The Children of Israel faced many hardships in the desert and Moshe, their leader, had no shortage of challenges, but none matched the Korah rebellion as an attempt to overthrow Moshe’s leadership. The Mishnah’s characterization of Korah’s challenge contrasts it with a famous dispute among the founding sages of the Pharisaic/Rabbinic tradition:
Any dispute (mahloket) which is for Heaven’s sake is destined to be of lasting worth, but any which is not for Heaven’s sake is not destined to be of lasting worth. Which dispute was for Heaven’s sake? Such was the dispute between Hillel and Shammai. And which was not for Heaven’s sake? Such was the dispute of Korah and his company. (Avot 5:17)
Those familiar with the language of the rabbinic tradition know that the word “mahloket” is normally used to describe disputes over ideas and legal matters. Mahlokot are a mainstay of the Jewish tradition and, in fact, the majority of the medieval commentators affirm this understanding of the word in their explanations of this Mishnah. While this interpretation seems appropriate to describe the disputes between the great sages, Hillel and Shammai, it does not seem to fit well as a description of the dispute between Korah and Moshe.
One early commentator stands out in this regard. Rabeinu Natan Av Hayeshiva (11th century Eretz Yisrael), author of the earliest known independent commentary on the Mishnah, harkened back to the original meaning of the word – “group” or “faction”.
[We sometimes need to be reminded that the meaning of words evolves over time and to really understand what is being said in a given context, it is necessary to choose the word’s appropriate meaning. This “science” is known as philology and, in this case, it helps us get at the original intension of this Mishnah.] (See Shlomo Naeh, “Aseh Libkha Hadre Hadarim: Iyyun Nosaf B’divrei Hazal al Mahloket”)
Rabeinu Natan’s interpretation explains the Mishnah’s comparison between Korah and company and Hillel and Shammai much better. Korah’s dispute with Moshe was not over ideas. It was a sectarian challenge to the leadership of the people which threatened the unity of the community. Regarding Hillel and Shammai, people sometimes forget that the dispute between these two sages was much more than just a disagreement over a few halakhic interpretations. These sages established serious schools of thought with differences in worldview and practice. There was great potential for a sectarian split which would have threatened the future of nascent rabbinic Judaism. The fact that the sages were able to avoid sectarianism despite their differences warranted praise. This Mishnah serves as a warning, though, of the potential danger of allowing acceptable dispute and differences to spill over into something destructive.
The lessons of this Mishnah should not be lost on us. The Jewish tradition thrives on “mahloket”, namely, differences in worldview which are open to debate but when “mahloket” becomes sectarian and self-interested in a destructive way, things will not end good. This same lesson has universal application in a world that is becoming increasingly fragmented and extreme. It is time to stand back from the brink before any semblance of unity becomes impossible.