Korach (Numbers 16, 1 – 18, 32) – peace above truth as the essence of an argument for the sake of Heaven

In the Torah reading of Korach there is a rebellion against Moses and Aaron led by Korach, Datan and Aviram (Numbers 16, 1-3). Actually, there appears to be two separate rebellions. One (Numbers 16, 9-10) is led by Korach concerning who will serve as priests in the Tabernacle, the center of ritual and sacrificial worship of the Israelites in their wanderings in the wilderness before entering the land of Israel – and, the other (Numbers 16, 13) is led by Datan and Aviram concerning Moses ruling over the Israelites. In both cases, the rebellions were questioning the leadership of Moses.


In both cases, the criticism voiced by Korach and by Datan and Aviram is not issue oriented criticism but personal attack. Korach, who was a Levite, was apparently upset that Moses had given the priesthood to his brother, Aaron. Korach on the face of it has a strong argument in claiming that all the Israelites are holy implying that there is no reason that Aaron should receive the priesthood more than him. But, Korach in voicing his complaint attacks Moses in accusing him of arrogance and lording it over the Israelites – “You take too much upon you, for all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them; why do you raise yourselves above the assembly of the Lord?” (Numbers 16, 3).


The response of Moses is also not issue oriented. Moses responds to Korach by mimicking and mocking. Korach had said of Moses “You take too much upon you” (Numbers 16, 3) in accusing Moses of lording it over the Israelites – and, Moses responds by saying “You take too much upon you, you sons of Levi” (Numbers 16, 7) in suggesting to Korach that it is enough that he is a Levite serving in the Tabernacle without being a priest. There is an implicit criticism of Moses in the Book of Deuteronomy (3, 26) regarding Moses not being allowed by God to enter the land of Israel when God tells Moses not to speak anymore of this – “You take too much upon you, speak no more unto Me of this matter”. There is a midrashic commentary (Daat Zkenim) on this verse that is sensitive to the implicit criticism by God of Moses regarding how Moses spoke to Korach – “Moses used the phrase (Numbers 16, 7) ‘you take too much upon you’ (רב לכם) in saying ‘you take too much upon you, you sons of Levi’, God used the phrase (Deuteronomy 3, 26) ‘you take too much upon you’ (רב לך) in saying (Moses will not enter the land of Israel)”


Datan and Aviram are apparently upset that Moses had not yet brought the Israelites to the land of Israel, a “land of milk and honey” as revealed to Moses in the story of the burning bush (Exodus 3, 8). Datan and Aviram voice their criticism in a sarcastic way in referring to the land of Egypt as a “land of milk and honey” in accusing Moses of lording it over them – “Is it a small thing that you have brought us up out of a land flowing with milk and honey, to kill us in the wilderness, but you also make yourself a prince over us?” (Numbers 16, 13). Further, in asking here “Is it a small thing…” Datan and Aviram also mimic and mock the question that Moses had asked of Korach “is it a small thing…” (Numbers 16, 9) in relation to Korach serving in the Tabernacle as a Levite even though he was not a priest.


The picture that the Bible draws here in the story of the rebellions against Moses is one of disagreement and argument concerning various issues degenerating into personal attack and conflict. On a widespread basis people believe, mistakenly in my eyes, that disagreement and argument is something bad and to be avoided. However, in the Biblical portrait here of the rebellions against Moses, it is not disagreement and argument that is bad – rather, it is the way that the disagreement and argument is expressed in the form of personal attack and conflict that is bad.


There is a fundamental concept of the Talmudic tradition that an argument to be legitimate must be “for the sake of Heaven” (מחלוקת לשם שמיים). One rule that I have personally for conducting a legitimate argument and to prevent such an argument from degenerating into personal attack is that we are permitted to attack an issue but not the person. You can say to me that what I have said or done is stupid, idiotic or a lie (and then you must be open to hearing my side as to why I do not think that what I have said or done is stupid, idiotic or a lie) – and, this is an attack not upon me but upon the issue of what I said or did (and, there will be a resulting intellectual argument or debate concerning what I said or did in which we at least may attain mutual understanding if not mutual agreement). However, you may not say that I am stupid, an idiot or a liar as this is an attack upon me as a person. An issue oriented attack leads to an intellectual argument or debate that is “for the sake of Heaven” in allowing for mutual respect and peace between people in spite of disagreement, while a personal attack is not an argument or debate “for the sake of Heaven” and leads to the degenerating of an argument into conflict.


There is a striking Talmudic source (Pirkei Avot 5, 17) that distinguishes between an argument for the sake of Heaven and an argument not for the sake of Heaven:


Every argument that is for the sake of Heaven will in the end endure and every argument that is not for the sake of Heaven will in the end not endure. Which is an argument that is for the sake of Heaven? This is the argument of Hillel and Shammai. And which is an argument that is not for the sake of Heaven? This is the argument of Korach and all his assembly.


