Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Korah

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Parashat Korah 5761/ June 23, 2001
On Controversy

Hanna Kasher
Dept. of Philosophy

Great is peace; despicable is controversy. How so? A city in which there is controversy will come to ruin. The Sages said, "Controversy in a city [leads to] bloodshed." ... A home in which there is controversy, will come to ruin... The Sages said, "When there is controversy in a court, it is the ruination of the world" (Derekh Eretz 7.37).

Apparently there is no denying that wisdom, industriousness and peace are commendable. Yet with respect to each of these values we can find words of praise for their opposites. Centuries ago Erasmus gained fame for writing Encomium moriae ("In Praise of Folly"); several decades ago Bertrand Russell wrote In Praise of Idleness; and today we find people discussing praise of controversy. It has been presented as the life-breath of human society in general, with its wide variety of outlooks, and some have even gone so far as to say that Jewish identity is characterized by controversy.

The latter argument was presented back in the 14th century, albeit disapprovingly, by the exegete R. Joseph ibn Caspi. In his Metzaref le-Khesef (Last Edition, Cracow 1906, p. 43), he ascribed significance to the fact that Peleg, son of Eber (Gen. 11:17), is mentioned as one of the predecessors of the Hebrews:

But we are still the descendants of Peleg, all of us quarrelsome, contentious and dissident. It is this trait that led to the destruction of our Temple, and yet it continues.

Notwithstanding the many sayings of the Sages condemning controversy, there are also remarks that appear to find merit in it. One such saying comes from Tractate Avot (5.17):

Every controversy that is for G-d's sake shall in the end be lasting (Heb. sofa le-hitkayem), but [any controversy] that is not for G-d's sake shall in the end not be lasting. Which controversy was it that was for G-d's sake? This was the controversy of Hillel and Shammai. And which was not for G-d's sake? Such was the controversy of Korah and all his faction.

It need not necessarily be assumed that the point of this remark was to promote controversy in Israel. This remark is one of four statements in Tractate Avot that deal with actions "for G-d's sake."[1] Thus, taken in context, the basic point of the remark was to distinguish between something that might appear negative but in certain circumstances could have lasting value, from a seemingly similar thing that is indeed negative and destined to pass from the world. The motive or purpose - a controversy "for G-d's sake" - was the criterion for making such a distinction. The controversy that was wholly negative was that of Korah and his faction; whereas the one that had lasting value was the controversy between Hillel and Shammai.

The claim that there is a direct relationship between the motives of a controversy ("for G-d's sake") and the fact of its endurance ("shall in the end be lasting") has been questioned both as to its actual truth and its theoretical validity. The factual argument concerns the temporary nature of the controversy between Hillel and Shammai, to which an end was put when the halakhah was ruled to follow the school of Hillel (cf. Magen Avot by Rashbatz, loc. sit.). That means that a controversy that was for G-d's sake proved not to be lasting. The theoretical argument against the remark in Tractate Avot is that the motives of a controversy are not relevant to its permanence, for only one of the parties is on the side of the truth, and it is fitting that the controversy end with the halakhah being established according to that party (R. Isaac Arama, Akedat Yitzhak, 78).

In the wake of these arguments, other interpretations of "sofa le-hitkayem" have been offered. Some have held that these words referred not to the argument but to the parties arguing, meaning that they would have long life, in contrast to the untimely demise of Korah and his followers (see R. Jonah Girondi's commentary, loc. sit.), or that they would have eternal existence in the sense that they would be granted survival of the soul. Another interpretation views the word sof in the context of sofa le-hitkayem as synonymous with "end-purpose" or "goal"; the saying is interpreted as promising some sort of reward fitting the true objectives of those arguing for G-d's sake. According to this interpretation, the realization of this promise would come when the issue is decided in favor of those arguing the truth, for this is the objective of those who argue for G-d's sake (R. Obadiah of Bartenura's commentary on the Mishnah; also see Magen Avot by Rashbatz, loc. sit.).

The Sages' remark about the lasting-power of a "righteous" argument raises another difficulty. Recall that the example given to illustrate a worthy controversy was the disagreement between Shammai and Hillel and their followers. Indeed, as is well-attested (for example, in Yebamot 14b), the halakhic disagreement did not lead to a degeneration in personal relations between Hillel and Shammai themselves, for "they treated one another with friendship and affection." However it turns out that even this controversy came under attack. In one of the Sages' remarks both its causes and its consequences are criticized: "When insufficiently trained disciples of Shammai and Hillel became numerous, controversy became rife in Israel and the Torah became two Teachings" (Sanhedrin 88b). The scope of the controversy ("controversy became rife") was explained by finding fault with the diligence of those involved in the controversy: they were "insufficiently trained." Also the fact that this controversy endured -endurance was interpreted in Tractate Avot as rewarding those who participated in it - is presented here as a religious stumbling block to the Jewish people in general: "the Torah became two Teachings." Moreover, the depiction in Yebamot of "friendship and affection" did not match the general picture of relations between the school of Shammai and the school of Hillel, as is evident from the description in the Jerusalem Talmud (Shabbat 1.3) of a brutal incident between the rival groups of disciples:

The disciples of the school of Shammai stood below, slaughtering the disciples of the school of Hillel. Six of them ascended, while the rest threatened them with swords and spears."

