Sunday, June 19, 2011


The Mishna in Pirkei Avos describes the machlokes that Korach instigated against Moshe Rabbeinu as one that was ’sheloh leshem shamayim’. Sheloh leshem shamayim refers to selfish reasons such as desire of kavod. However, Chazal tell us that Korach and his cohorts confronted Moshe not with personal attacks but with genuine ideological issues. They argued that all the nation are holy and that they all heard Hashem give the Torah. Therefore, Moshe and Aharon had no right to take for themselves the two highest positions in the nation, rather everyone should equally share power. Although ultimately misguided, this argument seems understandable - how did the Mishna know that it was sheloh leshem shamayim? The answer is found in other sources in Chazal which tell us of Korach’s true motives in attacking Moshe and Aharon. Korach felt that he was next in line to be the leader of Kehathite family and was angered when his cousin Elizaphan was appointed to this position ahead of him. This triggered Korach to attack the leadership of Moshe and Aharon. Thus, it is clear that his ideological crusade was really a pretext for his desire for kavod - he posed as a genuine ‘defender of the people’ when in truth he was merely seeking out his own selfish interests. This led to the terrible aveiros that Korach committed and the devastating punishment that he and his supporters suffered - being swallowed in the ground for all eternity. Yet if one were to ask Korach himself if he were acting leshem shamayim or not then he would surely answer that he was - he convinced himself that he was right in his machlokes because he saw prophetically that among his offspring would be the great prophet Shmuel and twenty-four groups of Leviim who would prophesy with ruach hakodesh. Therefore he reasoned that he was surely justified in his argument with Moshe and Aharon. He failed to foresee, however, that his sons would repent and survive whilst he would disappear into oblivion.

There are many lessons that can be learned from Korach - one of the most important is that a person can be convinced that he is acting leshem shamayim in criticizing others whilst in reality he is simply being misled by his yetser hara. This nisayon is especially common in the Torah world - observant Jews believe that there is right and wrong - we reject the secular notion of relativist morality; that whatever one believes has validity. We believe in the truth and we are willing to fight for that belief. However, this hanhaga brings with it a great risk that, like Korach, the real kavanna behind it can be sheloh leshem shamayim and consequently it can lead to damaging machloksim . Rav Leib Gurwitz zt”l discusses this phenomenon in his sefer Meoray Shearim : He says that on leil Shabbos we praise Hashem as “He who spreads the shelter of peace upon us, upon all of his people Israel, and upon Yerushalayim.” Why do we specifically mention Yerushalayim, it should be automatically included in ‘Israel’? He answers that Yerushalayim is the home of talmidey chachamim who “commonly get involved in machloksim that, in their eyes, are leshem shamayim, and their kina is in their eyes leshem shamayim, therefore Yerushalayim needs a special tefilla for itself” to protect itself from the wrong type of machlokes. It is very easy to justify criticising individuals or groups of people on the grounds that it is leshem shamayim, however it requires a great deal of self-analysis for a person to be sure that he is indeed acting leshem shamayim, for if he is not, then the damage caused can be great. Moreover, my Rebbe, Rav Yitzchak Berkovitz Shlita points out that to criticise another group is considered lashon hara letoeles and like all toeles, one needs to fulfill the seven conditions that the Chofetz Chaim enumerates in order to be allowed to speak such criticism. One of those conditions is that the speaker feel no sense of enjoyment that he is criticising others. This is a very hard condition to genuinely fulfil, therefore, generally it better be left to Talmidey Chachamim to decide when it is appropriate to speak negatively about different groups within Klal Yisroel and for us to remain quiet. The Manchester Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Yehuda Zev Segal zt”l echoed this sentiment. On one occasion “he said that only an exceptional tzaddik can dare speak critically of a group within Torah Jewry or its leader. Everyone else would do well to remain silent regarding such differences and focus their efforts on self-growth and yiras shamayim. ”

