February 23, 2024 -
This post on “If Not Now, When?” the interactive blog of Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple is excerpted from the Rosh Hashanah Evening Sermon of Rabbi Joshua Caruso on Wednesday, September 20, 2017. We encourage you to share comments below and to post the link to these remarks to social media such as Facebook or Twitter or simply by email to others, in order to continue the discussion of the important topics it raises.
A Jew is shipwrecked on a desert island. Ten years later, a passing ship notices his campfire and stops to rescue him. When the captain comes ashore, the castaway thanks him profusely and offers to give him a tour of the little island. He shows off the weapons he made for hunting, the fire pit where he cooks his food, the synagogue he built for praying in, (and) the hammock where he sleeps. On their way back to the ship, however, the captain notices a second synagogue. “I don’t understand,” the captain asks; “why did you need to build two synagogues?” “Oh,” says the Jew, “this is the synagogue I never go to.”
This joke, straight out of the Catskills, lifts up the age-old Jewish notion that when there are two Jews, you’ll probably find at least three opinions!
Actually, this notion comes from deep within our faith tradition. While the Talmud is an expansive exposition, dissection, and debate of our law, the text rarely leaves us with a clear-cut decision. Rather, the Talmudic way values both majority and minority opinions, while asserting that the ultimate Truth – with a capital “T” – is only found in the heavens. Down here on earth we are left to imperfectly toil and fumble in the pursuit of truth.
As Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks expounds:
“Truth on earth is not, nor can be, the whole truth. It is limited, not comprehensive; particular, not universal. When two propositions conflict it is not necessarily because one is true the other false…In heaven there is truth; on earth there are truths. Therefore, each culture has something to contribute. Each person knows something no one else does.
This concept of relative truth can be simultaneously inspiring and vexing. In our current times, when it seems that many are labeling everyone else’s truth as “fake,” we might reasonably ask, “When do we regard another’s truth – even when we may disagree – as relevant and as valid as our own?” And perhaps more importantly, “Does our tradition specify a critical boundary, beyond which another’s opinion can rightfully be considered unacceptable?”
Our rabbis, in the first century of the Common Era, famously address the notion of truth with an oft-quoted text of a debate between the most illustrious, highly respected rabbinic pair in Jewish literature, Hillel and Shammai. These two powerhouse scholars (and the students from their respective schools) debated hundreds of arguments. One ongoing debate is recorded in the Babylonian Talmud as follows:
…שלש שנים נחלקו ב”ש וב”ה הללו אומרים הלכה כמותנו והללו אומרים הלכה כמותנו יצאה בת קול ואמרה אלו ואלו דברי אלהים חיים הן והלכה כב”ה
…For three years the school of Shammai and the school of Hillel disagreed. These students said:
The law is in accordance with OUR opinion, and these students said: The law is in accordance with OUR opinion. Ultimately, a Divine Voice emerged and proclaimed: Elu v’Elu…Both THESE and THESE are the words of the living God. However, the law is in accordance with the opinion of Hillel.
Even though God, the final arbiter, pronounced the school of Hillel’s opinion as the victorious one, Shammai’s opinion was valued, studied, and preserved in the rabbinic annals forever. Although their arguments often became very heated, later sages celebrated their respectful rivalry, pointing out how one side would reference the other in an argument even in defense of his own opinion. This example tells us that the scores of debates between Hillel and Shammai were directed towards a higher purpose—a struggle to find truth, and to guide people towards a more ethical life. The sages even created a phrase to identify such a principled argument – L’shem Shamayim, for the sake of heaven.
Okay, I’ll be honest: the debates of the rabbis in the Talmud can get pretty nasty – even some of the debates between Hillel and Shammai. This, of course, reflects the social reality when politics and ego intersect – something not new to us given our current social climate!
Still, the rabbinic emphasis on Hillel and Shammai’s modeling of honest and respectful disagreements is an aspirational imagining of what civil discourse might look like in its highest form. Elu v’Elu…these and these are words of the living God. Disputants may disagree vehemently, but when the disagreements are intended for a higher purpose—for the sake of heaven—that struggle has lasting value.
