, as reflected in the word machloket, which derives from chelek—part. In a machloket for heaven's sake, we recognize that our truth is but a piece of a greater whole.


True argument, as exemplified by Hillel and Shammai, requires humility, not arrogance. This is why we follow Hillel's opinion, as he would teach Shammai's view first. We must be certain of our position but possess enough modesty to appreciate that we may be wrong and be ready to shift our perspective.


Korach's rebellion was more about personal ambition than a cause. It was less about social justice and more about social media, less about democracy and more about oligarchy, less about influence and more about power. It was about cognitive arrogance rather than epistemic humility.


Today, social media and divisive politics expose us to the dangers of a 'Korach' style of discourse. Instead of fostering a common good, shared dialogue, and mutual growth, arguments often focus on victory, self-interest, and personal agendas. Over the past decade, we have witnessed global polarization, increased division, and a breakdown in constructive communication, fueled by social media and identity politics. Trapped in echo chambers, we hear only voices that reinforce our own beliefs, leading to further polarization, a diminished capacity for meaningful dialogue, and a decline in the art of active listening and constructive conversation.


The Torah uses the image of the 'mouth' as the instrument of punishment for Korach and his followers. A group that uses speech to sow division rather than unity, and to spread discontent rather than nurture gratitude and harmony, will ultimately be consumed by their own destructive means—the 'mouth' of the earth.


In our current times, with the ongoing war in Israel and internal strife, we must heed the enduring words of Rav Kook:


"The Temple will be built from many different parts, and the truth of the worldly light will be built from different perspectives. All 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 in ways that do not contradict each other. The multiplicity of opinions arising from the diversity of souls enriches wisdom and broadens understanding. Without this, we could not build peacefully; it will be built through influences that seem to defeat each other." (From the Siddur of Rav Kook, *Olot Haraya*, p. 330)


May our generation, with unprecedented potential to use our voices in the widest and broadest channels, foster arguments for the sake of heaven and not for personal agendas. Let us strive for unity, understanding, and peace, recognizing that it is through our diversity, our different opinions and perspectives that we can achieve true harmony and construct a better society.


Shabbat Shalom.

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