Disputes for the sake of heaven

Text-inspired dialogue dealing with the role of conflict as a lens for understanding Jewish values is particularly meaningful these days at Midreshet Hannaton. Here’s why.

I live thousands of miles from the United States, but when I see the photos and videos of marches and confrontations, I feel as if I am there, experiencing the shocking events. Yet I cannot really imagine what Americans are feeling as these events take place in their home communities.

The death of George Floyd was appalling and horrible. There is no question that those responsible must be brought to justice. And while the reality is always more complex than a TV news clip, clearly there are unsupportable and unacceptable trends that led to this event.

Here in Israel, we are thinking of our families, friends, and colleagues in the US, we are hurting with them, and we are concerned about the impact of these events on the US society as a whole and the Jewish community in particular. From what I have seen, I have been impressed by many local leaders who have taken strong stands against police violence as well as the violence of others taking advantage of the public’s anger and frustration to sow discord. It is encouraging to see that, alongside the violence, grief, and pain, there are conversations, dialogue, and ideas that can lead to healing and hope.

These events, on the heels of the trauma of COVID-19, bring to mind a section of Pirkei Avot (5:17) that relates to the events of Parshat Korach, which we will read later this month:

Any dispute that is for the sake of Heaven is destined to endure; one that is not for the sake of Heaven is not destined to endure. Which is a dispute that is for the sake of Heaven? The dispute(s) between Hillel and Shamai. Which is a dispute that is not for the sake of Heaven? The dispute of Korach and all his adherents.

We can understand this to mean that a disagreement for the sake of Heaven is one whose aim is to clarify the truth, as part of a conflict that can teach us the best way to preserve our world, our society, and our lives. Yet a dispute that is not for the sake of heaven exists only to glorify one’s own ego and raise one’s status in the eyes of others. In this scenario, one considers only one’s ego and one’s self, and contributes to destruction, not building. As Pirkei Avot lays this out for us, the distinction seems clear and logical – yet life is so much more complex.

Americans of all backgrounds serve on the police forces across the country; and Americans of all backgrounds are involved in the mass protests. This conflict is about the very character of American society – and so much more. What actions are really intended to reveal truth, and what actions occur to promote the individual? What actions and ideas are aimed at building for the common good – and which are actually aimed at destroying the community values we hold dear?

At this time of great unrest and uncertainly, we support the broader community in the US, and we know that the people of the United States have the power to endure and overcome. The Jewish community in the US has a particularly strong and stirring legacy of fighting on behalf of civil rights and a humane, democratic society. These characteristics are central to the fabric of American society, to Judaism, and to the story of the Jewish people.

Here at Midreshet Hannaton in the Lower Galilee, our mission and educational goals focus on encouraging young Israelis to engage in dialogue around core Jewish values and the conflicts that define our lives. The events of recent days, sadly, will provide our educators, our pre-army Mechina participants, and others with a new opportunity for thought-provoking conversations and a call to engage in social action to help right the wrongs in our own society.

We pray that those working to heal and strengthen society will prevail.

About the Author
A Masorti rabbi, Rabbi Yoav Ende is the Executive Director of the Hannaton Educational Center, located on Kibbutz Hannaton in the Lower Galilee.
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