Before we attempt to understand the difference according to the source between an argument for the sake of Heaven and one that is not – the very distinction here between the two is very significant, as it indicates that in the Talmudic conception argument is not necessarily something bad and to be avoided. According to the Talmudic teaching – it depends upon how we argue. Actually argument for the sake of Heaven is of the very essence of religion in the Biblical and traditional Jewish conception and thus to be encouraged.


If I were to choose only one word to describe the Jewish rabbinic tradition, it would be the Hebrew word (מחלוקת) meaning intellectual argument – and, the word is related to the Hebrew word “difference” in the phrase difference of opinion (חילוקי דעות). The Talmudic and Midrashic literatures as the foundation of the Jewish rabbinic tradition record intellectual arguments and debates that were held in the yeshivot (study academies) during the Talmudic period in a systematic way between the Talmudic rabbis and their students regarding a wide variety of issues – Halachic (legal) and Aggadic (moral, philosophic and spiritual issues as well as interpretation of texts). Therefore, virtually every issue in the Jewish tradition (Halachic or Aggadic) is a matter of argument and debate in which there is a plurality of viewpoints. There is a well-known joke illustrating the nature of the Jewish tradition that when there are two Jews together there are at least three different opinions. The Jewish tradition from a factual point of view is characterized by pluralism – by a plurality of viewpoints regarding virtually every issue.


Furthermore, the traditional method of study in yeshivot of argument and debate is in pairs called a chevruta (חברותא) an Aramaic term that means friendship or companionship. The traditional method then of study in the Jewish tradition is one of companionship between study partners the essence of which is disagreement and intellectual argument.


In the Bible, one reason for marriage (besides procreation in accordance with the commandment to be fruitful and multiply) is for the sake of companionship as reflected in the verse – “it is not good for a man to be alone; I will make a help mate for him” (Genesis 2, 18). The verse literally says “a help mate against him” (עזר כנגדו). Implied in the literal reading is that not only is argument not something bad but the very essence of companionship of marriage is based upon disagreement and argument.


The name Israel in the Bible, the name of the Jewish people, literally means to wrestle with God (Genesis 32, 29), and is the name given to Jacob, the patriarch (Genesis 32, 29 & 35, 10). The name Jacob literally means to deceive, as Esau says, after Jacob takes the birthright and blessing from him – “He is rightly named Jacob for he has deceived me these two times” (Genesis 27, 36). Isaac also says to Esau that Jacob deceived him – “your brother came in deception and has taken away your blessing” (Genesis 27, 35). The story of Jacob is one of Jacob transforming himself (Genesis 32, 28-31) in wrestling with God (which I understand in a metaphoric sense that he wrestled with his own moral conscience, constituting the Divine image of the human being) – transforming himself from Jacob, one who deceives (not only his brother but his father as well), into Israel, one is who righteous before God – and, the name Israel in Hebrew (ישראל) if divided in the middle is righteous of God (ישר אל). The Jewish people then are the children of Israel, the children and descendants of Jacob, who are to be devoted to righteousness – and this is to be the defining feature of Judaism and the Jewish people above all else.


The literal meaning of the name Israel “to wrestle with God” reflects one of the most important defining features of the Hebrew Bible – Biblical texts do not cover up or hide the sins and wrongdoings of the great Biblical figures and heroes. They are portrayed as human beings, with their frailties, weaknesses and fallibility presented in an honest and open way, and subject to criticism. The Bible records openly that Moses sinned, and thus is not allowed to enter the land of Israel. What is the connection between such criticism and wrestling with God?


I want to suggest that the paradigm for such criticism is Abraham and Moses the greatest figures of the Bible who argue and wrestle even with God. Abraham in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah questions God’s justice “Will the Judge of all the earth not do justice?” (Genesis 18, 25), and holds God accountable to Abraham’s own subjective conception of justice. Rashi (the great commentator of the 11th century) on the verse (Genesis 18, 23) “And Abraham drew near”, in which Abraham begins to argue with God, interprets the phrase “drew near” to mean among other things to make war by uttering harsh words. Rashi understands that Abraham, among other things, is actually fighting with God. However, it is clear that the argument here between God and Abraham is of an intellectual nature and issue oriented without personal attack.


Moses not only argues with God (Exodus 32, 11-14), in an issue oriented way, when God is determined to destroy the people Israel after the making of the golden calf but actually demands that God repent!  Moses says to God, “Turn from Your fierce anger, and repent of this evil against Your people” (Exodus 32, 12), and the passage concludes by saying, “And the Lord repented of the evil which He thought to do to His people” (Exodus 32, 14). Moses thus goes even further than Abraham. Abraham, in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, questions, and argues with, God. But, there is no indication that Abraham demands of God to rescind the decree to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. Moses not only questions and argues, but actually demands that God rescind the decree to destroy the Israelites, and calls God’s decree evil – and, Scripture agrees with Moses in terming the decree of God evil in saying that God repented of the evil (Exodus 32, 14)!