It says as much in Pirke Avot, a volume of Judaism’s most important ethical teachings:
…אֵיזוֹ הִיא מַחֲלֹקֶת שֶׁהִיא לְשֵׁם שָׁמַיִם, זוֹ מַחֲלֹקֶת הִלֵּל וְשַׁמַּאי. וְשֶׁאֵינָהּ לְשֵׁם שָׁמַיִם, זוֹ מַחֲלֹקֶת קֹרַח וְכָל עֲדָתוֹ:
…What is an example of an argument for the sake of heaven’s name? The argument of Hillel and Shammai.
What is an example of an argument not for the sake of heaven’s name? The argument of Korach and all of his (followers).
Here we learn that the sages DO differentiate between reasonable arguments that merit being heard and considered, and opinions that go beyond the pale—opinions that deserve to be derided and even dismissed. According to the rabbis, Korach fits into this category.
So, who was Korach anyway?
Koarch was in fact from the same tribal family as Moses – he was an important figure, but he and his band of followers publicly challenged Moses and Aaron on the journey to the Promised Land, and questioned their authority.
Listen to the language of this charged encounter:
וַיִּֽקָּהֲל֞וּ עַל־מֹשֶׁ֣ה וְעַֽל־אַהֲרֹ֗ן וַיֹּאמְר֣וּ אֲלֵהֶם֮ רַב־לָכֶם֒ כִּ֤י כָל־הָֽעֵדָה֙ כֻּלָּ֣ם קְדֹשִׁ֔ים וּבְתוֹכָ֖ם יְהוָ֑ה…
(Korach and his followers) combined against Moses and Aaron and said to them, “You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the LORD is in their midst…
What was it about the Korach encounter that the sages deemed inferior to a Hillel and Shammai debate?
After all, wasn’t it okay for Korach to challenge leadership when the future of the Jewish people is hanging in the balance?
Isn’t it absolutely “Jewish” to speak up?!?
In an effort to answer this question, Martin Buber, the great Jewish philosopher, examines the inclinations of both Moses and Korach, and determines that their grasp of holiness is different. In fact, Buber reads this passage as a dire moment of truth for the Jewish people, saying:
It was the hour of decision. Both Moses and Korah desired the (Israelites) to be the people of the Lord, the holy people. But for Moses this was the GOAL. In order to reach it, generation after generation had to choose again and again between the roads, between the way of God and the wrong paths of their own hearts… For Korah, the (Israelites)…being the people of the Lord, were ALREADY HOLY. They had been chosen by God and (God) dwelt in their midst…The people were holy just as they were…
Buber makes a striking distinction! Moses and Korach each had the ability and pedigree to lead the Jewish people, but with critical differences. Moses was humble enough to understand that attaining holiness is a goal that every person and every generation must continue to strive for – and perhaps never reach. Korach believed that he and the people had already reached it.
No wonder the sages of old are so critical of Korach; when we imagine ourselves to have reached a level of absolute truth and understanding, like the kind we ascribe to God, we have lost our way in the pursuit of growth as individuals and as a community. We have forgotten that, as mere humans, we have limitations.
We have seen this kind of presumptuousness from those in power today. We see it in the lack of civility, in sanctimonious hyperbole, and in the shaming of others. We see modern-day “Korachs” in those who strip others’ dignity away instead of strengthening them. Surely, such behavior cannot be “for the sake of heaven”.
When I was I was preparing for these HHDs at a local coffee house, sitting next to me was a young woman typing on her computer. She asked me what I was working on; I told her that I am a clergyperson and I was preparing a sermon in the wake of our country’s divisiveness, including the troubling events of Charlottesville. She got wide-eyed and said, “Boy, I don’t envy you; there are so many different opinions out there; it’s hard to know what is right”.
“…hard to know what is right…” (Pause reflectively)
…but WE know what is right…and we know what is very wrong.
Individuals who believe in the superiority of one race over another, who shout “Jews will not replace us”, and stand outside of a synagogue carrying military-grade weapons to intimidate the worshippers inside so that they must leave, afraid, through the back door. Individuals who believe they have cornered the market on truth and have deemed themselves to be, like Korach, holier than others…they are NOT right. In such overt acts of disrespect, intolerance, and hatred, moral clarity is not at all difficult to determine! Such behavior is beyond the pale.
As Elie Weisel cautioned:
“We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere… Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe.”
