Parashat Korah: The Korah controversy

Is controversy a positive or a negative phenomenon?

parashat korah 88 (photo credit: )
parashat korah 88
(photo credit: )
"And Korah took...." (Numbers: 16:1) Is controversy a positive or a negative phenomenon? Since the ideal of peace is so fundamental to the Jewish ideal - to such an extent that we even greet and bid farewell to each other with the Hebrew word shalom (peace) - I would expect that controversy would be universally condemned by our classical sources. But apparently, there is a way to argue and a way not to argue. The Mishna in Avot (Ethics of the Fathers 5:20) distinguishes between two types of controversy: "A controversy which is for the sake of heaven, like that of Hillel and Shammai, will ultimately continue to exist; a controversy which is not for the sake of heaven, like that of Korah and his cohorts, will not continue to exist." In addition to the problematic issue of the positive description of a "controversy for the sake of heaven," it is difficult to understand why the Mishna refers to one type of controversy as that of Hillel and Shammai, the two antagonists, and the other as that of Korah and his cohorts, rather than Korah and Moses, a parallel structure which we would have expected. I believe that the answer to our questions lies in the two legitimate definitions of the Hebrew word for controversy, mahloket: does it mean to divide (lehalek) or to distinguish (la'asot hiluk), to make a separation or a distinction? The former suggests an unbridgeable chasm, a great divide which separates out and nullifies the view of the other, whereas the latter suggests an analysis of each side in order to give a greater understanding of each view and perhaps even in order to eventually arrive at a synthesis or a dialectic, a resolution of both positions! With this understanding, the initial comment of Rashi on the opening words of this week's Torah portion, "And Korah took," becomes indubitably clear: "He took himself to the other side to become separated out from the midst of the congregation." Since Korah made a great divide between himself and Moses, the Mishna in Avot defines his controversy as that of Korah and his cohorts; he was interested in nullifying rather than in attempting to understand the side of Moses. On the other hand, when the Talmud (B.T. Eruvin 13b) describes the disputes between Hillel and Shammai, it decides that "Those and those (both schools) are the words of the living God. If so, then why is the normative law decided in accord with the school of Hillel? Because they are pleasant and accepting, always teaching their view together with the view of the school of Shammai and even citing the position of Shammai before citing their own position." According to this view, that "those and those (conflicting opinions) are the words of the living God," the Almighty initially and purposefully left many issues of the Oral Tradition open-ended in order to allow for different opinions, each of which may well be correct when viewed from the perspective of the Divine. Indeed, the Mishna in Eduyot teaches that the reason why our Oral Tradition records the minority as well as the majority opinion is because a later Sanhedrin (Jewish Supreme Court) can overrule the decision of an earlier Sanhedrin, even though it is not greater than the earlier one in wisdom or in number, as long as there had been a minority view recorded on which the later Sanhedrin may rely for its reversal of the earlier decision; and most halachic decisions rely on a minority decision in cases of stress (Mishna, Eduyot 1,5, Rambam and Raavad ad loc.). In the world of halacha, minority dissenting views are never nullified; these opinions are also part of the religio-legal landscape, and can become the normative law of the majority at another period in time or for a different and difficult individual situation. The Talmud likewise powerfully and poignantly confirms the importance of dissenting views in order to challenge and help clarify the alternate opinion. R. Yohanan and Resh Lakish were brothers-in-law and study partners who debated their conflicting opinions on almost every branch of Talmudic law. When Resh Lakish died, R. Yohanan was left distraught and bereft. R. Elazar ben Pedat, a great scholar, tried to comfort R. Yohanan by substituting for Resh Lakish as his learning companion. "Every opinion that R. Yohanan would offer, R. Elazar would confirm with a Tannaitic source. R. Yohanan lashed out, 'Are you like the son of Lakish? Not at all! Previously, whenever I would give an opinion, the son of Lakish would ask 24 questions and I would answer him with 24 responses; in such a fashion, the legal discussion became enlarged and enhanced. But you only provide me with supporting proofs. Don't I know that my opinions have merit?' R. Yohanan walked aimlessly, tore his garments and wept without cease. He cried out, 'Where are you, son of Lakish, where are you, son of Lakish:' until he lost his mind. The other sages requested Divine mercy, and R. Yohanan died" (B.T. Baba Metzia 84a). This fundamental respect for the challenge of alternative opinions - so basic to the Talmudic mind - is rooted in another Mishna (B.T. Sanhedrin, Chapter 4, 37a), which sees the greatness of God in the differences among individuals and the pluralism of ideas. "Unlike an individual who mints coins from one model and every coin is exactly alike, the Holy One Blessed Be He has fashioned every human being in the likeness of Adam, and yet no human being is exactly like his fellow! ...And just as human forms differ, so do human ideas differ." It is precisely in everyone's uniqueness that we see the greatness of the Creator. And this was one of the great teachings of Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook: "Only through a multiplicity of ideas and views can we eventually reach the one great truth which encompasses them all."