Select Page

The Nature of Argument in Jewish Law

Sefer Bamidbar, the 4th book of the Torah, presents us with a series of tragic events and their consequences in the lives of our ancestors during their stay in the wilderness. Whether the event centered on the people’s fear for survival and their desire for food and meat, or their fear and panic at the thought of possibly having to fight for the conquest of the promised land of Canaan, each one is permanently memorialized in our Torah. The written record, then, is intended for us living today, not for the sake of history but rather for us to read, study, analyze and garner important values. The implication is that we are also subject to making those same errors in judgment.

This week’s Torah portion, Korach, points to another serious flaw that lurks within human nature. It depicts in dramatic fashion an ugly incident that occurred between Korach and his followers and Moshe. What was at the heart of the matter and why did it turn out as another tragedy within the nation of Israel?

One aspect of the controversy centered on Moshe’s power. Not only did it appear to Korach and his followers that Moshe assumed total political authority, and was doing a very poor job as leader, but as a corollary to his power as king, Moshe appointed his brother Kohain Gadol, High Priest. To support his claim that Moshe had imposed himself on the people as leader and then usurped his role by appointing Aaron, Kohain Gadol, Korach paraphrases the goal for the nation that God stated at Mount Sinai, “You shall be to Me a kingdom of priest and a holy nation.” (Shemot 19:6) Korach tells Moshe, “It is too much for you! For the entire assembly, all of them, are holy and Hashem is among them. Why do you exalt yourselves over the congregation of Hashem?” Korach’s defiance hinges on the two prongs, the appeal of democracy and the millennia-old argument based on the equality of all people. Simply put, Moshe was power hungry. After investing himself with total political power, he chose his closest family member, his brother Aaron, and endowed him with the religious authority. He all of the power within his own family. Hence not unlike former and current despots, Moshe consolidated all power to himself and his family.

Direct as this outward assault of Korach is on Moshe’s leadership, there is another more subtle and insidious assault he launches at Moshe. It is not stated openly in the text of the Torah but it underlies the entirety of Korach’s rebellion. This second aspect is mentioned by Rashi, quoting the Midrah Tanchuma. (Bamidbar 16:1) The Midrash contains two stories. In the first, Korach presents before Moshe 250 chiefs of the court dressed in robes made of the purple-blue “techelet.” Korach asks Moshe, “Is a garment entirely made of techelet subject to the mitzvah of tzitzit, or is it exempt? Moshe answered it is subject to the law of tzitzit. Korach and his followers laughed and mocked Moshe.” In the second story, the query revolved around the mitzvah of mezuzah. Korach and his followers asked, “Does a house filled with many Torahs require a mezuzah on is doorpost?” Again Moshe answered in the affirmative whereupon Korach and his followers jeered Moshe and said, “Is it possible that 2 short paragraphs written on parchment and placed on the doorpost is enough for the mitzvah of mezuzah and yet a multitude of Torah scrolls in a house does not suffice to exempt the house from the mitzvah of mezuzah?”

These 2 stories capture the underlying motive behind Korach’s rebellion. More than political power, Korach wanted to supersede Moshe as “rabbenu,” guardian and teacher par excel lance of the law. All Jews, he held were equally qualified to interpret the law. Korach’s challenge was first and foremost directed at Moshe’s role as “halachic” authority. “Korach maintained that the study and interpretation of the law were exoteric and democratic acts in which every intelligent person may engage.” (Soloveitchik, Vision and Leadership, p.199)

According to Korach, the means to arrive at legal decisions was to be common sense rather than by the esoteric, conceptualizing process which can be attained only via special training and painstaking study and analysis. He failed to realize and appreciate that the “Oral Law and halachic system,” is more akin to the study of mathematics and physics than to the worldview of religion. In both math and physics, there are rules and processes that opinions and theories are subject to before becoming law. For religions other than Judaism, it is the emotional experience, the common man’s perception of the intent of the religious performance that is important. As such the religious practice or rules can and do change with the feelings of the practitioners at any given time. There is no objective religious experience, only subjective observances will suffice.

This approach is antithetical to the essence of “halachic” Judaism. This is the attack that Korach launched against Moshe. It had a very powerful appeal then and has a very powerful appeal today. After all, isn’t it that subjective feeling, closeness to God that every mitzvah is trying to create in a person? Therefore if one purple-blue thread can accomplish the task in the case of tzitzit, then certainly an entire purple-blue garment can. If one small 2 paragraph scroll on a door can remind the dweller going in and out of the entrance of the oneness of God, then certainly a house containing a Torah can do that and more.
Our path to Judaism should follow the advice found in Pirkey Avot, 5:17. “All arguments for the sake of Heaven will endure; those not for the sake of Heaven will not endure. What is an example of an argument for the sake of Heaven? The arguments between Hillel and Shammai. What is an example of an argument not for the sake of Heaven? The arguments brought by Korach and his followers.”

Halachic Judaism venerates arguments such as those between Hillel and Shammai or Rava and Abaye and excoriates those of Korach. The former are of the nature of אלו ואלו דברי ה’ חיים, “these and these are both the words of the living God.” Both Hillel and Shammai, given the same facts, were arguing with each other in search of the true concept behind a particular mitzvah. Whereas, Korach and his followers, ancient or modern, are simply trying to satisfy certain human feelings in their religious practice, no different than those invented and practiced by idol worshippers.

May we use every opportunity we have to engage in study Jewish law “for the sake of Heaven.”

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Robert Kaplan