There is a long-loved Jewish dictum that emphasizes the sacred quality of arguments advanced for the communal good. We are taught that so long as a dispute is engaged l’shem shamayim, “for the sake of heaven,” a healthy difference of opinion is not only legitimate but, in fact, is proof there is divinity within our midst.
“Eilu v’eilu divrei elohim chayim,” we read in the Babylonian Talmud (Eruvin 13b & Gittin 6b), “This [argument] as well as this other are the words of the living God.”
By this, we mean that so long as divergent opinions are offered l’shem shamayim (as opposed to for our own aggrandizement, ego, or so that another loses thereby) on the theoretical level, all opinions are of equal merit, even as, in practice, one opinion must prevail over another.
I share this because in this week’s Torah reading, we come across a challenge to Moses’ authority, which raises the question of the legitimacy of argument and confrontation. Korach and his followers assert that Moses has “gone too far” and so demand their “rightful place” in making communal decisions. Time and again our sages reject Korach’s claim, not because he was wrong to broach the subject, nor because his claim is without merit, rather because Korach and his minions were motivated by self-interests and not “for the sake of heaven.”
Already it was more than a year ago that I first wrote of our community’s need for a courageous conversation. After all, who can fail to appreciate what Marc Lee Raphael makes crystal clear in his recently published “The Synagogue in America.”
The contemporary Jewish community, Raphael offers, looks far different than was true when our congregations first came into being. And as a result of how our communal landscape grew and changed over time, we now boast a larger institutional footprint than we legitimately require or can continue to maintain long term.
How best to confront this uncomfortable and difficult truth?
Community stakeholders offer different answers to this question. Some will maintain “there are not too many congregations,” contending “each of our congregations offers something unique” or “we are fortunate to have as many Jewish options as we have.”
Still, others will recognize that as much as we may want this to be the whole of our truth, the notion that things are “fine the way they are” masks a deeper reality we can no longer avoid confronting. Therefore, rather than choosing sides, we must deal with this question l’shem shamayim.
I know we like what we have (truth to tell, we love what we have), but when so much more is expected, indeed is demanded, of us, surely we’re anything but satisfied with what we have become: too often entrenched in our respective world views and unable or unwilling to engage selflessly in the courageous conversation our community requires.
Alas. The message of this week’s Torah portion is that, while often discomfiting, open and respectful disagreement and dialogue is a sine qua non necessity if our community is to remain healthy and vital, to say nothing of how we shall go about ensuring there is ever divinity within our midst.
(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)