Every dispute that is for the sake of Heaven, will in the end endure; But one that is not for the sake of Heaven, will not endure. Which is the controversy that is for the sake of Heaven? Such was the controversy of Hillel and Shammai. And which is the controversy that is not for the sake of Heaven? Such was the controversy of Korah and all his congregation.
Pirke Avot 5:17
This iconic passage, and its enshrining of debate as a staple of Jewish tradition, has done some heavy lifting for me over the last four years. In an era of exponential polarization and its vehement expression, the virtue of “constructive debate” is a reminder that eggs must be broken for omelets, the making of sausage is often unsightly, and the pursuit of a difficult, synthetic truth is a righteous end that often justifies an impassioned means. This pithy wisdom also affirms the realization that our ideological opponents are not our enemies and could even be partners in resolving intractable disputes toward a higher purpose. This provided a good tonic for our worries and foreboding at the dawn of this most tumultuous period in our nation’s history.
But when delving more deeply into the text and its meaning, greater concerns emerge that reveal new challenges to our tenuous cultural discourse. The text responds to its own premise, seeking clarification of the nature of arguments “for the sake of heaven.” The examples it provides are instructive, offering telling insight into the distinction between vital and toxic disagreements.
The schools of the rabbinic adversaries Hillel and Shammai were notoriously at odds, often rendering diametrically opposed opinions. However, despite their differences, the two houses recognized one another’s humanity, interacted personally and warmly, and affirmed their pursuit of a consensual truth that bound them as one people. Intention mattered more than ire, shared objective more than the varying pathways in reaching it.
On the other hand, Korach, the infamous rebel against Moses’ leadership in the Book of Numbers, stoked contention solely for ego, notoriety, and personal gain. The wellbeing of the people and its divinely-ordained mission to get to the Promised Land were secondary to Korach’s insistence that he was better qualified to lead, or at the very least, equal to Moses in the task. The Torah gives scant other reasoning or justification for Korach’s claim aside from his lust for power and willingness to upend the community to achieve it.
The 15th century Italian rabbi Bartenura unpacked the last of these enigmatic words from Pirke Avot, commenting on the nature of what it is to “endure.” More than merely the dispute, he asserts that the survival of the parties themselves is at stake, for those whose intent is more self-interested than in service to others have perished. The outcome of the debates testifies to this point, in that we still learn from the record of Hillel and Shammai as we do from the majority and dissenting opinions in our modern jurisprudence, while the fate of Korach and his followers laid at the bottom of a fissure in the earth, which conveniently opened up to dispense with this challenge to Moses through supernatural retribution.
And so, this text continues to speak to the current moment in the ongoing saga of our national schism and the angst it evokes. When the intent of a societal debate grows from an authentic pursuit of truth that transcends the pettiness of positions and the demonization of the other side, the community flourishes, and as Hemingway intoned, it is even stronger in the broken places. But when contention arises because the misguided followers of an arrogant leader support a narcissism and self-aggrandizement that symbolizes their grievance and distrust—even ignoring or denying the foibles of the person and the dangers posed– those people will perish, perhaps not in a physical descent into the earth, but in a moral collapse into the abyss.
The text points to an even larger lesson that often gets lost in the struggle for tribal dominance: Our society must reconcile diversity with interdependence, what the business world characterizes as “coopetition.” It is a recognition of our basic hardwiring for incentive toward achievement, and an appreciation that a zero-sum approach to a shared community leaves all diminished if not destroyed.
As we endure this period of great uncertainty and unrest, let us harness the creativity and passion emerging from a wealth of perspectives to address our common challenges, while affirming the ideals and goals that bind us—a union of people and purpose that will secure us in our task to endure where others have perished.