Dispute and its motivations

By Rabbi Dan Lewin
Parashat Korach

One of the relevant questions these days is, can you be friends with someone and nourish the personal relationship although you strongly disagree with their religious or political views? When sensitive topics are broached, people often struggle to differentiate between the content — the ideas being presented — and the personality behind the argument. And when that line is blurred, egos naturally jump into the picture and the dialogue can get messy. Strong convictions make it hard to logically disagree without being disagreeable.

A common response to criticism is “What about tolerance, ahavat Yisroel, loving your fellow Jew?” Or “Don’t be so judgmental!” Such reprimands often fail to distinguish between pointing out a flaw in a belief (or action) and judging the person harshly. Love for people does not mean embracing their point of view. Likewise, critiquing an ideology is different from attacking the character of the person behind it.

A symbol of strife

This week’s Torah portion relates the classic case of corruption garbed in noble speech. It opens with a revolt against Moses by a shrewd individual named Korach who protests the priesthood status of Aaron. As so often happens, corrupt (or confused) individuals misuse holy concepts as political weapons — strategically, not because they really believe them. In this case, Korach played on the idea of equality. “The entire congregation is holy,” he argued. “Why therefore do you elevate yourselves?” But it is clear from the later verses that he was seeking priesthood for himself.

The commentaries expound the Hebrew phrase (Numbers 16:1) “And Korach… betook himself…” to mean that he separated himself from the congregation — he allowed himself to get carried away by his ambition. Along the way, he convinced other influential leaders to follow him. The result was tragic. For this reason, in Jewish ethical works, Korach has become a symbol for dissension. His name is synonymous with strife.

To be sure, the Torah approach does not discourage all disputes — dissenting views and interpretations are often embraced as the pathway to gaining wisdom. The Talmud states that just as people’s physical features vary, no minds think exactly alike; individuals hold different opinions and see the world from different angles. Furthermore, each person offers insights of which others are yet unaware. Good debates help clarify complex issues.

But in certain situations, it is important to differentiate between what is being said — the accuracy of the statement — and why it’s being said. If pursued out of conviction, for the sake of establishing truth or to gain better understanding, such dispute can be valuable. If, however, the argument is motivated by personal gain, to force one’s own ideas, or to bash the other side — it is certainly a harmful conversation.

In this vein, Ethics of our Fathers (5:17) states that any disagreement engaged with pure intention has an abiding result — a long-term benefit. In contrast, disputes fueled by impure motives always meet a bitter end by causing division within the community. To illustrate, the Mishna contrasts the debates of Hillel and Shammai — the classic example of a beneficial argument — and that of Korach and his cohorts, the symbol of divisiveness.

What’s behind the argument?

How do we recognize which disagreements are sincere and which are based on competitive drives? One indication is the impact on the relationship. Tradition points out that despite their strong opposing views on fundamental issues, the followers of Hillel and Shammai did not refrain from marrying amongst each other and dining together. There was mutual respect and friendship. In other words, they kept their disputes on an academic level; arguments were limited to the issues and never attempted to defame the opponent. They recognized in one another a pursuit of truth and did not try to outshout or overpower the other. That type of debate, says the Mishna, is an example of “a disagreement for the sake of Heaven.”

Returning to the story in our parasha, the commentaries explain that Korach was an intelligent and learned individual, charismatic and blessed with many talents. He submitted seemingly legitimate questions and arguments. But he was insincere and insecure. He argued like a demagogue. He attacked Moses and Aaron personally. Instead of employing reason, he appealed to people’s prejudices and emotions, used sarcasm and half-truths in his presentation. So, it was not the act of disagreeing, but his way of speaking that revealed his insincerity. As a result, he bred contentiousness among the people.

Tests and takeaways

There are several lessons and applications we can glean from our story this week. The first is recognizing the double-standard approach, which Korach personified. In the world today, we often find noble causes — freedom, equality, unity, human rights, etc. — being valued by an individual or group, but only when it advances a particular agenda. Conversely, the classical buzzwords such as loshen harah (derogatory speech), sinat chinam (baseless hatred) and sheker (dishonesty) are decried as terrible sins by those wanting to play the victim — yet when these same people shift into bully mode, they freely employ them. Similarly, showing a strong Jewish identity is portrayed as important when speaking to the crowd who values it. But if embracing antisemites will help politically or financially, personal gain takes priority.

Another lesson has to do with the damage of slander. A power-hungry Korach managed to convince the masses that Moses — the greatest prophet in the Torah and righteous spiritual guide who had recently led the Children of Israel out of Egypt — was not acting as their true leader. Fortunately, a stroke of divine intervention, a miracle with Aaron’s staff during the famous showdown, publicly proved the authenticity of his priesthood and revealed who was truthful. We don’t have that biblical luxury. Though intelligent onlookers dismiss verbal attacks during campaigns, recognizing the motives behind malicious accusations, many uninformed people (and those who think less critically) naturally believe the tales that pathological characters carelessly spew to assert themselves. It takes time and careful investigation for the average person to arrive at truth.

Finally, from this week’s narrative, we learn two easy tests to verify our own sincerity: When debating, do we stick strictly to the issues, or do we allow the clash of viewpoints to affect the personal relationship? Secondly, what are the general consequences of the dispute? Will it bring benefits of more truthfulness, insight and harmony or will it create tension in the community? In Judaism, pursuit of truth should result only in peace, for “the entire Torah was given to create peace in the world,” as it is said (Proverbs 3:17) “her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace.”

Rabbi Dan Lewin is director of the nonprofit Maayan Chai Foundation. For information, visit www.maayanchai.org.

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