Healthy Debate: Machloket L'Shem Shamayim

This week's Torah portion, Parashat Korach, features a dramatic rebellion. Korach, Datan, Aviram, and 250 additional Israelites band together to challenge Moses and Aaron's leadership.

This week's Torah portion, Parashat Korach, features a dramatic rebellion. Korach, Datan, Aviram, and 250 additional Israelites band together to challenge Moses and Aaron's leadership. Commentators have lots of ideas about what Korach did wrong, but all the same, in the rabbinic interpretive tradition, Korach's behavior becomes THE paradigm for a problematic controversy, as the Mishnah teaches:

כָּל מַחֲלֹקֶת שֶׁהִיא לְשֵׁם שָׁמַיִם, סוֹפָהּ לְהִתְקַיֵּם. וְשֶׁאֵינָהּ לְשֵׁם שָׁמַיִם, אֵין סוֹפָהּ לְהִתְקַיֵּם. אֵיזוֹ הִיא מַחֲלֹקֶת שֶׁהִיא לְשֵׁם שָׁמַיִם, זוֹ מַחֲלֹקֶת הִלֵּל וְשַׁמַּאי. וְשֶׁאֵינָהּ לְשֵׁם שָׁמַיִם, זוֹ מַחֲלֹקֶת קֹרַח וְכָל עֲדָתוֹ

Every dispute that is for the sake of Heaven, will in the end endure; But one that is not for the sake of Heaven, will not endure. Which is the controversy that is for the sake of Heaven? Such was the controversy of Hillel and Shammai. And which is the controversy that is not for the sake of Heaven? Such was the controversy of Korah and all his congregation. (Pirke Avot 5:17)

From this Mishnah, we learn the important concept of "machloket l'shem shamayim," literally "a controversy for the sake of Heaven." Although Korach's rebellion becomes a negative example, we are left with the understanding that when done appropriately, disagreement can actually be a healthy and helpful feature of communal life. It's no wonder that many students of Judaism (from teens at Kavana to conversion candidates) report that one of the things they appreciate most about Judaism is the our cultural value of honoring dissent and debate.

But, how do we know which arguments are "l'shem shamayim" ("for the sake of Heaven") and which are instead more similar to Korach's problematic divisiveness? Bartenura (a commentator on the Mishnah) explains that when Pirke Avot holds up the Korach controversy as a negative example, it is because Korach's desired purpose was "to achieve power and the love of contention," whereas the debates between Hillel and Shammai more nobly aimed "to arrive at the truth."

This concept of "machloket l'shem shamayim," "arguments for the sake of Heaven," may be a helpful lens for us to use today as well, as we seek to make sense of and evaluate any societal issue around which there's debate... from Israeli politics to the election reform bills before the Senate. Just a few weeks ago, the Pew Research Center released its decennial study entitled "Jewish Americans in 2020," painting a picture of U.S. Jews as "culturally engaged, increasingly diverse, politically polarized and worried about anti-semitism." (If you enjoy geeking out on the sociology of the American Jewish community, feel free to check out the report yourself -- I found the trends noted there interesting but not particularly surprising.) Over the coming weeks and months, we are likely to see lots of analyses of the new data in the Jewish press, with scholars interpreting the same numbers differently and arguing about the policy implications and directions that Jewish communal organizations like ours should take. I'll be reading along with these debates eagerly, and hope that we'll be able to say confidently that whatever debates emerge in the wake of this Pew study are examples of "machloket l'shem shamayim," with the ultimate aim of working towards "truth" and the betterment of the American Jewish community.

Finally, within our own Kavana community, I feel incredibly fortunate to be surrounded by a team of staff and board leaders who really understand the importance of debate for the sake of the common good. At present, Kavana is working through many questions around what it will look like as our community emerges from this Covid pandemic reality; feedback gleaned at last month's Annual Partner Meeting has already offered helpful input. There are many push/pulls -- for example, about how to allocate resources to in-person and virtual services, how to optimize for both impact and accessibility, and in what order we should hire new employees and grow our staff team. These are real tensions, and there are real decisions to be made. Although I can't say yet exactly where we will come down on some of them, I am confident that any disagreements that emerge as we wrestle with options will be "machlokot l'shem shamayim."

This week, as we read Parashat Korach, we are all invited into the longstanding Jewish tradition of debate and dissent. As we argue, let's seek to do it like Hillel and Shammai did -- for the common good, and from a place of mutual respect -- rather than like Korach who sought power and took pleasure in sowing seeds of contention.

Shabbat Shalom (a little early),
Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum