In trying to ascertain whether the argument made by another is valid, Rabbi Sacks zt”l, in his book of essays, I Believe (2022), refers to the dangerous cancel culture on UK campuses and makes a strong case for free expression of opinions.
And yet we learn in Pirkei Avot that certain arguments are not for the sake of heaven, specifically citing this week’s parasha as the paradigm. In chapter 5, verse 17, it names the controversy of Hillel and Shammai as “for the sake of Heaven,” while that of Korach and all his congregation is described as “not for the sake of Heaven.”
How do we know when an argument is not for the sake of heaven? Who are we to judge others? When should we encourage debate and when should we quash it? How can we assess the motivations of others whom we can never fully understand? When might others be influenced perhaps by secular values or hidden agendas. These are questions with which religious leaders grapple when petitions are made to them, and it is also a question for us all in assessing the standards or arguments of others that we may seek to criticize.
At the beginning of the parasha, Korach and 250 of his followers stage a dramatic rebellion. “They combined against Moses and Aaron and said to them, ‘You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation?’ (Numbers 16:3).
Many commentators discuss their true motivation. Was it egalitarianism, democracy, or was it Korach’s personal quest for priesthood, which he saw as a greater level of power than being a Levite. Sforno (the 15th-century Italian commentator) points out that “a number of Israelites had assembled in the vicinity of Moses waiting to have their respective complaints adjudged.” Therefore, according to Nehama Leibowitz, the controversy was described in Pirkei Avot as that of “Korach and his congregation,” rather than “Korach and Moses” because they were disparate in their motivations and fought among themselves.
An indication that an argument is not for the sake of heaven is often characterized by the method in which it is brought. We are told that Korach and his men “combined against Moses and Aaron”: וַיִּֽקָּהֲל֞וּ עַל־מֹשֶׁ֣ה וְעַֽל־אַהֲרֹ֗ן — which Sforno explains meant that they behaved in a manipulative way. He explains that “the 250 men mentioned walked around as if minding their own business, wanting to consult Moses about some harmless matter. It was their intention to arouse the crowd in order to provide support for Korach’s and his henchmen’s insurrection.”
Moses seems to understand Korach’s ulterior motives and that he wants some of the leadership status accorded to the kohanim (priests). He says “You have gone too far, sons of Levi!” (16:7 רַב־לָכֶ֖ם בְּנֵ֥י לֵוִֽי׃) Moses tells Korach to be satisfied with the status he was accorded, dealing with the resentment underlying the complaint.
And yet, he ultimately does not condemn Korach himself, but defers to God. In chapter 16:4-5, Moses “fell on his face,” which Ramban explains was “in order to inquire of God to know what to do.” He spoke to Korach and all his company, saying, “When morning comes, the Lord will make known who is His and who is holy and will grant him access to Himself. He will grant access to the one He has chosen.” Then to test each man’s sincerity, he asked them each to put incense in a fire pan and bring it to God (16:17-19). Upon doing so, the earth swallowed them all whole.
As a prophet, Moses could act as a vehicle for God and rely on His judgment. Moreover, in this instance he staked his leadership on the occurrence of a miracle. While we cannot expect miracles to occur on demand, we learn that one must trust in God’s judgement and submit ourselves to His complete understanding, recognizing the limits of the human perspective.
Rabbi Sacks goes further and provides a beautiful understanding of this question of the extent to which human beings should pass judgement. In the case of Hillel and Shammai, Hillel was chosen as the opinion we follow precisely because he made space for the arguments of Shammai. Hillel (according to the Meiri) was motivated to discover the truth, not by a desire to drive out the other. This he says resulted in the retention of Shammai’s position alongside that of Hillel. In his book, Arguments for the Sake of Heaven, Rabbi Sacks argues that Judaism celebrates argument as “perhaps the highest… form of religious expression… It was in argument that the word of God became real in the life of man… that the covenant was continued into the present and future… that divergent viewpoints were bought into relationship with one another.”
It is symbolic that after the earth swallowed Korach and his 250 congregants, the only remnants were the fire pans which became part of the altar. In Leadership in the Wilderness, Dr. Erica Brown suggests that this was to ensure the altar could “contain multitudes,” carrying the past of the whole nation and acknowledging this difficult episode that holds a broad tent of arguments including from people with whom we disagree.
Korach’s argument was not for the sake of heaven and yet motivations can be complex and disparate and we have limited tools by which to assess them. We must be cautious about judging unilaterally and always ensure that we acknowledge and include the views of others.