Holy Fighting, Not Holy War – Korach 5772

If we look at the long span of human history and think of all of the wars that have been waged in God’s name, with all of the suffering and destruction that has been caused, I think we can probably all agree that waging holy war is probably not a recipe for a life of holiness.
But there is a difference between holy war and holy fighting.  Holy war is when one person, or one side, claims to speak on God’s behalf, and tries to impose its interpretation of God’s will on an opponent by force.
Holy fighting is something entirely different.  As thinking and reasoning human beings, we disagree by our very nature.  It is inevitable that we will argue with each other, and even fight.  But there is a way to fight that is holy.  A way that preserves human dignity and promotes constructive solutions to the problems that arise between us.
This morning’s Parshah, Korach, includes the biggest internal threat to Moses’ leadership in the entire Torah.  Korach, Datan, Aviram, and 250 other Israelites band together to challenge Moses and Aaron’s leadership.
While pulling back the layers of their argument can be somewhat tricky, it is clear from the outcome of the story that Korach’s claims are not just.  Moses and Aaron have not abused their positions, and Korach is after personal power and prestige, despite his populist rhetoric.
The rabbinic tradition holds up this episode as the model for an argument that is based on the wrong things.  Mishnah Avot, composed nearly two thousand years ago, teaches the following:  “Every disagreement that is for the sake of Heaven, its end will endure.  But one that is not for the sake of Heaven, its end will not endure.”  Then it asks for examples.  “What is an argument for the sake of Heaven?  The arguments of the school of Hillel and the school of Shammai.  And one that is not for the sake of Heaven?  The arguments of Korach and his company.”  (Mishnah Avot 5,17)
From this morning’s parshah.  We know that Heaven frowned upon Korach’s claim, because he and his followers are consumed by fire, and swallowed up by the earth.  But what of the argument for the sake of heaven?  What is it about the disagreements between the schools of Hillel and Shammai that is so holy.
The Talmud records an argument that once took place between the two schools that went on for three years.  Each school claimed that the law followed its position.  At the end of three years, a bat kol, a heavenly voice came down and pronounced elu v’elu divrei elohim chayim.  These and these are both the words of the living God, v’halachah k’veit Hillel, but the law is according to the school of Hillel.
This is a theologically rich story, with which we are not going to get too involved this morning.  But when the follow-up question is asked “Why did the school of Hillel merit that the law should follow its position?” the answer tells us something about the nature of holy fighting.
The students of the school of Hillel, we are told, were kind and modest.  They would study both their own teachings as well as the teachings of their opponents, the school of Shammai.  And not only that,  they would mention the teachings of the school of Shammai before their own.
It is this style of arguing that our tradition finds so praiseworthy.  Breaking this down, we can identify three elements modeled by the school of Hillel.
First, a kind and gentle attitude.  Second, an eagerness to learn and understand the position of the other.  And finally, not just giving respect to the opinions of one’s opponents, but verbally acknowledging and validating them.
This teaching comes in the context of a discussion of Jewish law, but it is really modeling how to approach situations any time there is a difference of opinion.
It asks us to respect those who disagree with us, to recognize them as human beings, and to acknowledge that they are motivated with just as much passion as we are.  This is not to say that every claim is a just one, or that we should be any less fervent in our beliefs.  Just that we recognize that as human beings, we are limited in our knowledge, and we can never really know the Truth (with a capital T) or understand the mind of God.
The world is filled with disagreements.  There are the big ones, between countries, and ethnic groups.  And then there are the small ones, the ones that take place between individuals.  We all get in disagreements.  We fight with those who are closest to us, our partners, our children, parents, siblings, friends.  The question we must ask ourselves is: When we fight, how can we do it with holiness?
Whenever we argue, whether we are the ones who started it or whether it is the other person, our natural inclination is to be defensive.  To interrupt, or to yell.  To not really listen to what the other person is saying.  Or to trade insult for insult.  It is simple Newtonian physics.  Every action has an equal and opposite reaction.  You push me by starting an argument, I’m going to push back.  But all that does is raise the pressure in the middle.  Even if someone “wins,” there is never any forward progress in the relationship
But the school of Hillel offers us a Jewish approach to holy fighting.  Consider taking a different approach the next time you find yourself in an argument.
Let the other person speak first, and let them say everything they have to say.  Then before jumping to your counter-argument, let your opponent know that you have heard them.  Validate the fact that they have an opinion and feelings, and that you have heard them, and have tried to understand them.  Reflect back what you just heard.
Then, say what you are feeling.  But do it without accusing, and without judging.  You might be familiar with the concept of I/You statements.  I felt X when you did Y.  It is a technique often used with kids to try to help them settle their differences, but it is a great tool for reconciliation among adults as well.
