It is a truism to say that Judaism is a religion of debate and argument – and that Jews have an almost genetic predisposition to dissent, disputatiousness and disagreement. There’s an almost stubborn pride in our capacity for argument, and a grim humour in our acknowledgment of ourselves as, in the Biblical image, a ‘stiff-necked people’ (Exodus 32:9).
In a famous text from the ethical treatise in the Talmud known in English as the ‘Ethics of the Fathers’ we find an attempt to distinguish between different kinds of argument:
“Every controversy which is for the sake of heaven will in the end lead to a lasting result. But one which is not for the sake of heaven will not in the end lead to a lasting result. What was a dispute for the sake of heaven? The dispute of Hillel and Shammai. And one which was not for the sake of heaven? The dispute of Korach and all his company” (5:20)
On the weekend in the Jewish calendar on which we read the story of Korach’s rebellion against the leadership of Moses and Aaron (Numbers 16), I want to share some thoughts on what I see is the problematic distinction this Talmudic text outlines.
First some background. Hillel and Shammai were early first century rabbis teaching during the Roman occupation of Palestine before the Temple was destroyed in the year 70. Although the Talmud records only five differences of opinion between the two of them as individuals, they founded schools of thought and eventually there are more than 300 recorded issues on which the schools disagreed.
A few examples, the first about ritual law. How are we to light the Hanukah candles? Eight on the first night, decreasing to one on the last? Or the other way round? The school of Shammai said it was the former way, the school of Hillel ruled we build up the light over successive nights. Hillel’s argument won the day.
When it came to moral and ethical questions, Shammai’s position was usually stricter than Hillel’s: so the followers of Shammai believed only worthy students should be admitted to study Torah while the House of Hillel believed that Torah may be taught to anyone, in the expectation that Torah study makes a person worthy. Or in regard to the question of so-called ‘white lies’, the question was asked whether one could tell an unattractive bride that she is beautiful. (The rabbis were nothing if not sexist). Shammai said it was wrong to lie, but Hillel said that all brides are beautiful on their wedding day, which has become a kind of Jewish folk-saying.
In relation to divorce, the House of Shammai said that a man may only divorce his wife for a serious transgression, but the House of Hillel allowed divorce for even trivial offenses, such as burning a meal. That’s an example of where Hillel’s position might seem more lax in relation to law, more open, but only if you are male. For women, that apparent leniency of view was much more problematic. But the inherent patriarchal bias isn’t addressed in the sources.
Anyway, the point is that all of these kinds of disputes about moral and ritual law were seen by the rabbis of the succeeding generations as being, in the famous phrase, l’shem shamayim: ‘for the sake of heaven’. Disputes had a higher purpose than power or prestige or popularity. The rabbis knew that they were arguing about how to live their Judaism in times and circumstances very different from the past: they had the Torah, but they had to use their own creativity and imagination to interpret it and respond to it as if God had a stake in their decisions, as if God’s presence in the world depended on how they interpreted the tradition. This made it all ‘for the sake of heaven’ – they were trying to uphold the essential values of the tradition for new generations. They were trying to make holiness part of everyday life, and in that task questions of rabbinic ego or personality or rivalry were quite irrelevant.
Of course that Talmudic view – that Hillel and Shammai’s disagreements were ‘for the sake of heaven’ – is a wish, a pious hope. We know that on the ground things were as bloody and rivalrous then as the rabbinic world still is in some quarters.
One of their major areas of fierce confrontation was in their views about what Judaism taught about the relationship to the non-Jewish world, particularly about the Romans when they were occupying the land. The school of Shammai took up a stance in alliance with the Zealots, who were militantly opposed to occupation, and they decreed that all commerce and communication with the occupiers and those in surrounding countries who supported them should be prohibited. (Think Hamas). Whereas the School of Hillel was conciliatory and opposed violence. So contentious was this split that followers of Hillel were barred by the House of Shammai from praying with them. So much for arguments being ‘for the sake of heaven’.
While the Temple still stood, the belligerent view of the schol of Shammai was the majority view - and those that followed Hillel were as derided in Israel as are ‘Peace Now’ today. It wasn’t until a few generations after the catastrophe of the Temple’s destruction that the views of the school of Hillel gained the upper hand. Whereupon we find in the Talmud the view that whenever the House of Shammai had disputed the opinion of the House of Hillel, the House of Shammai's opinion was now null and void.
From that time on, the Jewish world evolved its view that Hillel’s opinions – often tolerant, open-minded, inclusive – took precedence over Shammai’s often narrower or harsher views.
