On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah - Korach: Sacred Disagreement

In this infamous parashahKorach, a relative of Moses, argues with Moses, wondering why he can’t be the leader of the Israelites instead. Disagreement can be sacred in the Jewish tradition, but when does that disagreement become self-serving? Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, discusses disagreement, divisiveness, and compromise, in this episode of On the Other Hand.

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[00:00:01] Welcome to On the Other Hand, the ten minutes of Torah podcast presented by ReformJudaism.org. Every week, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, shares a new spin on the weekly Torah portion in just about 10 minutes or less. This week, Rabbi Jacobs teaches us about Parsha Korach, in episode 74. And, he asks, when an argument might be a good argument.

[00:00:24] This week, we focus our attention on Parsha Korach, one of those portions in the Torah that's named after an individual. This is an individual who is infamous in the Jewish tradition, because Korach is the member of Moses's extended family who raises a challenge to Moses and says really, why do you get to be the leader of the Jewish people-- like, what about me? Aren't all the people holy? Don't we all have capacities and qualities? He really brings his challenge to a point and it really raises for a lot of us, the issues of when is dissent, when is disagreement sacred and when is it simply self-serving?

[00:01:13] In the opening phrase, it says at the very, very outset of the Parsha, the opening Hebrew is v'yicach Korach. Normally, it would be and "Korach took." He took followers and he brought this critique of Moses' leadership, but Onkelos, which is just one of the Aramaic translations of the Torah, translates "v'yicach Korach" as "and Korach divided."

[00:01:42] As in, Korach was all about divisiveness. And. I don't know about you, but if you're listening to this podcast and you're somewhere on planet earth, my guess is you've probably noticed that we're having a bit of a divisive moment in the life of the world. And that's why this Parsha is so both resonant and provocative to think about the debates within our own society. We have leaders who are saying, you know, why can't I lead? I mean, what are the qualifications? I'm just as qualified as the incumbent. With Moses and Korach, it really came to a head and in Jewish tradition, it becomes synonymous with our arguments, "l'shem hashamayim," for the sake of heaven and honor and something of great communal worth, and when are they simply arguments for argument's sake?

[00:02:50] It turns out-- anybody see the play "Hamilton?" There's a famous duel in the play "Hamilton" between Alexander Hamilton and Burr. They basically have this moment where they're both holding guns and in that classic duel, they have it out. And one doesn't make it. So you have in the Torah portion a duel between Moses and Korach. But can you imagine having God on your side? That's what Moses has got. So he didn't have to be adept with a gun. He has a duel with Korach.

[00:03:30] And the earth opens up and swallows Korach and his followers. So, if you want to get a lesson from the Torah about raising questions to existing leaders, this might be something to dissuade you from challenging leadership or questioning authority.

[00:03:49] But a number of things grow out of this.

[00:03:52] Number one, surprisingly Korach's sons are not killed in this incredible moment when the earth swallows up those who joined Korach. That's hard for me to imagine--this guy having all these followers among the tribe of Levi.

[00:04:11] But his own sons didn't buy it.

[00:04:14] It turns out, we read later in the Book of Numbers, we have the quote which tells us that the sons of Korach did not die. In fact, the tradition goes on to say that they are the ones who are the authors of a number of Psalms and are the singers of Israel and one of the descendants is the prophet Samuel who anoints two of Israel's Kings.

[00:04:38] So I love that they were not defined by the act of their ancestor, or in one case, their father. I love that there are a lot of messages to unpack. And one of the things to understand is the argument that we're having in our larger society, even within the Jewish people, when we get up to the high level of doing it for the sake of a good argument?

[00:05:03] There is an amazing Talmudic story about Reish Lakish and his Chevruta partner Rabbi Yochanon, two very unlikely study partners. But we get a sense of how passionate their study was, because after Reish Lakish dies, Yochanan is given a new study partner and he's so docile; he's so agreeable that he never raises counterpoints. He never challenges Rabbi Yochanan. And so after a few sessions with this new study partner, Rabbi Yochanon says, "I so miss Reish Lakish raising objections and challenging what I think and what I said. I want someone who can have a deep and substantive argument. I don't want yes people around me."

[00:05:57] And I think that one of the things we see is that great intellectual debates are sharpened by having real give and take. But it's not personal. It never gets to ad hominem. It's not about I don't like you. It's: what is it about your argument. And can we do in the most profound ways? We have, of course, Rabbi Hillel, Rabbi Shamai--they have argument after argument, but not only is it not a kind of a personal attack. It's always about substance.

[00:06:29] We have this great case in the rabbinic literature where it says how they disagreed about ritual matters, about broader issues of Jewish law. But it never got personal. Their children married the other's children. It never became a schism.

[00:06:47] But here's the last example I want to bring as to how we, as a Jewish tradition not only hold up the machlochet of the Shem Shamayim, the argument for the sake of heaven, but the notion that there is both respect and humility in a really serious argument. These are things I see lacking every day as I listen to public debates. They're lacking in humility and the sense that I do not have all the pieces to the puzzle. If I did, I would open myself to those that wanted debate, to want to argue, but a righteous argument.

[00:07:19] So have you ever noticed the mezuzah on a doorpost? I always look at them when I walk into someone's house. Turns out that the first teacher about that, Rashi, said you should hang a mezuzah vertically. It should be straight up. But, you know that you've never seen one straight up. Well his grandson, Rabbeinu Tam, said, No, no it shouldn't be vertical. It should be horizontal. You've not seen a horizontal mezuzah either. And 150 years later, Jacob ben Asher, known as the Tur, he split the difference. He said you have in Rashi and in Rabbeinu Tam vertical and horizontal and Jacob ben Asher said, no, no. Put it on an angle. Why? It's the perfect ritual reminder that we have to actually find that compromise position.

[00:08:15] We have to be able to hear the teaching of the other and so it has a graphic place as you walk into someone's home. You already see this mezuzah leaning in, which is symbolic of this compromise, the idea that in the house there'll be peace if the people living in that house can compromise, have some humility about what they believe and be willing to learn from those with whom they share their lives and their debates and even their arguments.

[00:08:45] I'd like to put a mezuzah on every building everywhere. What if we could be reminded of that give and take? That compromise is, in fact, one of the holiest ways that we do our work in the Jewish community. So Korach, he got it wrong. Korach's sons, they actually were able to find their way into more meaningful, more respectful Jewish life. It's okay to question authority but not to do so in that way that Korach did. I know that if you don't want your opponents to be swallowed up by the earth then this is a really healthy story for you to hold on to. I'd rather find, like Reish Lakish and Rav Yochanan, people that can be thought partners, people that we can learn from, debate with and bring greater wisdom and clarity to our world. We're crying out for that.

[00:09:43] Look at the mezuzah, if you have one on your doorposts. If you don't, look it on the doorpost of someone else's home. And, let's be reminded that we can have arguments for the sake of heaven. And when we do, not only we will be better, we'll be more open to wisdom, but our world will be one of greater holiness.

[00:10:04] Thanks for joining us for this week's episode of On the Other hand, Ten minutes of Torah. If you liked what you heard today--and we hope you did--you can find new episodes each week at ReformJudaism.org And on iTunes, where we would love for you to rate and review us. And you can visit ReformJudaism.org to learn more about all aspects of Judaism, including rituals culture holidays and more. On the Other Hand, Ten Minutes of Torah, is a project of the Union for Reform Judaism, a leading voice in the discussion of modern Jewish life. Until next week, l'hitraot