However, even if we do not get involved in ideological disagreements ourselves, Gedolim and Roshei Yeshivah have, at times, deemed it proper to speak out against attitudes or movements from within the Torah world that they have felt are wrong. It is clear that they were purely leshem shamayim in their intentions, not tainted by a desire for kavod or enjoyment of criticising others. Yet, there remains the risk that we misunderstand their words and apply it in a more personal way than was intended, again falling into the trap of lashon hara and machlokes. Consequently, there is always the risk that different groups within Torah Judaism can look down on one another and label them with negative descriptions. This is not just a mildly negative outcome, the Netziv writes that this was the attitude that led to the destruction of the 2nd Beis Hamikdash. Even though the people of that generation were tzadikim and ameilim b’Torah because “they had sinas chinam in their hearts and suspected anyone who they saw not acting in the way that they felt correct, as being a Tzadukki and Apkorus. ”

What is the correct way to approach disagreement? The answer to this can be seen in the other machlokes which Chazal contrast to that of Korach - the machlokes between Hillel and Shammai. Their machlokes is described as one which was leshem shamayim, there was no underlying personal motives in their disagreement, only the desire to get to the truth. A simun of this is that, despite the fact that they argued strongly in areas of halacha, that did not prevent their children from marrying each other. There is nothing wrong with disagreement, but only if it is based on a sincere desire for emes. If it is, then the participants will not confuse ideological differences between personal hostility.

This attitude is exemplified in the following story involving Rav Segal zt”l. On one occasion, he had voiced criticism of a certain organisation and his opinion was greeted by some with great disfavour. The Rosh Yeshivah was unmoved by such opposition and held his ground. Finally, one of the oranisation’s directors decided to visit the Rosh Yeshivah and discuss the matter. Upon the man’s arrival, the Rosh Yeshiva presented him with a gift - a volume of Sefer Chofetz Chaim which he had inscribed with a warm blessing. The man stood dumbfounded, not comprehending why his adversary would want to offer him a gift. The Rosh Yeshivah explained, “It was R’Yisroel Salanter’s way to present a gift to someone with whom he had engaged in ideological debate , in order to make clear that the disagreement was purely ideological and not personal.”

We have seen that the key to preventing ideological disagreements from degenerating into personal hostility is to separate the individual from his behaviour or attitude. One can be wrong but at the same time still be a good person. This is not an easy separation to make. My rebbe suggests one way of making it easier is to study the hashkafa and halacha of bein adam lechaveiro - these give a person the Torah outlook of how to look at one’s fellow Jew, even if he acts in a way that you deem to be wrong. Beyond this, as we stated earlier, it is very advisable to not get involved in attacks on other organisations without strict guidance from a competent Rabbiniic authority. By working in this area then we can begin to metaken this type of sinas chinam - that which the Netziv said was the cause of the Churban Beis Hamikdash that we are still suffering from.

1 comment:

  1. Dear Rabbi Gefen,

    Thank you so much for posting this. We certainly have many areas of disagreement in our Jewish world, and it is important to try to regard "the other side" as 1) part of Am Yisra'el and 2) people who are also arguing "le-shem shamayim". With those ideas firmly in mind, heart, and neshama, can we then move to tolerance/accommodation/openness?

    As an example, let's take one "little" current disagreement -- access to the Kotel for tefillah. I am willing to see and hear that many of my chareidi brothers and sisters perceive the "Women of the Wall" as unacceptable in several ways, and that their machloket le-shem shamayim is to preserve a certain lifestyle of kedushah. Can they not also perceive that for those us who support "Women of the Wall", this is also a machloket le-shem shamayim? We see a group of Jews who wish to daven in tallitot and read Torah in a minyan at the Kotel, just that that minyan happens to be all women. Does this really raise us to the level of invective that we hear?

    I pray we can all be on alert for sin'at chinam, which is, chas ve-chalilah, almost more of a danger to us than Assad, Ahmedinajad, et al.

    Kol tuv,

    Reb Zisha