כָּל מַחֲלֹקֶת שֶׁהִיא לְשֵׁם שָׁמַיִם, סוֹפָהּ לְהִתְקַיֵּם. וְשֶׁאֵינָהּ לְשֵׁם שָׁמַיִם, אֵין סוֹפָהּ לְהִתְקַיֵּם. אֵיזוֹ הִיא מַחֲלֹקֶת שֶׁהִיא לְשֵׁם שָׁמַיִם, זוֹ מַחֲלֹקֶת הִלֵּל וְשַׁמַּאי. וְשֶׁאֵינָהּ לְשֵׁם שָׁמַיִם, זוֹ מַחֲלֹקֶת קֹרַח וְכָל עֲדָתוֹ:
Every principled dispute will in the end endure; But one that is not will not endure. Which is the controversy that principled? Such was the controversy of Hillel and Shammai. And which is the controversy that is not? Such was the controversy of Korakh and all his congregation.
Pirkei Avot 5.17
Our parashat hashavua is named for Korakh, a cousin of the Israelite leader Moshe’s, of the Levite house of Kehati. The parashah begins with Korakh’s challenge to his relative, who just happens to be HaShem’s chosen leader: “They gathered together against Moshe and against Aharon.” (Numbers 16.3)
This distressing turn of events becomes more interesting when we notice the Hebrew of the accusation:
וַיִּֽקָּהֲל֞וּ עַל־מֹשֶׁ֣ה וְעַֽל־אַהֲרֹ֗ן וַיֹּאמְר֣וּ אֲלֵהֶם֮ רַב־לָכֶם֒ כִּ֤י כׇל־הָֽעֵדָה֙ כֻּלָּ֣ם קְדֹשִׁ֔ים וּבְתוֹכָ֖ם ה’ וּמַדּ֥וּעַ תִּֽתְנַשְּׂא֖וּ עַל־קְהַ֥ל ה’
They gathered – vay’kahalu – together against Moshe and against Aharon and they said to them “you have taken on too much. All the community is holy and Hashem is in their midst; why do you exalt yourselves above HaShem’s kahal – gathering?” (Numbers 16.3)
Here we note that the Torah records that the group that aligns itself with Korakh is called a kahal, the same word which is the root of our familiar word for a sacred gathering, kehillah.
It’s all very subtle: this is a kehillah and that is a kehillah. Who is to say which is the “correct” gathering, or club, or political faction? So much is relative, after all, and each of us has our own perspective. Who’s to judge? Aren’t we all different, and, as Korakh insists, aren’t we all holy?
Jewish ethics reminds us that it’s not the person, it’s the action; a group that may be doing the right thing one day may err on another. We’re not allowed to write off any person, or any group – but we are responsible for judging actions and consequences. As it so happens, among our Psalms there are those recorded as “for the sons of Korakh.” They had their good side, and their place among us.
That’s what disagreements often are: it’s not about someone being entirely wrong, or evil. We each take up a piece of the truth to defend, and if we are honest about it, there may be a bit of light on both sides of the divide.
All this changes, according to our Sages, when someone is not arguing in good faith, but from their own agenda. In the Talmud, this kind of argument, what we call in Hebrew makhloket, is described as “not for the sake of heaven.” This means that those dissenting or rebelling do not have everyone’s best interests at heart, as Hashem requires – a good example in practice of what it means to fail to love another as we love ourselves.
This was Korakh’s failure. The Torah records that Korakh’s rebellion ends when HaShem causes the earth to open and swallow up every single one of those who joined him. Midrash explains why: Korakh’s rebellion was not in recognition of the Israelites’ holiness but sprang from his desire for advancement. He was a Levite, after all, and resented the accident of birth that made him a porter of holy things, rather than a priest. Those he gathered around him may have believed that they were rising up against a caste system, but their leader was using their honest desire for equality to further his own personal agenda.
Makhloket is a rare opportunity: when we grant that both sides are worth listening to, and worthy of the respect we also wish to receive. The students of Hillel and the students of Shammai disagreed on how to apply halakhah, but they still treated each other as communal companions and social equals. Their disagreement was principled, and they separated the arguments from the value of the human beings.
By teaching of the difference between Hillel and Shammai and Korakh, our ancestors imply that we are to discern this difference; that it matters. To invoke the ethic of listening to both sides when one side is manipulating or simply misled is nowhere near “the sake of heaven” but more likely a result of cowardice or avoidance.
To listen to both sides when Jews disagree over the fate of the area variously called the Occupied Territories or Judea and Samaria has been for many years an honest effort to balance Israeli security fears with the ethical revulsion of interfering in Palestinian lives. But the settler pogroms now taking place in Palestinian villages – and the rhetoric of those who speak of security while encouraging this violence – has no place in a makhloket l’shem shamayim.
This is not “you shall know the heart of the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23.9); this is not “when you see the ass of your enemy fallen under its burden you must help to raise it” (Exodus 23.5); this is nothing but evil.
Jewish settlers may act out of inherited trauma; but the politicians manipulating hatred to gain power are truly deserving of having the earth open up and swallow them forever. We, however, do not live in Biblical times. Our work to neutralize the evil will be more complicated and more difficult.
And may G*d help us if we turn away from the task of calling out evil for the sake of “hearing both sides.”