Sunday, June 19, 2011

Fighting Fair (Portion Korach)

Disagreement is an inevitable part of all significant relationships. Even the closest partners and most harmonious organizations include their share of disputes. Indeed, as Doris Kearns Goodwin points out in her book on Abraham Lincoln and his cabinet, Team of Rivals, extraordinary leadership entails seeking out cohorts with conflicting opinions, personalities, and ideologies. Healthy debate is essential to personal growth.

So what distinguishes this sort of productive dialogue from destructive quarreling? The Talmud offers an important insight on this matter. In its compendium of ethical wisdom, Pirkei Avot, it teaches: “Every controversy that is in the Name of Heaven shall in the end lead to a permanent result, but every controversy that is not in the Name of Heaven shall not lead to a permanent result. What is a controversy that was in the Name of Heaven? The one between Hillel and Shammai. And what is a controversy that is not in the Name of Heaven? The one involving Korach and all his company.

In order to understand this Talmudic wisdom, one must be familiar with this week’s Torah portion, Korach, which describes the paradigm for destructive disputes. In it, Korach leads a bitter rebellion against his cousin, Moses. The opening words of story are both elliptical and illuminating: “Va-yikach Korach—Korach took. . .” because the Torah does not go on to tell us anything in particular that Korach took! Many of the commentators point out that this is precisely the point: Korach takes everything, and gives nothing. He is, in short, motivated by the narcissistic pursuit of power. He claims to be a defender of the community, but in reality, his arguments with Moses are only about pressing his own advantage.

This stands in stark contrast with the debates between the two great rabbis, Hillel and Shammai, and their disciples. They embody our tradition of “sacred argument” in which questioning, challenging, and testing one another move us forward. Their disagreements are conducted with a sense of mutual respect and admiration—and therefore, “each are the words of the living God.”

We cannot avoid disputes but we can learn to “fight fair.” Our challenge is to stay focused on the issue at hand, rather than personally attacking those with whom we disagree, avoiding character assassination and old grudges, and guarding against self-righteousness. When we disagree within these parameters, we follow Jewish heroes Hillel and Shammai, whose teachings—and relationship—have endured for centuries, rather than the lamentable Korach and his band.

This week, consider: How do I conduct my disagreements, especially with those who are closest to me? How can we be more like Hillel and Shammai and less like Korach?

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