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Disagreement for the sake of heaven

9Adar_LoRezEng_180I had the opportunity to do something really neat last night -- to participate in a livestreamed Torah discussion with two colleagues, organized as part of 9 Adar: the Jewish Day of Constructive Conflict. What's 9 Adar? Glad you asked:

The 9 Adar project seeks to strengthen the Jewish culture of constructive conflict and healthy disagreements. In our ancient texts, it is called machloket l’shem shemayim (disagreements for the sake of Heaven). It means arguing the issues while respecting and maintaining good relationships with the other side, making sure that your personal motivation is to come to the best solution and not just to win, admitting when you are wrong, and acknowledging that both sides might be right. Approximately 2,000 years ago on the 9th of Adar, two major ideological schools of thought, Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai, allowed their disagreements to degrade into terrible conflict. Today, we are using the day to promote the original culture of healthy and constructive conflict.

There have been a variety of 9 Adar events in various places over recent days and weeks. (The ninth day of the lunar month of Adar was actually a few days ago; our event happened a few days after the date itself, but was nevertheless part of the same "Jewish Day of Constructive Conflict" initiative.)

The conversation was between me,  my fellow Rabbi Without Borders Rabbi Alana Suskin of Americans for Peace Now, and Rabbi Joseph Kolakowski (profiled as The Chareidi Rabbi from Virginia, though he's no longer there; he's now the assistant rabbi at Congregation Beth Sinai in Kauneonga Lake, NY and Crescent Hill Synagogue in Rock Hill, NY), moderated by Lex Rofes and Caroline Morganti of Open Hillel. The question we were given was:

The figure of Korach has fascinated readers of the Torah for millennia. To what extent do you sympathize with his mindset, and with his challenge to authority? To what extent, alternatively, do you feel that his behavior was ill-advised, or even malicious? Most importantly, what lessons can we learn about this story as we explore our relationships to conflict and authority today?

(Korach, you may recall, was the fellow in Torah who rebelled against Moses' authority; he argued that the whole congregation was holy, so why did Moses hold himself above everyone? Moses said okay, fine, let's put this to God and we'll see who God prefers; and the earth swallowed up Korach and his followers.)

We began by going around the virtual room and each of us offering a few thoughts about Korach. Here's more or less what I intended to say in my opening remarks about Korach and his story:

I find that when I'm teaching Korach to my b'nei mitzvah students, they universally take his side. "What's so bad about Korach? He just didn't want all of the power to be in Moses' hands. And who elected Moses leader, anyway?" -- that kind of thing.  I know that I have at times felt great empathy with Korach -- and yet I've noticed that over the last 15 years my empathy for Moses has risen and my empathy for Korach has decreased, and maybe that's a function of me becoming a rabbi, or maybe it's a function of me just getting older, I don't know!

For me, the Korach story is a useful illustration of how not to handle conflict in my congregation. If someone becomes angry with me and how I'm doing things, and I respond with my own defensiveness, then I'm setting the stage for some kind of disaster -- the earth might not literally open up and swallow anyone, but there could be hurt feelings, damaged reputations, etc. We have to find a better way of settling our disputes.

For me the critical question is: was Korach actually acting out of a sense that everyone in the community is holy? Or was he jockeying for more power of his own? If it's really about his own ego and self-aggrandizement (e.g. he wanted some of Moshe's power), then it makes more sense that the earth swallowed him up -- because his makhloket (argument) wasn't really l'shem shamayim (for the sake of heaven).

For me that's what this all boils down to: how to keep our disagreements (including those around Israel/Palestine) for the sake of heaven, instead of for the sake of me being right and you being wrong.

"If the argument is based in love and mutual respect for one another, then it's an argument for the sake of heaven," said Rabbi Kolakowski, quoting the Satmar rebbe. "The way to tell if someone's a zealot and is just arguing for the sake of arguing is, how does that person lead their life in general? Does he argue about everything, or is it only when it's something important and for the sake of heaven that he gets excited and speaks up?"

Rabbi Suskin began by noting that she feels strongly ambivalent about Korach. It's hard for us as moderns not to feel some sympathy for the position of "we're all holy here" -- and yet our commentaries on Korach are pretty strongly negative. It's difficult to do with Torah what we want to do with other kinds of stories, and tell the story from the point of view of the "bad guy" and thereby redeem him.

She pointed out that the rabbis suggested that the reason that Korach's argument was not for the sake of heaven was that when he protested that "all of the people are holy," what he was really saying was not that we all have the capacity to be holy, but that in and of ourselves, without doing anything, regardless of what we do, we're holy. She argued that it's not really Jewish to say "I'm holy no matter what I do; no one can judge me." We're part of the community; our behavior impacts those around us.

From there we shifted into talking about what it means for disagreement to be holy -- Rabbi Brad Hirschfield's You Don't Have To Be Wrong For Me To Be Right -- the Talmudic stories of Reish Lakish and of Kamza and Bar Kamza -- the obligation to rebuke, and also the obligation to recognize where people are and to speak to them in a way that they will hear -- finding the partial truth in opinions with which we disagree -- and more! Here's the video of our conversation, which ran for about 65 minutes:

And if you can't see the embedded video, you can go to it on YouTube - 9 Adar Interdenominational Text Study. If this sounds like fun to you, I hope you'll go and watch.