The Book of Quarrels
The fourth book of the Torah, which we know by the title Book of Numbers or, in Hebrew, Bemidbar (“in the wilderness”) might also be called the book of quarrels. It tells of recurring arguments and rebellions by the Israelites against Moses and God. The most serious of these is the rebellion of Korah, a cousin of Moses and Aaron who questioned their leadership of the nation. An early interpretation of the Korah episode is found in the Mishnah’s tractate Pirkei Avot:
When an argument is for the sake of heaven, the argument will lead to an established result. When an argument is not for the sake of heaven, it will not lead to any established result. What is an argument for the sake of heaven? That of Hillel and Shammai. What is an argument not for the sake of heaven? That of Korah and his group. (Pirkei Avot 5:17)
Pirkei Avot’s comment helped set the stage for generations of commentators who depicted Korah as a self–seeking traitor trying to undermine not just Moses’s authority but that of God. His efforts led to nothing. Hillel and Shammai, sages of the 1st Century BCE, were famous as intellectual adversaries. Even though subsequent law mainly follows Hillel’s decisions, Shammai, too, was seeking to establish the truth and glorify God, not himself. Thus the arguments between the two sages yielded a positive result.
Pirkei Avot prefaces the description of two kinds of argument by a description of two kinds of love:
When love depends on something outside itself and that thing comes to an end, love comes to an end. When love does not depend on something outside itself, that love will endure forever. What is a love that depends on something outside itself? That of Amnon for Tamar. What is a love that does not depend on something outside itself? That of David and Jonathan. (Pirkei Avot 5:16)
Amnon, son of King David, used and then discarded his sister Tamar when his incestuous passion for her had cooled. In contrast, David and Jonathan’s love was strong enough to outlast Jonathan’s death; David, in fulfillment of his covenant with his friend, continued to look after Jonathan’s son.
Pirkei Avot crystallizes what most people know from their life experience: not all arguments are bad and not all love is good. The Zohar, a book of Kabbalah which is largely a mystical interpretation of the Torah, takes this idea to a higher level:
It is the way of the righteous to enter on a dispute stiffly and end it amicably. Korah continued the dispute as he began it, in wrath and passion; and therefore clung to Gehinnom (hell.) Shammai conducted his dispute in that spirit of calm which should follow on the first burst of passion; it therefore became a quarrel of love and obtained the approval of Heaven. This is indicated by the Torah. It says first: “And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.” (Genesis 1:6)This refers to the beginning of quarrel, the outburst of passion and violence. There was a desire for reconciliation, but meanwhile Gehinnom arose before the wrath and passion cooled down. Then, the Torah continues: “God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament; and it was so. And God called the firmament Heaven. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day.”(Genesis 1:7–8) That is, there emerged a quarrel of love and affection which made for the permanence of the world. And in this category is the dispute between Shammai and Hillel, the result of which was that the Oral Law approached in a loving mood the Written Law, so that they mutually supported each other. (Zohar Bereisheet Sec. I 17b)
In the Zohar’s view, the creation of the world began with division and ended with unification. The intial division of waters was necessary to produce heaven, the upper world Likewise, the division of opinion between Hillel and Shammai was the kind of division necessary to produce heaven on earth – ideally, the realm of Torah. The quarrel of Korah against Moses created hell; the arguments of Hillel and Shammai created heaven.
The Zohar then, draws a further insight from Pirkei Avot: divisiveness for the sake of love is constructive. That is how the world was created–and, one might say, how it continues to be renewed.
The publication and distribution of the JTS KOLLOT: Voices of Learning commentary has been made possible by a generous gift from Sam and Marilee Susi.