When someone is being oppressed or tormented, the oppressor’s views cannot be considered valid. When, like Korach, someone believes that he has already attained holiness—or even, superiority—without needing to continually learn from and understand others, without having to work towards justice, that person’s views cannot be considered acceptable. The Korachs of today not only pervert the truth, but they demonize others based on race, color, religion, and sexual orientation. As Weisel says, when such destructive influences are at work, we must take sides.
Yet…what if the difference of opinion does not involve hateful behavior? What if the person with whom we disagree has come to her opinions after honest and thoughtful consideration, and those views don’t hurt others? It is a very human inclination to believe that our own values and opinions are the only ones that are correct. We can easily fall into the trap of dismissing an individual, a group, an organization or even an entire people all in the service of upholding a personal value or belief. That is why I would suggest that it takes both moral clarity and moral prudence to maintain a civil society that strives to push humanity closer to behavior that is for “the sake of heaven.” While moral clarity is concerned with judging what is right and what is wrong, moral prudence requires a different function of the soul: a tempering of judgment with a measure of mercy.
This is what made Hillel and Shammai such an effective pair. Hillel’s rulings were typically merciful and lenient, while Shammai rendered exacting decisions based on his literal interpretation of the law. Bringing both judgment and mercy to bear on their arguments improved the quality of the outcomes and their applications in the community – all for the sake of heaven.
Perhaps this is our greatest challenge in today’s polarized society. By not truly listening to the rational thoughts and fears of others, by not tempering our judgment of others with mercy, we may be sacrificing critical ideas and insights that could deepen our understanding of truth.
As we learned from Rabbi Sacks:
“The wisest is not one who knows himself wiser than others: he is one who knows all men have some share of the truth, and is willing to learn from them, for none of us knows all the truth and each of us knows some of it.”
Friends, I fear that we have abandoned our willingness to learn from others in favor of embracing rhetoric that simply confirms our own tightly-held beliefs. Bullying and nastiness have replaced respect for competing, yet valid, opinions.
A current example is that of former NFL quarterback, Colin Kaepernick. After Eric Garner, an African-American man in Brooklyn, NY, died from an encounter with a police officer, Kaepernick “took a knee” before the start of an NFL game, meaning he knelt during the singing of the National Anthem while his San Francisco teammates stood up with hands over their hearts. Kaepernick’s act of resistance continues to play out as a major news story beyond the sports pages, as he has both been celebrated and derided for his activism.
Some support Kaepernick for making a strong visual statement in the wake of a spate of deaths of unarmed black boys and men at the hands of police officers. They see his action as a sincere call to make this great country even greater and more just. Others have demonized him, saying that there are less polarizing ways to fight for civil rights and racial justice. He has been labeled as unpatriotic, selfish, and utterly disrespectful of everything that the American Flag symbolizes.
There are valid arguments in support and in critique of Kapernick’s actions. And I believe with every fiber of my being that such an argument can indeed serve a greater purpose for the betterment of our country. In fact, I can imagine God chiming in, “Elu v’Elu…These and these are the living words of God.” Our tradition obligates us to listen to an opposing opinion in the spirit of elu v’elu, for one person’s truth is as valid to him as ours is to us. When that truth does not demean, threaten, claim superiority over another, or foment violence, we must listen deeply.
Isn’t this true not only in issues of national importance, but also in our personal relationships? Sometimes our dealings with family and friends become strained because we are blinded by the rightness of our own convictions (or the crafty “Korah” of our natures), often without listening to what our loved ones are trying to tell us. We must accept that their truth is sacred to them. When we refuse to consider that their truth is legitimate, we make them feel demeaned or ignored. We miss the opportunity to learn what another viewpoint might add to a fuller understanding of truth and a judgment balanced with mercy and compassion.
For the sake of heaven, let’s step outside our boundaries, our echo chambers, and listen. Let’s take seriously a rational argument which we may instinctively regard from the start as entirely wrong. Let’s listen deeply—with respect and mercy—as if it were right. For “none of us knows all the truth and each of us knows some of it.”
 Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, The Dignity of Difference, p. 64-65
 Babylonian Talmud, Eruvin 13b
 ibid., Gittin 6b
 Babylonian Talmud, Yevamot 14a-14b
 Pirkei Avot 5:17
 Numbers 16: 1-3
 Moses, Martin Buber (P. 186-190)