Well, so much for the first part of our text, the arguments between Hillel and Shammai ‘for the sake of heaven’. We can see that beneath the smooth surface of the Pirke Avot picture, there is a maelstrom of factionalism and Jewish dividedness. It was as vicious as that which sometimes occurs between Orthodoxy and Reform in the diaspora today, or the Hasidim and Mitnagdim in the 18th century, or that which is poisoning the Jewish soul in Israel in the conflict between West Bank fundamentalists and Israeli doves. And there are echoes of that Jewish intolerance of what other Jews do all over the place, not least in the pages of the Jewish Chronicle. ‘For the sake of Heaven’ can cover a multitude of sins.
And so what about Korach and his rebellion? He’s the character the rabbis use to talk about an argument not ‘for the sake of heaven’. But just as the Hillel-and-Shammai side of the equation is not straightforward, neither is the disdain the tradition has for Korach. You see, I do have a sneaky admiration for Korach: he was prepared, after all, to stand up against the unelected leadership of Moses and Aaron and argue with their assumptions that they alone had access to holiness and to interpreting God’s will and mediating God for the community.
Korach’s rebuke has its own power: ‘You’ve aggrandized yourself’, he says, ‘you have set yourself up above us, but all of us here in the community are holy and God is as available and present to any one of us as he is to you two’(Numbers 16:3). Well, we might wonder on an initial reading, what is the problem with that? Korach is arguing that holiness is integral to the people, and the divine energy that the tradition calls God doesn’t need specialists to make itself present. It doesn’t need an Aaron and a priesthood. It doesn’t need a Moses with his moods and his solitary inwardness and his constant cozying-up to the Holy One of Israel. Isn’t Korach’s argument the argument of democracy, and of ‘people power’, isn’t it anti-totalitarian, isn’t it Aung San Suu Kyi’s stance against the Burmese junta?
In her Reith lectures which you can hear this week on BBC Radio 4, she quotes the sociologist Max Weber’s analysis of the three essential qualities for politicians: ‘passion, a sense of responsibility, and a sense of proportion’. Passion, she will say, means a passionate dedication to a cause, particularly if that involves a politics of dissent, dissent from the dominant power. Well, wasn’t Korach engaging in a politics of dissent?
He was certainly taking responsibility for the major disaffection that the Israelites felt, and that kept welling up in them as they schlepped endlessly through the wilderness.
I don’t know about Korach’s ‘sense of proportion’ – but then the Bible rarely does a sense of proportion in any of its characters: they are often slightly larger than life, as characters in literary sagas frequently are.
But the point I am making is that the rebel Korach’s complaint does have a seductive logic to it. Yet Jewish tradition is unreservedly hostile to him and what he represents. Let a former Chief Rabbi, Joseph Hertz, in his great commentary on the Torah, represent this traditional attitude. He comments on Numbers 16:3 as follows: ‘With the instinct of the true demagogue, Korach posed as the champion of the People against the alleged dictatorship of Moses and Aaron, the two brothers who usurped all power and authority in Israel’(p.639). So no room for doubt there. Commentaries of course try to keep their own dictatorial instincts firmly out of sight. And you don’t get to be Chief Rabbi by doing nuance, or deconstructing the authority of the authoritative and sometimes authoritarian texts.
But the bottom line is – according to Pirke Avot – that an argument like Korach’s is ‘not for the sake of heaven’. In other words, the rabbis believed it was an argument to further his own desire for power or prestige or glory. It was – to use contemporary language – ‘ego-driven’. It wasn’t about holiness. He was just using the language of holiness as a cover story for personal ambition. He was using religion – as so many have done through the ages and continue to do – as a stepping stone for personal gain and power. Passionate he might have been, but the Torah is unequivocal that passion alone is not enough. Korach might use the language of heaven – ‘all the community are holy’ – but his wasn’t an argument ‘for the sake of heaven’, it was for the sake of himself.
Yet that still leaves us with a basic question. How are we ever to know - in our own arguments, our own dissent from authority, our own disputes and disagreements (whether in our families, or at work, or in our synagogue communities, or in our communal Jewish politics, or in relation to Israel) – whether we are being like Hillel or like Korach? How do we refine our awareness, our awareness of our true motives - not our rationalized motives - when we are in disagreement? How do we learn to become self-reflective, and honest, about our deeper motives? This is a psychological task, a spiritual task, a religious task: discerning inside ourselves the strands of dispassionate wisdom worthy of a Hillel, and unraveling them from the passionate selfishness of our inner Korach.
‘All the community are holy’ – what a seductive phrase that is! It’s flawed only in the light of the Jewish understanding that holiness is never an achieved state. It’s always an aim, a goal, something to work towards in a lifetime’s dedication and struggle. The moment you think you have it, that you possess it – that you are it, ‘holy’ – you’ve lost it, lost sight of it. Yes, the potential for holiness is always here, it animates our lives; but it is always elusive – for an individual or a community or a nation.
This is the great Jewish adventure, the great Jewish paradox – the movement towards holiness, and the guarding ourselves from the hubris of ever believing we have achieved it.
[adapted from a sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue on June 25th 2011]