Pluralistic Perspectives From the Trenches of the War of Ideas

By Mishael Zion

We find ourselves at a time of growing dispute and polarization. The political discourse is increasingly toxic, and instead of engaging in a deeper exchange, disagreeable ideas are labeled as “outside the camp” which “cannot be tolerated.” With our back against the wall, it feels almost impossible to extend the other side the “benefit of the doubt” or see anything positive in the arguments coming from across the aisle. It would be so much more convenient if the earth simply opened its mouth and swallowed up the opposition.

This is the fate of the opposition described in this week’s Torah portion, Korach. In the heat of the desert, banned from entering the land until an entire generation dies, the Israelites mount a rebellion against Moses and Aaron’s leadership. Led by Korach and 250 chieftains, it is quashed when the earth swallows the rebels whole. Korach’s mutiny becomes the archetype of the illegitimate argument in Jewish thought:

An argument for the sake of Heaven will endure;

But an argument not for the sake of Heaven will not endure.

Which is an argument for the sake of Heaven? The arguments of Hillel and Shammai.

Which is an argument not for the sake of Heaven? The argument of Korach and his company.

(Mishna Pirkei Avot/Ethics of the Fathers 5:17)

Yet, how does one know when an argument is for the sake of Heaven? Almost any argument can be viewed through the cynical lens of self-promotion (as we too often reduce politics to) or aggrandized to be about philosophical ideals and altruistic motives. Hasn’t Korach’s argument itself endured, eternalized by becoming the archetype of arguments that aren’t for the sake of Heaven?

Faced with this question, I reflect back on a letter written by Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook to his brother Shmuel in 1910. It tells a sweet story of brotherly love: Arriving in Jaffa, a young Rabbi Kook finds himself serving as the Orthodox rabbi of the resoundingly secular Pioneers of the Land of Israel. His faith in their work and support of them pitted him against the old world Orthodox leadership of Jerusalem, who labeled him a traitor to Jewish Law and Tradition.

His younger brother, Shmuel, wrote to Kook, expressing vehement support of his vilified brother. Rabbi Kook’s response reveals a surprisingly measured and ever relevant perspective about arguments:

Jaffa, 1910

Shmuel, my beloved brother,

While your words are true and said in the spirit of justice and pure faith, it nevertheless behooves us to constantly expand our horizons, and to give every person the benefit of the doubt (Pirkei Avot 1:6). Even to those on a distant and undecipherable path! We must never forget that in every battle waged in the war of ideas, once the initial agitation subsides — lights and shadows can be found on both sides of the argument.

Indeed by attunement to Divine will we know that all human action and ideas in the world — large and small — are set and arranged by the One who Reads All Generations, to improve the world and brings about progress, to increase light and stamp out darkness. And even as we battle in fervor for those issues that are closest to our heart, we must not give in to our emotions. Rather we must always keep in mind that even those sentiments opposite to ours — have a wide place in the world, and that “the God who gives breath to all flesh” (Numbers 27:16) “has made everything beautiful for its time” (Kohelet 3:11).

This perspective must never stop us from fighting for that which is sacred, true and dear to us. However it can help us from falling into the net of small mindedness, contempt and irascibility. And may we instead be full of courage, serenity and faith in the God who loves Truth, who will not forsake his followers.

I would be most pleased if you use any opportunity which comes your way to exert your influence, quiet the spirits and increase mutual respect in your circles, as is fitting for people of integrity and wisdom, who know their own virtue and objective as clearly as daylight.

(Letters of Rav Kook, I:314)

Rabbi Kook does not question the motivations of his opponents, seeking to distinguish between “arguments for the sake of Heaven” and those which are not. Rather, the question is how all arguments can play a role in the “sake of Heaven,” inasmuch as they can eventually play a role in “improving the world and bringing about progress, increasing light and stamping out darkness.” The challenge — to his brother, to himself, to all of us — is to rise up to the balcony instead of falling into the net of “small mindedness, contempt and irascibility.” To recall — even as we fight for our own opinions — that in some larger scheme of things the opposite force is also playing out an important role in the world. Kook’s position might be rooted in a modernist mystical belief in the ongoing progress of the world, but it can still be valuable to those of us more cynical of such assured progress, or doubtful of a clear Divine plan for the world. In an age of polarization on one hand and relativism on the other, instead of seeking to push our opponents down into the bowels of the earth, we must hold onto two truths at once: that we must fight for what we believe in, without losing respect for those on the other side. That is the only fitting way if we seek to live a life of virtue and integrity.

Rabbi Mishael Zion is the co-Director of the Bronfman Fellowships, a diverse community of 1,000 young Jewish leaders from North America and Israel. He is the author of “A Night to Remember: The Haggadah of Contemporary Voices”. Mishael blogs at Text and the City and in 2013 was named one of ten “Rabbis to Watch” by Newsweek/the Daily Beast.

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