Korach: Why (Do We) Argue?

Last week I suggested that a leader’s most important characteristic is dedication to the interests of followers. I thank both my wife and Cindy Jacobson for responding that moral leadership is also key; after all, a leader may use improper means and/or seek evil ends to benefit followers.  [Dear Readers: Please keep your comments coming!]

This week’s Torah portion, Korach, provides an interesting parallel to this point. Korach and his followers challenged Moses in a monumental contest, ultimately won when G-d opened the earth to swallow the rebels. (Numbers 16). 

More a thousand years later, Hillel and Shammai, and their respective supporters, repeatedly challenged each other. Theirs were not polite differences of opinion. According to the Palestinian (i.e., Jerusalem) Talmud, their controversies were extremely intense and acrimonious. (Shabbat 1:4). The Babylonian Talmud cites a dispute between them that lasted for three years. (Eruvin 13b).  Yet, Chazal (the common acronym for Hachameinu, zichronam l’vracha, meaning “Our Sages, may their memories be a blessing”) found the Moses-Korach and Hillel-Shammai disputes to be so fundamentally different in character as to be paradigmatic of controversies, generally.  

In Pirkei Avot (“Ethics of the Fathers”) 5:17, they wrote:

Any controversy that is for the sake of Heaven, ultimately achieves a lasting result; and every controversy that is not in the name of Heaven has ephemeral results in the end.  Which controversy was in the name of Heaven?  The controversy between Hillel and Shammai.  And which controversy was not in the Name of Heaven?  The controversy of Korach and his followers.

Korach’s challenge was not primarily motivated by a desire to provide good leadership for the people’s benefit, but rather to obtain the honor he felt he deserved.  Whereas, Hillel and Shammai were both motivated to lead their followers in the right Torah paths.  According to our tradition, G-d sided with Hillel’s positions but nevertheless approved of Shammai’s repeated challenges, their entire argumentative process being conducted “for the sake of Heaven.”  

We can learn from this that whenever we are inclined to argue, and certainly before we challenge authority, it’s important to first examine our motivations … especially because it’s natural to impute pure motives to ourselves and impure motivations to the opposition.   

Can we trust the results of our own self-examination in this regard?  Our tradition guides us here, too – and in a surprising way.  

The American criminal justice system requires unanimity for a verdict of guilt.  There must be “conviction” among the jury for a conviction. This is considered the best safeguard against an unfair or incorrect verdict, especially in capital cases.  

But Jewish law is skeptical of unanimous guilty verdicts!  In capital cases, the court must delay judgment until some evidence can be adduced in the accused’s favor (Sanhedrin 17a)! The fear is that a unanimous court is likely biased and/or has failed to adequately consider or sufficiently credit points benefiting the accused.   

We can learn from this that when we are evaluating our own or another’s position or behavior, and we are completely certain that we are right and/or that they are wrong, we should consider such certainty to itself be a warning signal. Have we really judged fairly, or is our certitude the result of hasty and/or biased thinking?  

Once we force ourselves to concede that our position has at least some weakness and that our adversary’s position has at least some merit, we can then also begin to examine our own and their motivations more honestly. Only then are we apt to recognize instances in which we are not arguing or challenging for the right reason.   

The letters ק-ר-ח (right to left) form both the Biblical word “Korach” and the modern Hebrew word “ice.” When we argue with and challenge others, we must take care not to become as rigid and insensitive as ק-ר-ח.

Shabbat shalom! 

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Jewish Proverb