A week behind on my Light of Torah reflections, but I’m very glad I decided not to skip the June 23 edition this morning, just to stay “on schedule.” The passage from Numbers tells a story that is highly relevant to the present situation in the Church and society. The time in the desert after the Exodus is marked by dissent and complaint among the people, and in this instance, a descendant of Levi named Korah starts a revolt against Moses and Aaron as leaders. “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?” Ultimately, with God’s intervention, Moses and Aaron are affirmed as the chosen leaders while Korah and his 250 followers are not merely defeated, but swallowed up by the earth.
Later tradition contrasts this Biblical rebellion with a famous theological dispute between two rabbis of the first century BCE, Hillel and Shammai. Each was very learned and gained followers, but Shammai took a strict approach to interpretation while Hillel was more flexible. Although eventually Hillel’s approach was chosen by the rabbis as normative, Shammai continues to be respected. In making the contrast, a 3rd century text called the Mishnah says: “Any controversy for heaven’s sake will have enduring value, but a controversy not for heaven’s sake will not have enduring value. Which [kind of dispute] is a controversy for heaven’s sake? The debates between [the schools of] Hillel and Shammai. [Which kind of dispute is a controversy] not for heaven’s sake? The rebellion of Korah and his associates.” The latter are seen as ego-driven, while the two rabbis both have holy motives. A famous Talmudic passage says of Hillel and Shammai that “both these and those are the word of the living God.”
That intense debate resulting from heartfelt disagreement could be “for heaven’s sake” was introduced on my very first day of the Melton adult Jewish education program last fall. Such interaction between ideas, experience and sacred texts is constitutive of Jewish learning. The goal is to know what I think about God and how to live my life. “It helps us become the most we can become as unique children of God,” Rabbi Wise said. He went on to quote Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, a 19th century German, who elaborated further on the Mishnah text regarding how to approach controversial matters. The Hirsch quote is below, but Rabbi Wise summed it up succinctly: “Being concerned with learning what is right versus being right.”
It’s pretty obvious that the fractious debates in the Church and American politics over religious liberty, same-sex marriage, and health care provisions, just to name a few, would benefit from such a re-framing. Rabbi Andy Shugerman’s comment on this text applies equally well to Catholics as Jews right now: “We have an obligation to uphold Hillel’s example of ancient leadership and must reject the black-and-white rhetoric that others are ‘either with us or against us.’ While other groups may threaten us and seek to harm our vital interests, we must recognize our shared destiny as a people not with a political litmus test but with an affirmation of our collective role as God’s partners in Creation. We will neither achieve our goals nor honor our tradition by delegitimizing the views of other Jews.”
May my own learning and writing be solely for the sake of heaven.
Rabbi Hirsch’s Commentary
When in a controversy both parties are guided by pure motives and seek noble ends . . . and when both parties seek solely to find the truth, then, of course, only one view will constitute the truth and only one of the two opposing views can and will prevail in practice. But actually, both views will have permanent value because, through the arguments each side has presented, both parties will have served to shed new light on the issue under debate, and will have contributed to the attainment of the proper understanding of the question discussed. They shall be remembered as long as there are men sincerely interested both in the subject of the debate and in the finding of the truth. For such men, retaining an abiding memory of the differences and the attempts on both sides to prove the validity of their views, will study the arguments of both sides thoroughly and repeatedly, thus advancing the cause of the genuine knowledge of truth. Thus, controversies such as those between Hillel and Shammai . . . have remained a permanent and important component of our Torah and its study.