Controversies:legitimate or not

By Rabbi Steve Fisch
Parashat Korach

A new rabbi comes to a well-established congregation. Every week on the Sabbath, a fight erupts during the service. When it comes time to recite the Shema, half of the congregation stands and the other half sits.

The people who are standing yell at the people who are sitting, “Stand up!” while the people who are sitting yell at the people who are standing, “Sit down!”

It’s destroying the whole decorum of the service and driving the new rabbi crazy. The rabbi learns that at a nearby home for the aged is a 98-year-old man who was a founding congregation member. So, by Talmudic tradition, the rabbi appoints his own delegation of three — one who stands for the Shema, one who sits and the rabbi himself — to go interview the man.

They enter his room and the man who stands for the Shema rushes over to the old man and says, “Wasn’t it the tradition in our synagogue to stand for the Shema?”

“No,” the old man answers in a weak voice. “That wasn’t the tradition.”

The other man jumps in excitedly. “Wasn’t it the tradition in our synagogue to sit for the Shema?”

“No,” the old man says. “That wasn’t the tradition.”

At this point, the rabbi cannot control himself. He cuts in angrily. “I don’t care what the tradition was! Just tell them one or the other. Do you know what goes on in services every week — the people who are standing yell at the people who are sitting, the people who are sitting yell at the people who are standing—”

The old man strokes his beard, looks up with a smile of remembrance and says, “That was the tradition.”

This week’s portion, Korach, is a perfect example of an illegitimate controversy.

Korah, Dathan, Abiram and 250 co-conspirators rebelled against Moses by bringing an invalid offering. Only the Kohanim were authorized to offer this type of offering, but Korah and his band were not Kohanim, only Levites. A heavenly fire descended and consumed all who defied the priestly order.

Their action was clearly a disagreement and rebellion against the prevailing authority. 

The rabbis understood that some disagreements were legitimate and some were not so.

They had an intriguing idea called “machloket l’shem shamayim” — an argument for the sake of Heaven.

The rabbis believed that some arguments were holy. They defined a sacred argument as a disagreement in which both sides sincerely sought the truth and had profound respect and affection for each other.

The Talmudic rabbis said that the ongoing disagreement between the schools of Hillel and Shammai was an argument for the sake of Heaven.

But because Korach was motivated by his own personal ambition, his argument against Moses was not for the sake of Heaven.

When we have a conflict with a business associate, spouse, child or friend, we need to take a hard look at the base from which we are arguing.

Are we defending our pride or are we trying to solve a problem with love and patience? Are we willing to learn from our disagreement or are we repeating self-defeating behavior?

May we always disagree from positions of respect, love and patience: machlokot l’shem shamayim” — arguments for the sake of Heaven.

Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Steve Fisch is a member of Adat Chaverim, a retired Reform rabbi and a member of the Rabbinic Association of Greater Dallas.

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