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. (Ethics of the Fathers, chapter 5)
More than any other time in my memory, our society is engaged in a deep and profound culture war, and the if any issue has brought this battle to a head, it is the recent decision of the Supreme Court to reject fifty years of precedent in the overturning Roe v. Wade. This brewing conflict for decades has now become front and center, a battle that is going to wage in each state house and court, with picket lines drawn, and vicious invective hurled at the other side. Pro-choice demonstrators will frame this as an absolute assault on women, while pro-life demonstrators will carry placards accusing abortion advocates as murderers. In the wake of a court that has abdicated all sense of judicial restraint, it seems like the result will be an absolute power grab for both sides, and each side will advance their own interest. In such a divisive atmosphere that we have created, and now reinforced by the highest court, what chance is there for deeper understanding or respect for one another.
This week I would not like to look at the issue of abortion itself in Jewish thought, but rather the ways in which Americans in general and Jews in particular have framed the debate itself. How can Jewish ethics inform us as to how to engage with those whom we do not agree? In essence, is this a dispute for the sake of heaven or not? That depends upon not only the legitimacy and motivations of our claims, but the ways in which we try to engage one another. What is the difference between a dispute of Korach and Moses and Hillel and Shammai?
Mass conflict and even violence is at the core of our parashah. In our parashah we confront the reality of a full-fledged rebellion against the authority of Moses (and Aaron). This motley group, each pursuing their own personal agendas, are loosely united under the goal of objecting to Moses’ leadership, especially following the debacle of the sin of the spies in last week’s parashah, which resulted in the people vanquishing in the desert for forty years. Our parashah is a case study in how not to engage in dispute.
Datan and Aviram of the tribe of Reuven are two of the leaders of this rebellion. The descendants of the first born of Jacob, they clearly resent that Moses has taken the reigns of authority. The story will not end well for them, as they, their wives and their family will be terrifyingly swallowed alive into the earth. Datan and Aviram see the mass discontent all around them as the perfect time to stage an open challenge -or more accurately a rebellion, and rebel they do:
Moses sent for Datan and Aviram, sons of Eliab; but they said, “We will not come!” Is it not enough that you brought us from a land flowing with milk and honey to have us die in the wilderness, that you would also lord over us? You have not even brought us to a land flowing with milk and honey, and given us possession of fields and vineyards. Even should you gouge out the eyes of those involved, we will not come!
Like many translations, the Hebrew here can be difficult to parse, but there are at least three things to be noticed. 1) First Moses, summons for them, and later even goes to them. Moses is in a position of absolute authority. Why does he do this? From the conclusion of the story in which the evil Datan and Aviram are swallowed by an opening in the earth, it is clear the text assumes their agenda is illegitimate. 2) They refer to the land of Egypt as a ‘land flowing with milk and honey’ only two years out of slavery! This claim is not only an exercise in revisionist history, but is polemical and dishonest, playing upon the vulnerabilities of a discontent population with an uncertain future. 3) Datan and Aviram make the incredible claim that Moses would pluck their eyes out if they do not come, painting Moses- who while not averse to violence seems to always stay God’s wrath- as an authoritarian tyrant using violence to maintain his position. Furthermore, what does the image of ‘gouging eyes out’ mean? In answering these questions, I hope to construct the contours of what a debate not for the sake of heaven is.
Rashi points out that Moses, the one challenged, goes out of his way in an attempt to engage them and to make peace. For this reason he summons them to appear. Rabbeinu Yehonatan of Lunil in his commentary takes the idea even further, stating that Moses went to them even though Moses knew he was correct! From Moses’ example, the Talmud teaches that is an actual sin to exacerbate conflicts; it is a prohibition of being ‘like Korach and his collective’ (B.T. Sanhedrin 110a, quoting Numbers 15:5). This notion of appeasing and engaging those with whom we do not agree is even more startling given the identities of Datan and Aviram, which certain rabbinic traditions associate with the two Hebrews in Egypt who were informants to Pharaoh that Moses’ struck the Egyptian, forcing Moses to go into Exile for half his life (Shemot Rabba 1:1). In other words, Moses had every reason to see these two individuals as his sworn political enemies, and yet he tries to engage them nonetheless for the sake of peace.
In another explanation of these verses, Moses is not sending for them to make peace, but rather to summon them to court to adjudicate the claims. (See Rashbam 16:12 for example.) While this image is quite different and more confrontational, still we see that none other than Moses- the most powerful leader of the Jewish people- submits himself to an official judicial process. No one is above the law- even Moses, and if Datan and Aviram have claims- justified or not- they have a right to raise them before a third party.
