Rabbi Shlomo Riskin

Is controversy a positive or a negative phenomenon? Since the ideal of peace is so fundamental to the Jewish ideal – to such an extent that we even greet and bid farewell to each other with the Hebrew word shalom, peace – I would expect that controversy would be universally condemned by our classical sources. But apparently there is a way to argue and a way not to argue. The Mishna in Avot (Ethics of the Fathers 5:20) distinguishes between two types of controversy: “A controversy which is for the sake of heaven, like that of Hillel and Shammai, will ultimately continue to exist; a controversy which is not for the sake of heaven, like that of Koraĥ and his cohorts, will not continue to exist.”

In addition to the problematic issue of the positive description of a “controversy for the sake of heaven,” it is difficult to understand why the Mishna refers to one type of controversy as that of Hillel and Shammai, the two antagonists, and the other as that of Koraĥ and his cohorts, rather than Koraĥ and Moses, which we would have expected.

I believe that the answer to our questions lies in the two legitimate definitions of the Hebrew word for controversy, maĥloket: Does it mean to divide (leĥalek) or to distinguish (la’asot ĥiluk), to make a separation or a distinction? The former suggests an unbridgeable chasm, a great divide which separates out, nullifies the view of the other, whereas the latter suggests an analysis of each side in order to give a greater understanding of each view and perhaps even in order to eventually arrive at a synthesis or a dialectic, a resolution of both positions!

With this understanding, the initial comment of Rashi on the opening words of this Torah portion, “And Koraĥ took,” becomes indubitably clear. “He took himself to the other side to become separated out from the midst of the congregation.” Since Koraĥ made a great divide between himself and Moses, the Mishna in Avot defines his controversy as that of Koraĥ and his cohorts; he was interested in nullifying rather than in attempting to understand the side of Moses. On the other hand, when the Talmud describes the disputes between Hillel and Shammai, it decides that:

These and those [both schools] are the words of the living God. If so, then why is the law decided in accord with the school of Hillel? Because they are pleasant and accepting, always teaching their view together with the view of the school of Shammai and even citing the position of Shammai before citing their own position.  (Eruvin 13b)

According to this view, “these and those [conflicting opinions] are the words of the living God,” the Almighty initially and purposefully left many issues of the Oral Tradition open-ended in order to allow for different opinions, each of which may well be correct when viewed from the perspective of the divine. Indeed the Mishna in Eduyot teaches that the reason our Oral Tradition records the minority as well as the majority opinion is because a later Sanhedrin (Jewish supreme court) can overrule the decision of an earlier Sanhedrin, even though it is not greater than the earlier one in wisdom or in number, as long as there is a minority view recorded on which the later Sanhedrin may rely for its reversal of the earlier decision; and most halakhic decisions rely on a minority decision in cases of stress and emergency (Mishna Eduyot 1:5, Maimonides and Ra’avad ad loc.). In the world of halakha, minority dissenting views are never nullified; these opinions are also part of the religio-legal landscape, and can become the normative law of the majority at another period in time or for a different and difficult individual situation within the same period.

The Talmud likewise powerfully and poignantly confirms the importance of dissenting views in order to challenge and help clarify the alternate opinion. R. Yoĥanan and Resh Lakish were brothers-in-law and study partners who debated their conflicting opinions on almost every branch of Talmudic law. When Resh Lakish died, R. Yoĥanan was left distraught and bereft. R. Elazar b. Pedat, a great scholar, tried to comfort R. Yoĥanan by substituting for Resh Lakish as his learning companion.

Every opinion that R. Yoĥanan would offer, R. Elazar would confirm with a Tannaitic source. R. Yoĥanan lashed out, “Are you like the son of Lakish? Not at all! Previously, whenever I would give an opinion, the son of Lakish would ask twenty-four questions and I would answer him with twenty-four responses; in such a fashion, the legal discussion became enlarged and enhanced. But you only provide me with supporting proofs. Don’t I know that my opinions have merit?” R. Yoĥanan walked aimlessly, tore his garments and wept without cease. He cried out, “Where are you, son of Lakish, where are you, son of Lakish,” until he lost his mind. The other sages requested divine mercy, and R. Yoĥanan died.  (Bava Metzia 84a)

This fundamental respect for the challenge of alternative opinions – so basic to the Talmudic mind – is rooted in another Mishna (Sanhedrin 37a), which sees the greatness of God in the differences among individuals and the pluralism of ideas. “Unlike an individual who mints coins from one model and every coin is exactly alike, the Holy One blessed be He has fashioned every human being in the likeness of Adam, and yet no human being is exactly like his fellow!… And just as the appearances of human beings are not alike, so are the ideas of human beings not alike.” It is precisely in everyone’s uniqueness that we see the greatness of the Creator.

This great truth was one of the teachings of Rabbi Avraham Yitzĥak HaKohen Kook, who claimed that multiplicity of ideas is actually the key to understanding God’s truth: 

“Scholars increase peace in the world.” A multiplicity of peace means that all sides and all views must be considered; then it will be clarified how each one of them has its place, each one in accordance with its value, its place, and its specific issue…. Only through a collection of all parts and all details, all of those ideals which appear to be different, and all disparate professional opinions, only be means of these will the light of truth and righteousness be revealed, and the wisdom of the Lord, and His love, and the light of true Torah. 

Ein Ayah, end of Berakhot

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin

Chancellor Ohr Torah Stone

Chief Rabbi – Efrat Israel

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