a black and white woodcut of them tumbling into a huge ravine
Korach, Dathan and Abiram being swallowed up by the ground (Gustave Dore, 1865)

On agreeing to disagree, and the importance of minority opinions

Korach
Numbers 16:1-18:32
Isaiah 66:1-24

As a political science major, I was always fascinated how, in the U.S. judicial system, even though the majority opinion in a case becomes the law, the minority or dissenting opinion also becomes a part of the legal record.

The same is true in Judaism. In the Talmud, and in the subsequent law codes, even when a majority opinion or practice is adopted, the alternative, minority opinions are always retained as a part of our tradition.

While there is a common set of religious practices in Judaism (with multiple opinions, of course), retention of these minority views might be one reason why we see numerous minhagim (customs) and laws that vary from community to community. This week’s Torah portion is a story about a dispute where the majority opinion wins and the minority view is criticized but never forgotten.

In the reading, Korach, a Levite, is jealous of his cousins: Aaron the High Priest and Moses, the leader of Israel. He feels that he, too, is entitled to one of those positions. Seems legitimate, right? So Korach gathers 250 people to rebel against Moses and Aaron, hoping to justify his viewpoint before God and receive his fair share.

Korach says, “You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst. Why then do you [Moses and Aaron] raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation?” (Numbers 16:3)

Who is right? If God, the ultimate judge and adjudicator of the law, chose Aaron to be the high priest and Moses to lead the people, should those two simply step back and allow a dissenter to take over? Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the 19th century German Torah scholar, writes the following in his commentary of the Ethics of Our Fathers:

When in a controversy both parties are guided by pure motives and seek noble ends … and when both parties seek solely to find the truth, then, of course, only one view will constitute the truth and only one of the two opposing views can and will prevail in practice. But actually, both views will have permanent value because, through the arguments each side has presented, both parties will have served to shed new light on the issue under debate, and will have contributed to the attainment of the proper understanding of the question discussed. They shall be remembered as … retaining an abiding memory of the differences and the attempts on both sides to prove the validity of their views … thus advancing the cause of the genuine knowledge of truth.

There is a part of me that empathizes with Korach’s desire to be heard and to receive the benefits of the Levite lineage. Additionally, he has an excellent point when he argues that everyone is holy. If Korach had stopped there, his opinion might have influenced God positively, but instead he chose to rebel: against the leadership, against Israel and against God.

Korach caused a divide among the people, placing blame with his dissenting opinion rather than practicing the same holiness that he tried to preach. Ultimately, Korach’s actions led him and his followers to be swallowed up by the depths of the world.

It’s clear that the majority view sides with God’s choice to retain Moses and Aaron in their roles. And while Korach’s point about everyone being holy is well taken, his act of rebellion is anything but holy.

So why is the Korach story retained in our tradition? Perhaps, initially, Korach had pure motives as described by Rabbi Hirsch. Yet in trying to prove his point, Korach lost his ability to do so in a just, truthful and righteous way.

This story is a reminder to all of us that even when we disagree, even when one opinion is chosen over another, there is a respectful way to express a minority or opposing view. Part of the holiness that I think Korach alluded to, but did not practice, is the need to debate civilly without reacting in a disproportionate way.

In today’s world, may we always feel comfortable to express our opinions openly, even if they are not necessarily popular or always correct. And despite the range of our opinions, may our differences of understanding lead us to embrace and be respectful of one another in pursuit of truth.

Rabbi Corey Helfand

Rabbi Corey Helfand is the spiritual leader of Peninsula Sinai Congregation in Foster City. He can be reached at rabbi@peninsulasinai.org.