We should debate to seek the truth, not just to be rebellious

Numbers 16:1-18:32
I Samuel 11:14-12:22

I was sitting in the Jerusalem Theater at one of the best rock ‘n’ roll concerts ever, when Shlomo Artzi offered this characterization of the Israeli spirit: “You know what they say, put one Israeli in a room alone and you have an argument.”

The cantankerous nature of the Jewish people appears to be a beloved cultural stereotype. We are talkative, argumentative and rarely shy away from a good controversy. The Talmud is filled with thousands of controversies over matters of Jewish law and belief. In fact, debate is the intellectual foundation of the Talmud. Yet Judaism regards quarreling as a grave sin. The Midrash suggests that the divisiveness born of quarreling contradicts the essential unity of God.

It will come as no surprise, then, that the rabbis view the controversy brought on by Korach in this week’s eponymous parshah as the definition of a “controversy that desecrates heaven.”

Korach is not just quarrelsome. He is rebellious, engaged in a selfish power struggle. Korach attacks not only Moses’ leadership but the hierarchical structure of Israelite religious society: “All of the community is holy, all of them, and God is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above God’s congregation?” (Num. 16:3)

Korach is arguing that each individual should be their own religious leader — a modernist argument if ever there was one. Moses, who remembers the authoritarian regime of Egypt yet who is rightfully afraid of political chaos, knows no other way but to defeat the rebellion charismatically, through miraculous divine intervention.

Our sages chose to view this story in theological terms, as a rebellion against God and halachah. Framed as a case study in political science, however, the Korach story is inconclusive.

Today there are no miraculous interventions to tell us who is right and who wrong in any argument. Even in the days of the Talmud we are instructed that “one pays no heed to a heavenly voice” — we must learn to figure things out for ourselves. The Talmud, while wary of ego-filled controversy, cherishes debate as a means to hone the sharpest formulation of truth.

The 20th-century sage Rabbi Shmuel Brot teaches that “in every controversy each side has something to stand on, there is some truth and justice on every side.” The only way to know what is right and what is wrong is through public discourse.

Public discourse seems severely limited, even threatened, in the Jewish community today. Instead of inviting multiple voices to be heard and differing opinions to be debated, it sometimes seems that the Jewish community wants to limit debate to the politically correct and perceives threatening opinions as a Korach-like rebelliousness. This is particularly the case when dovish ideas are expressed about the Middle East or public communal compassion is urged for the Palestinians even in the context of a secure and safe Israel.

When leaders in the Jewish community proclaim these opinions to be beyond the pale, they do a disservice to the Jewish community that is in desperate need of intelligent political discourse without rancor or name-calling.

Political scientist William Grieder writes, “At its best politics creates and sustains … the human conversation and engagement that draw people together and allow them to discover their mutuality.” To renew Jewish communal politics would require welcoming a wide variety of opinions to the table without recrimination or rejection. Israel has an active, articulate and passionate voice for peace. Why shouldn’t we include that voice as well?

The sainted Rav Kook once wrote that an individual can only perceive part of the truth. To know the whole truth, to know God’s Truth, is to see my truth in combination with yours.

Our sages were right. Argument for the sake of power struggle is ungodly, but debate for the sake of seeking truth is a “controversy for the sake of heaven,” and is the only means of bringing us closer to healthy political action.

Rabbi Lavey Derby is the senior rabbi of Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon.