“Controversy Versus Conflict”
(Revised and updated from Korach 5760-2000)

by  Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Korach, tells of the ill-fated controversy between Korach and Moses, that concludes with the earth swallowing Korach and his followers.

The Mishna in Avot 5:20, prominently mentions 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.”

From a superficial perspective, one might easily conclude that all controversies are bad. What difference is there between the controversy of rabbis or the controversy of rebels? The Mishna in Avot argues that there is a profound difference. Although the controversies between Hillel and Shammai were significant and, undoubtedly, heated, both Hillel and Shammai, ultimately, submitted to the majority opinion, even if they were totally opposed to those conclusions. Despite the fact that Hillel was known to be lenient and Shammai more severe, both Hillel and Shammai had one objective–to help the People of Israel grow in their observance of Torah. They only differed in 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 would-be “sparring partners,” who would frequently provide opposing opinions to their own. These opposing opinions, even though they were rejected, 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, Rama/Rema had begun to write, what he hoped would be, a definitive legal code for both Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jews. When he learned that Rabbi Joseph Caro was just about to complete his Code of Jewish Law, the Shulchan Aruch, rather than publish his own magnum opus, Rabbi Isserles chose instead to author an Ashkenazic gloss/commentary to Rabbi Caro’s Shulchan Aruch.

The name that Rabbi Caro gave to his code of law was Shulchan Aruch, which means a fully arrayed table. It was Rabbi Caro’s hope to prepare an easy way for all Jews to learn Jewish law, with everything openly arranged on a 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 decision to forgo his own self-aggrandizement. This is, perhaps, what the Mishna means when it says: סוֹפָהּ לְהִתְקַיֵם“Sofa l’hit’kayaim,” controversial opinions which are for the sake of Heaven will endure.

Those familiar with Jewish law know that Jews rigorously maintain and study not only the mainstream Jewish legal opinions, but the minority opinions as well. These so-called “minority opinions,” often form the basis of new and novel legal decisions that are introduced by scholars in later generations. They do not die, but rather endure, as if their authors were still alive 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 receive adequate recognition. But, was his motivation to rebel for the sake of the betterment of the community, or for his own self-aggrandizement?

The Midrash relates that it was Korach’s wife, who incited her husband to rebel. Apparently, 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 off all the hair of his body and being carried around as a dedication to G-d. Although the Midrash cites Korach as saying that Moses had performed the same ritual on his own sons, Mrs. Korach responded: “Who cares about that! He demeaned you, didn’t he?”

The famed Chasidic master, Rabbi Elimelech of Lizhensk, points out, insightfully, that there is a way to determine whether an argument is for the sake of Heaven or not. Examine the group that is stirring up controversy, he suggests. Are they harmonious? Are they bound to one another in an unselfish manner?

It is regarding this particular point that the Mishna in Avot is most revealing. When the Mishna talks of the conflict between Hillel and Shammai, it simply mentions the names of the two sages who argued with each other. However, when the Mishna mentions the controversy that is not for the sake of Heaven, it cites: the conflict of “Korach and his entire assemblage.” The Mishna should have stated: Such was the controversy of Korach and his assemblage with Moses. This subtlety of language indicates that there was no harmony between Korach and the men who joined him in rebellion. They were all out for themselves; they were all on their own personal 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 being expelled, his ideas were derided. One hundred Nazi “experts” published a book denying the value of any of his discoveries. One great scientist responded to this insult by saying: “If my theories were wrong, it would take only one professor to prove them wrong. If you require one hundred, it’s a sign that it’s truthful.”

Had Korach approached Moses and debated the issues that troubled him in pursuit of the truth, he might have been remembered forever as a great 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.