Whatever way one reads Moses’ actions, the responses of Datan and Aviram are single-minded and absolute. “We will not go up.” Both are adamant that they neither will try to come to understanding with Moses or even settle their claims. Instead, they choose the path of all out war against Moses, motivated by their own unstated quest for power. The first building block of a dispute not for the sake of heaven is when people fail to engage at all with one another. When this happens, trust immediately breaks down.
Datan and Aviram then state that Moses had promised to bring them to a Promised Land flowing with milk and honey. Now they will vanquish and die in the desert. This claim is absolutely true, and they have every right to feel upset and disillusioned. (Exodus 3:8). What is not true is the absolute revisionism and character assassination. In making their argument to Moses, and by extension the people, they characterize Egypt as a verdant place of bounty, but forget to mention anything about the backbreaking suffering and Moses’ role in freeing these slaves. They also fail to mention that they are vanquishing forty years in the desert because of their own lack of faith and the evil reports of the spies. Rather they cast aspersions on the motives of Moses, who they claim is even ready to allow them to die- because he seeks absolute and ultimate power. For a dedicated servant like Moses, modest to a fault, this vicious move makes the debate a referendum on Moses’ character. The second building block in a dispute not for the sake of heaven is to falsify information and engage in character attacks in place of reasoned conversation.
At this stage, trust has completely broken down and the ending of the story proves it, as the story ends in a power struggle with God’s ultimate judgment. However, there is one last phrase that is telling, and is the key to understanding the meaning of a dispute not in the sense of heaven. Datan and Aviram invoke that ‘even if you poked out our eyes we will not come,’ invoking the concept that Moses is a tyrant and power hungry. However, there is another way to read this verse, which probably is more accurate. “Would you try to blind us to what is before our eyes?!” In other words, Datan and Aviram tell Moses they will not come, because the truth is decided and clear. Would Moses pluck out our eyes blinding us to what is so evident and clearly visible, that Moses is a tyrant and has decided to let the people languish in the desert to preserve power at all costs. In modern parlance, does Moses think he can pull the ‘wool over our eyes’? Datan and Aviram are completely convinced of their truth and can see no other way of looking at the situation; this arrogance is the third building block of a dispute not for the sake of heaven. That they are blinded to their own personal ambitions makes this final claim even more ironic.
Hence disputes not for the sake of heaven have three elements that can be teased out from the dispute between Moses and Datan and Aviram, part of Korach’s rebellion. 1) There is no good-will which would obligate one to engage with those they disagree. 2) Instead, in the pursuit of their own agendas one constructs an argument to solely advance their own agenda and casts aspersions on their opponents. 3) They approach their own agendas with a sense of self-righteousness and arrogance which prevents any other opinions from being heard.
If this is a dispute not for the sake of heaven, what is a dispute for the sake of heaven. The rabbinic text that opened our inquiry introduced us to the rabbinic school of Hillel and Shammai. Anyone who studies Talmud knows that these two schools were prolific opponents in all areas of Jewish law, and the disputes could become rather heated. People also know that with few exceptions, in Jewish legal disputes we rule like the school of Hillel. The rabbis state the reason was that the school of Hillel was forbearing, listening to the arguments of their opponents, and when rendering their own decision, they would first develop the counter arguments (Eruvin 13a). In this teaching, the rabbis teach us that we hold like Hillel because they were open and considered the opinions and concerns of their opponents, because they respected them. My guess is, that given their capacity to hear counter arguments, their own approaches were sometimes more nuanced as well. Halakha (Jewish law) itself always preserves the rejected opinion, reflecting that in disputes for the sake of heaven there are truths on all sides.
As the joke goes, two Jews have three opinions. Given this, we need to be extra sensitive to hearing one another. That does not mean one needs to agree with things that others say. Similarly, one needs to open oneself up to the experiences of others which inform their beliefs. Truths emerge not just from theoretical premises but lived life. When one approaches the other in this spirit, more often than not, one will have the compassion to both hear those with whom they disagree as well as even temper their own views. Ideologues and extremists rarely further nuance and understanding, and yet it seems increasingly we as a society allow ideologues to dominate all forms of discourse.
Of course, there are ideas beyond the pale which must be condemned, yet the issue of abortion is not one of them. The debate reflects fundamental values upon how we look at the sanctity of life, the rights of women and privacy, and women’s access to appropriate healthcare. That our society has vastly different visions as to how to balance these various values seems to me to be a healthy conversation. Anyone who has looked at the Jewish tradition regarding these issues knows that there is nuance, and the issue cannot be reduced to a slogan. Sadly, unlike the Jewish legal ethos which considers nuance with the goal of understanding, the present cultural Geist feels hijacked by slogans and ideology.
While we cannot always impact larger society, our own Jewish communities are diverse with visions and values which often seem unbridgeable. They often may be, and we will need to continue to pursue what we believe is true. Yet perhaps we can learn from Hillel and Shammai how to pursue our objectives honorably and for the sake of heaven.