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This January 6, what will I tell my 12-year-old students?

Jewish tradition offers them a noble, faithful, hopeful vision of arguments and disagreements and challenges us all to treat others as human beings
A Trump supporter at left argues with a counter protestor as Trump supporters demonstrate against the election results outside the central counting board at the TCF Center in Detroit, Mich., Nov. 5, 2020. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
A Trump supporter at left argues with a counter protestor as Trump supporters demonstrate against the election results outside the central counting board at the TCF Center in Detroit, Mich., Nov. 5, 2020. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

This Thursday, January 6 is the first anniversary of the riots by insurrectionists at the capitol in Washington, DC., who sought to overturn a fair and free presidential election by force.

It is the first anniversary of what has become not merely the symptom, but the festering sore-symbol of the downward spiral of American democracy.

It is the first anniversary of fascist thuggery dressed thinly and badly as “stop- the- steal popular protest”, a travesty whose real, malicious intent has been perpetuated by morally and factually blind populists and cravenly ignored by weak, feckless politicians more in love with their jobs than with justice.

This Thursday, January 6, happens to be when, because of where we are in our curriculum, I will be teaching my sixth-grade Jewish day school students one of the most hopeful and troubling texts of Jewish tradition, one so dissonant with the ugly facts on the ground right now in the United States:

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 Korach and all his congregation.  (Pirke Avot 5:17, translation by Sefaria).

This teaching from Pirke Avot, Ethics of The Sages, identifies the enduring argument for the sake of heaven, along with its opposite, through two examples from Jewish history.

The schools of the legendary Rabbis, Hillel and Shammai, disputed fiercely about every matter of Jewish law, and rarely, Jewish philosophy too. However, as later commentators teach us, they argued with each other for the sake of heaven because they argued civilly, without demonizing their opponents, and because they could accept when either of them had lost an argument. They also argued with each other for the sake of heaven, because of their genuine and disinterested commitment to doing what God wants, regardless of their specific predilections.

Korach, first cousin of Moses and Aaron and a member of the Levitical elite of ancient Israel, disputed fiercely the leadership of his more powerful cousins:

 “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)

If Korach’s populist insurgence was sincere, it was still wrong because of its violent tone toward the legitimately appointed leaders of the Israelites. Yet a close reading of the Torah gives us good reason to assume that it was not sincere, making it even more dangerous. Imagine Korach, son of the older brother, Yitzhar, passed over for the most elite of leadership positions by God, in favor of Moses and Aaron, sons of the younger brother, Amram.  Already a Levite of great position and honor, Korach cynically riled up the populace against his cousins: “You holy-state ritual elites look down your noses at all these folks, spurning their way of life, when they’re all just as holy as you are!” On both grounds of violent insurrection and cynical populist manipulation for his own purposes, Korach’s dispute was not for the sake of heaven.

We still study the arguments of the schools of Hillel and Shammai, they still influence our thinking and our lives. Their ongoing dispute endures for us intimately, outliving them by millenia. And Korach? Pirke Avot alludes to the ignominious end he met when, according to the book of Numbers, (chapter 16) the earth opened up under him and his entourage, swallowing them up forever. What remains of their argument? Not much, save for a brief mention of the story as a cautionary tale in a Torah portion.

The message of Pirke Avot is that good arguments and disputants endure for the sake of the world, bad ones die, another version of the classic “reward-and-punishment” theology of traditional Judaism. This message is noble, it is faithful, it is hopeful.

And from the facts and boots on the ground that I can see here in America, one year after the riots, it is just plain wrong.

I will not bore you with the litany of pre and post 1/6/21 political anguish the United States is enduring, anguish which is the direct result of lies and machinations by truly bad people who continuously seek to break the American political machine so they can climb into its ruins and maintain political dominance, democracy be damned. It is very real, it is very well documented, it is no cheap conspiracy theory, and it is very, very frightening.

So, I will walk into my 6th-grade classroom on January 6, and I will teach my students this noble, faithful, hopeful, factually incorrect teaching from our tradition. I must remember that these are sixth graders. They are “barely out of diapers” emotionally; the boundaries of their young worlds are fairly narrow, preoccupied as they are with the pedestrian explosions and five-alarm fires of early adolescence, as well they should be. I highly doubt that unless I make the dissonant connection for them (which I am not inclined to do) between our passage and America’s political and cultural woes, they will make it themselves.

But what if they make the connection themselves, as bright, thoughtful kids have been known to do?

What if they, point-blank, challenge me: “Rabbi Dan, this isn’t true. What about all the bad things happening in America right now where bad people are making bad arguments that just aren’t going away?”

What will I tell them?

This is what I will tell them.

Our noble, faithful, hopeful teaching is exactly those things: a noble, faithful, hopeful vision of arguments and disagreements as they should be, not necessarily a statement of facts in the here-and-now.

It is a noble, faithful, hopeful picture of relationships between people, political parties, and participants in our society as we could and should wish ourselves to be.

But is more than simply hoping, it is a warning and a challenge to every one of us in our country and in the world, from the White House down to the smallest interactions in which you engage in your own houses.

A warning and a challenge to you, to all of us, to listen to our opponents, to treat others as human beings, to argue and fight and behave and lead fairly, justly, whether we are students in our school or senators from different states.

A warning and a challenge to work for more than personal victory and glory, to seek not only consensus but constructive engagement and peace, to dispute and argue and move forward “for the sake of heaven.”

This is what I will tell my students.  I hope they will be listening.

I pray for the day that the rest of us will be listening as well.

About the Author
Dan Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom and a writer living in Albany, NY. He is the author of Cain v. Abel: A Jewish Courtroom Drama (The Jewish Publication Society, 2020. https://jps.org/books/cain-vs-abel/)
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