Thus, to question and wrestle with God is not only not seen as forbidden or heretical in the Biblical conception but this is the very essence of what it means to be a Jew as reflected in the name Israel. From Abraham and Moses who wrestle with God, we learn that God is not above and beyond criticism, from which it follows that no human being is above and beyond criticism. Yitro criticizes Moses, the greatest Biblical prophet (Exodus 18, 13-27). Natan the prophet criticizes the greatest of Biblical Kings, David (2 Samuel 12, 1-12). The great classical prophets of the Hebrew Bible criticize the priesthood and Temple cult. No individual and no societal institution is considered above and beyond criticism, for God is not above questioning and criticism. Moral and social criticism is a distinguishing feature of the Hebrew Bible, and is not to be found to such an extent in any other ancient, near eastern literature. But, criticism must be issue oriented and for the sake of Heaven.


If we return to the Talmudic teaching concerning the difference between an argument for the sake of Heaven and one that is not in order to understand the difference according to the teaching – the formulation of the teaching is striking. The example of an argument that is not for the sake of Heaven is that of Korach and his assembly – however, the other side of the argument was Moses who is omitted from the formulation. In this example, then, only one side of the argument is cited – in distinction to the example of an argument for the sake of Heaven, which includes both sides, Hillel and Shammai, who were two great Talmudic rabbis with differing conceptions (and there were disagreements between them regarding many issues).


The dispute between Korach and Moses was not a legitimate and intellectual argument of an issue oriented nature – rather, this was a dispute concerning personal grievances, which represented an attack upon Moses (and upon the leadership of Moses). In my view, the reason that Moses is omitted in the Talmudic teaching is that such a dispute, which is not an argument for the sake of Heaven allowing for mutual respect and peace between people, does not endure in ending in conflict and fragmentation (or even worse in verbal or physical violence) – and, the relationship between the two sides has been destroyed. I want to clarify here – in such a dispute or argument that is not for the sake of Heaven, at least one of the sides is committed to truth to such an extent, even above mutual respect and peace between the two sides, so that not only is there a willingness to attack the other side in a personal way but there is also no possibility of compromise of one’s position.


The example of an argument for the sake of Heaven is Hillel and Shammai – and, in the early Talmudic period there were two great schools of thought Beit Hillel (the school of Hillel) and Beit Shammai (the school of Shammai), which developed on the basis of the differing conceptions and approaches of the teachers Hillel and Shammai. I want to suggest that the Talmudic teaching here is citing Hillel and Shammai because their arguments of an intellectual nature continued in the intellectual arguments and debates between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai. The argument of Hillel and Shammai was for the sake of Heaven allowing for mutual respect and peace (in spite of disagreement) between them such that the argument of Hillel and Shammai endured – especially in the arguments and debates between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai.


The Talmud holds up as an ideal relations of friendship and companionship between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai (Yevamot 14b) in spite of disagreement between them:


Even though Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel disagreed regarding other wives, sisters, an old divorce document…Beit Shammai did not abstain from marrying women from Beit Hillel, and Beit Hillel from Beit Shammai. This is to teach you that they acted toward each other in friendship and affection in fulfillment of what is written – “truth and peace they loved” (Zechariah 8, 19).


The disagreements between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai in this source concern various issues of marriage and divorce, and have even more severe consequences from a legal point of view than disagreements today between reform and orthodox concerning conversion. If a reform rabbi performs a conversion not according to accepted Halacha (law), there is no danger of mamzerut, which is a technical term in Jewish law that refers not to a child born out of wedlock but to a child born of a forbidden (adulterous or incestuous) relationship. In the case in which a reform rabbi performs a conversion of a woman not according to Halacha, a child born to such a woman is not considered to be a Jew according to Halacha as the woman herself is not considered to be a Jew according to Halacha – but, both can convert according to Halacha and join the Jewish people. The consequences of a child being defined as a mamzer are much more severe, and such a child though considered Jewish is not allowed to marry a fellow Jew (in order to deter the committing of adultery or incest). In the source here, as a result of the disagreements concerning marriage and divorce, if Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai intermarry there is a danger of mamzerut – and, yet, they intermarried.

The Biblical verse from the Book of Zechariah “truth and peace they loved” is cited as a support that peace is more important than truth as well as more important than observance of Halacha (law) – in order to explain the problematic legal behavior of Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai in marrying each other given the legal problems that would result. Both sides were willing here to compromise their own conception of truth for the sake of peace and the relationship between them. In my view, it is this commitment to peace above truth in importance that is the very essence of an argument for the sake of Heaven enabling such an argument to endure.

Jeffrey Radon

Author of orthopraxjudaism.com

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