Torah’s framework for constructive debate could help heal deeply divided society


United Hebrew Congregation. Photo: Bill Motchan


Not much is more disconcerting than members of one’s tribe engaging in passionately bitter and contentious arguments about leadership and hierarchy. “Who says you are the voice of this family? You don’t speak for me!” “Just because you had some lucky breaks doesn’t allow you to decide how I / we should live our lives.”  “Why not give someone else the keys to the family car for a while and see how it drives?” Family conflict can, indeed, be fierce and polarizing. Such can be the case as we look at Parashat Korach (Numbers 16:1 – 18:32).

Korach is a Levite who enlists two members of the tribe of Reuvein, Datan and Aviram, to challenge Moses and Aaron’s seats of leadership. Like so many narratives in the Torah, this one provides little context and even less character development. The Torah plainly reports what is happening and leaves much of the conjecture for us to work through. The way we work through the narratives is by finding current situations that we may relate to the weekly narratives. At this time, I feel safe to say that we can fill this periodical and several more for weeks and weeks with comparative events that would align with the rebellious, divisive, vitriolic, partisanship that is portrayed in Korach. Rather than align any of the domestic and international conflicts with this narrative, I would like to attempt to help frame the argument (mahloket) with a more constructive model. By doing so, I hope that you will be able to take this model and try to moderate other conflicts through the age-old technique of “Mem-Tet, Mem-Tet” or “49/49.”

Cantor-Rabbi Ronald D. Eichaker serves United Hebrew Congregation and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical and Cantorial Association, which coordinates the weekly d’var Torah for the Light.

The Torah may be interpreted to yield either 49 aspects of purity or 49 aspects of impurity (depending on who does the studying). It is interesting that the numerical value of the word ודגלו, “and His flag,” is 49.  We then tend to wave our opinions above us like a banner of bias however popular. Midrash Psalms 12: “Rabbi Abahu said in the name of Rabbi Yonatan: Rabbi Akiva had a distinguished disciple and Rabbi Meir was his name, and he would prove the purity of a reptile from the Bible with 49 reasons and would prove its impurity with 49 reasons.  And so, Rabbi Hiya taught: Rabbi Meir had one student — Sumchus was his name — and he would prove the purity of a reptile from the Bible with 49 reasons and would prove its impurity with 49 reasons.  Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: ‘Young students in the time of Saul, David and Samuel knew how to study the Torah with 49 reasons to rule a matter impure, and 49 reasons to rule a matter pure.’ ”

The Babylonian Talmud, Nedarim 38a says: “Rav and Samuel both said: ‘Fifty gates of understanding were created in the world and all but one were given to Moses. For it is said: For You have made him a little lower than G-d (Psalms 8:6).’ ”

Numbers 16:12 tells of the time when Moses invited Datan and Aviram for “conversation” or a summit of sorts.  Their response was abrupt and dismissive when they said “…lo naaleh.” “…we will not go [up].”  We can see this as the two objectors refusing to meet with Moses and, at the same time, acknowledging his authority and high status among the people. To some, it can be seen as the downtrodden masses refusing to leave their place for a temporary experience with the “privileged class.” They may have rather liked Moses to meet them on their level. What Datan and Aviram may have not understood, is that Moses did not have to invite them at all. Moses may have invited them to show them that he is transparent and the seat on which he sits is not as high as they may think. We will never be able to see this resolved however because the Torah provides us with the dualism of intention when in 16:14 those same words close the sentence, indicating that the decisions was final on the part of Datan and Aviram. In anticipation of the gory outcome (Moses and Korach were about to have a fire-pan throwdown and guess who wins) Moses warns the people in 16:26 to “…suru…” “turn away or avoid” coming into contact with anything associated with Korach, Datan and Aviram or they will meet their fate and the fate of 250 other followers. Pirkei Avot 4:2: “Ben Azzai said: Be quick in performing a minor commandment as in the case of a major one and flee from transgression; For one commandment leads to another commandment, and transgression leads to another transgression; For the reward for performing a commandment is another commandment and the reward for committing a transgression is a transgression.”

Moses, in my opinion, was attempting to engage in a constructive discussion. Before that discussion can occur, the two parties need to meet. The shared reality needed to be agreed upon in person for an argument can even begin. Moses may not have known at the time, but he set the conditions when he invited Datan and Aviram to his domain. Would the outcome of this conflict be different if Moses had gone to see the two in their homes? We will never know. The fact is that there was no opportunity for any discussion where 49/49 (measured quantitative debate) could have been exercised.  We can, in reading sentences 12 and 14 that Datan and Aviram were 50/0 on the topic of even meeting with Moses.  We may, then assume, that they would have at least “tabled” the discussion if such a discussion had taken place.  To “teiku” or table this discussion could not be an option, however. The fate and future of the Israelites and the Jewish people were at stake.  The outcome tells me that, when we fail to even begin a discussion on a contentious issue with someone in our lives, certain destruction will follow. In this instance, when one side loses, both sides are weakened and the affects can last, well, look where we are today.

When we engage in Mahloket L’sheim Shamayim – Argument for the sake of heaven – we are doing more than rhetorical jousting.  We are engaging in a controlled exercise that may prove essential to our very existence, as it may be called upon to help us constructively disagree with those on the other side of a debate.