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Korah, Arguments and Disagreements

“Jane, you ignorant…” With these words Dan Aykroyd would begin his counterpoint to Jane Curtin’s point on Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update. We of course knew this line was coming, but still we laughed. Why? Because we understood that this is not how people are supposed to argue and debate.

This week we read about Korah and his rebellion against Moses and his leadership. History deems it a rebellion rather than a revolution. Here is why. Korah’s followers exclaim, “Is it not enough that you brought us from a land flowing with milk and honey to have us die in the wilderness, that you would also lord over us?” (Numbers 16:12) They do not argue, they attack. They infer that Egypt, the land of their slavery, is the Promised Land. They lash out at Moses.

I am sure there were legitimate criticisms of Moses’ leadership style. He is overly passionate and given to fits of anger. He is hesitant to share the burden of leadership. He, and he alone, is privileged to speak face to face with God. And yet Korah does not offer such critiques. He attacks the person.

The rabbis draw from this story a lesson about arguments and disagreements. They teach that machloket l’shem shamayim, an argument for the sake of heaven, is how we uncover the truth and strengthen our commitments. “An argument for the sake of heaven will have lasting value, but an argument not for heaven’s sake will not endure. What is an example of an argument for heaven’s sake? The debates of Hillel and Shammai. What is an argument not for heaven’s sake? The rebellion of Korah and his associates.” (Avot 5:19)

Rabbis Hillel and Shammai did not agree on much. Hillel was forgiving and open-minded. Shammai was strict and demanding. The Jewish people required both rabbis. The Jewish people survived because of both of their schools of thought, the Jewish community was strengthened by their divergent interpretations. The truth was uncovered in their fiery debates and frequent disagreements. Hillel and Shammai shared a love of Torah and a devotion to the Jewish people. Both admired the other. These rabbis compromised for the sake of community.

And while I do not wish to return to my parent’s basement and what my imaginations have fashioned into a mythic past in which people only argued for heaven’s sake, I do feel that we have entered a new era in which SNL’s comedy skit has proven sadly prescient. It appears that we argue to destroy the other rather than learning from the debate and dialogue. Today it appears that ideology is more important than community, principles more important than country.

We suggest that those who sit across from us, that those who disagree with us, do not love the United States, the State of Israel or the Jewish people. How many times do we say, “If you really loved Israel then you would not vote for… If you really loved the United States then you would vote for…” Such statements are not arguments. They are attacks. Such exclamations do not lead to uncovering of truths, but instead to its unraveling.

I hold different commitments than I did when I sat watching SNL. I have changed my views. Why? Because I was open to the opinions of others. I did not turn away from disagreement. I listened to those I love and to those who share my passions. Why is it that changing one’s mind or adapting one’s views is viewed as betrayal and disloyalty rather than the badge of honor our community and nation require?

There are many ways to love the State of Israel. There are many ways to love the United States. There are even different ways to love the Jewish community. I do not hold a cornerstone on truth. It is instead teased out in discussion and dialogue.

We have a choice to make. We can be like Korah and Moses or instead Hillel and Shammai. If we refuse to sit across the table from those with whom we passionately disagree then we cut ourselves off from learning.

Truth can only emerge through loving disagreements.

On a tragic note we join together in sadness and prayer for the community of Charleston in which a gunman murdered nine people while praying in church. We pray for those injured, murdered and grieving. We join together as well as in indignation, and even anger, that we live in an age in which schools and houses of worship are not the sanctuaries of safety and security that they should rightfully be. We must do more to safeguard our nation from such murderous hate.