“Controversy verses Conflict”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This coming week’s parasha, Parashat Korach, tells of the famed controversy between Korach and Moshe, which concludes with the earth swallowing Korach and his followers.

The Mishna in Avot, chapter 5, makes mention of Korach’s rebellion: “Every controversy which is for the sake of Heaven will endure in the end, and every one which is not for the sake of heaven will in the end not endure. Which is the controversy for the sake of Heaven? Such was the conflict of Hillel and Shammai. Which is not for the sake of Heaven? Such was the conflict of Korach and his entire assemblage.”

On a superficial level, controversy is controversy. What difference is there between the controversy of rabbis or the controversy of rebels. The Mishna in Avot argues that obviously there is a difference, and the difference is significant. Although the controversies between Hillel and Shammai were great and undoubtedly heated, both Hillel and Shammai ultimately submitted to the majority opinion, even if they were totally opposed to those positions. Despite the fact that Hillel was known to be lenient and Shammai far stricter, both Hillel and Shammai had one objective — to help the People of Israel grow in their observance of Torah. They only differed on the details.

As we all know, controversy has been part of Jewish life from time immemorial. In fact, most of the rabbis of the Talmud had “sparring partners” who would often give opposing opinions to their own. These opposing opinions are considered so valuable that they are recorded in the Talmud and are studied to this very day.

In the 2nd half of the 16th century, Rabbi Moshe Isserles of Cracow, Poland had begun to write what he hoped would be a definitive law book for both Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jews. When he learned that Rabbi Yoseph Karo (1488-1575) was just about to complete his Code of Jewish Law, the Shulchan Aruch, rather than publish his own magnum opus, Rabbi Isserles chose to write an Ashkenazic commentary to Rabbi Karo’s Shulchan Aruch. Shulchan Aruch means the table that is spread out, for Rabbi Karo had hoped to prepare an easy way for all Jews to learn Jewish law, as if it were on an open table. Rabbi Isserles’ commentary is cleverly called HaMapa “The Tablecloth,” and although it is only a gloss on the Code of Jewish Law for Ashkenazic Jews, Rabbi Isserles’ stature did not suffer, but rather increased as a result of his total dedication to the Jewish people, rather than his own self-aggrandizement. This is perhaps what the Mishna means when it says “Sofa l’hitkayaim,” controversial opinions which are for the sake of Heaven, will ultimately endure.

Those familiar with Jewish law know that Jews rigorously maintain and study not only the mainstream Jewish legal opinion, but the minority opinions as well, and these minority opinions often form the basis of new and novel opinions in later centuries. They endure; they do not die. It is as if their authors are still alive and well and arguing with one another.

And yet we know that Korach had his gripes, some of which appear to be quite legitimate. Korach was a Levite who felt that he did not get adequate recognition. But was his motivation for the sake of the betterment of the community or for his own self-aggrandizement?

The Midrash says that Korach’s wife incited her husband to rebel. After Korach underwent the ritual of purification, required of all the 22,272 Levites, Korach’s wife wouldn’t let him live down what she considered a demeaning ritual — shaving the hair of all his body and being carried around as a dedication to G-d. Although the Midrash cites Korach as saying that Moshe had done the same ritual to his own sons, Mrs. Korach responded: “Who cares about that! He demeaned you, didn’t he?”

The famed Chasidic master, Rabbi Elimelech of Lizhensk (1717-1787), points out insightfully that there is a way of knowing whether an argument is for the sake of Heaven or not. Examine the group that is in the controversy, he suggests. Are they harmonious? Are they bound to one another in an unselfish manner? And here the Mishna in Avot is revealing. When the Mishna talks of the conflict between Hillel and Shammai, it mentions the names of the two scholars who argue with each other on an equal level. However, when the Mishna mentions the controversy that is not for the sake of Heaven, it states: Such as the conflict of Korach and his entire assemblage. The Mishna really should have said: such was the controversy of Korach and his assemblage with Moshe. This subtlety of language indicates that there was no harmony between Korach and the men who joined in his rebellion. They were all out for themselves; they were all on their own ego trips. They were not even minutely concerned with the betterment of the community.

When Albert Einstein was deported by the Nazis from Germany, in addition to the expulsion, his ideas were derided. One hundred Nazi “experts” published a book denying the value of any of his discoveries. One great scientist responded by saying: “If my theories were wrong, it would take only one professor to prove it wrong. If you require one hundred, it’s a sign that it’s truthful.”

Had Korach approached Moshe and debated the issues in pursuit of the truth, he might have been remembered forever as a sage, an innovator, and one who sought to improve Jewish life, even if his views were not accepted. How sad it is that he is remembered instead as a destroyer who sought to undermine Jewish life.

May you be blessed.