Thus we see that even the controversy between tannaim, which may have begun as an argument for the sake of G-d, in time developed into violent civil strife.
Those who speak in praise of controversy sometimes also cite the statement that "both these and those are words of the Everliving G-d" (Eruvin 13b, Gittin 6b). However this is not necessarily the only line of interpretation, and this is not the place to explain that statement. In support of controversy it is often argued that it lends suitable expression to the plurality of people's views and ways of life. But one can picture groups that behave differently living side by side, without either group being in discord with the other.

So how can arguments among us be resolved? The more the controversial issue is significant for living together, the more essential and pressing it is to terminate the controversy. Thus, the controversy over declaring the new month ended clearly and unequivocally when R. Dosa b. Hyrcanus expressed his submission by coming to Rabban Gamaliel with his staff and his money in hand "on the day that the Day of Atonement fell in accordance with his reckoning" (Rosh ha-Shanah 2.9), for a uniform calendar of festivals, holidays and fast days is one of the most important things that comprise a united people.

Pluralism is most likely to exist precisely in regard to those areas in which the parties that hold different views need not cooperate. A controversy over emunot vedeot, views and beliefs that do not require practical application can continue to exist, as Maimonides ruled in his commentary on the Mishnah:

In any controversy between the Sages that does not pertain to actions, rather that only involves a statement of opinion, one need not rule the halakhah to follow either side (Sanhedrin 10.3; also see Sotah 3.3, Shevuot 1.4, Iggeret Tehiyat ha-Metim 2).

Note, however, that even Maimonides himself made this assertion of tolerance when relating to issues that were not central to his approach! He asserted this in the context of the following questions: Did a certain group of sinful people from the biblical era have a share in the World to Come? How is innocence established by the water used in the rite of sotah? Should the narrative of the valley of dry bones be taken figuratively? In contrast, Maimonides himself ruled explicitly that there is a halakhic duty to accept certain stands on subjects that he considered essential tenets of the faith. As we know, even this attempt to create uniformity in matters of faith ran into difficulties, as the prolonged debate between Jewish philosophers over the existence and significance of articles of faith in Judaism attests.[2]

But even the claim that a controversy without practical implications can continue undisturbed and unresolved is not without problems. Some people are unwilling to accept the legitimacy of "ideological deviation" from their own opinions, whether this is due to a paternalistic approach seeking to impose its own way of thought, or to lack of tolerance of other views, or to the fear that even a controversy over something which is purely a matter of opinion constitutes a threat to the well-being of society. Ironically, sometimes controversies which are purely theoretical reach their resolution without coercion; they are likely to be resolved when in the course of time the truth comes to light.

Regarding the tendency to become involved in controversy, which begins with the natural inclination of human beings to hold different views and ends one never knows where, it is well to conclude with the remarks of Rabbi Ezekiel Landau, author of Noda bi-Yehudah (first edition, Yoreh De'ah, 1):

May his Honor please take my advice, and make room for peace. For there is nothing worse than discord, and in these days controversies "for the sake of G-d" are not to be found, and the Devil rejoices. So I implore you, make peace; and may He who makes peace On High bless his people Israel with peace.


[1] "Let all that labor with [the interests of] the congregation labor with them from heavenly motives" (Avot 2.2), "and let all thy deeds [be prompted] for the sake of Heaven" (ibid. 2.12), "Every assembly that is for the sake of Heaven will in the end be established" (ibid. 4.11), "Every controversy that is for G-d's sake shall in the end lead to a lasting result" (ibid. 5.17). The term, le-shem shamayim, can be interpreted as "for the glory of G-d," or in the contrapositive, not for the hunger to win. Also see Maimonides' commentary on this: "These are things that concern reward and punishment, that someone who argues not for a lesser motive, but to seek the truth - what he says will be lasting and his words not be erased."
[2] For a systematic discussion of this subject see Menahem Kelner, Torat he-Ikarim ba-Philosophia ha-Yehudit bi-Yemei ha-Beinayim, Jerusalem 1991.