Here is how it works.  We tend to fight with You statements.  Using blame and judgment.  A You statement might go like this, and by the way this is a completely hypothetical example:  “You hurt my feelings when you went to watch TV instead of helping me do the dishes.”  That is going to be put me on the defensive.  It is blaming me for hurting the other person.
An I statement, however, would say the same thing, but make a few subtle changes.  “I felt hurt and ignored when you went to watch TV while I did the dishes.”
Notice there is no accusation, and no judgment in that statement.  I felt hurt and ignored.  Those are my feelings.  Nobody can deny them, or take them away from me.  The other person is now in a position of responding to his or her partners hurt feelings, rather than a personal attack.
It might surprise us to find that disagreements using this kind of language are somehow transformed from fights into problem-solving.  Both parties end up feeling validated, are more likely to take responsibility for their actions and the results of their actions, and nobody feels attacked.  Instead of us being opponents, facing each other with swords drawn, we end up being partners, joined at the hip, attacking the problem together.  And that allows us, and our relationship to move forward.
The I/You technique is something that we can train ourselves to use, and it can make a huge difference in our lives.  It can get us away from Korach arguments, and into Beit Hillel/Beit Shammai arguments.
Unfortunately, we have a bit less control over the fighting that takes place on the macro scale.  The Korach-like, not for the sake of heaven, types of arguments seem to dominate the airwaves, including, sadly, among the Jewish people.  This week, there was a terribly incendiary letter written by Rabbi Moshe Amar, the Chief Sephardic Rabbi of Israel, a government employee paid with public funds.  He was responding to an Israeli Supreme Court decision from a few weeks ago that ruled that non-Orthodox Rabbis, that is to say Reform and Conservative Rabbis, who are serving communities in kibbutzim and rural areas, should be paid as public servants with state funds.  Israel does not have separation of church and state the way we do in America.  The Rabbinate is a part of the government, and every community has a chief rabbi and a rabbinic council.  Until this decision, only Orthodox Rabbis selected by the ultra-Orthodox dominated Rabbinate could serve in these functions, even though a significant majority of Israeli Jews are not Orthodox.
In response, Rabbi Amar wrote a letter, on official state letterhead, calling on all Jews to come to a rally this coming Tuesday to protest the decision.  Listen to some of the language he used:  He accuses the Reform and Conservative movements of “uproot[ing] and destroy[ing] Judaism” and says that we have “already brought horrendous destruction on the Jewish people in the Diaspora, by causing terrible assimilation and an uprooting of all of the fundamental principles of the Torah.”  He is talking about us, in this room, right now, celebrating Shabbat together in joy.
Worst of all, he calls on Jews “to stop those who would sabotage [modern Hebrew: commit terrorism] and destroy the vineyard of the Lord of Hosts.”
This, at a time when Israel is facing the threat of Iran going nuclear.  In a week in which terrorists crossed the border from the Sinai peninsula and attacked Israeli workers, killing one.  And also in a week in which Hamas launched hundreds of missiles into Israel from Gaza.  You want to talk about threats to the Jewish people, those are real threats.
The idea that the the biggest danger to the survival of Judaism is the Israeli government paying a few shekels to Reform and Conservative Rabbis, out of the Ministry for Sport and Culture no less, is not only ludicrous, but it is divisive, hate-filled, and undemocratic.  And frankly, someone who is an employee of the state has no business calling on followers to overturn a ruling by the Supreme Court, nor of trying to impose a particular religious worldview on every Jew in the country.  I understand that ultra-Orthodox communities have a very strict interpretation of Torah that opposes the approach of more liberal movements.  But when any religious group uses its political power to coercively impose what it considers to be God’s will on the rest of the nation, that is bordering on holy war.
This is so far from the ideal demonstrated by the school of Hillel, whose students would behave gently, learn their opponents’ arguments, and respect them by acknowledging those arguments first.
This problem is pervasive in the world.  In international politics, domestic politics, in the Jewish community, and in our own lives.  I don’t know if there is much we can do to directly effect what is going on in other parts of the world, but we certainly can focus on ourselves.
Judaism guides us in every aspect of our lives.  It is not just about what we do when come to synagogue.  From the moment we wake up until the the time when we go to sleep, we are given the challenge of living lives of holiness.
When Korach challenged Moses, he said as much.  Aren’t all the people holy?  Yes they are, potentially, but Korach himself was not behaving all that holy.  He was trying to gain power.  But the idea of being holy is something that Judaism embraces.  We can make any moment into a holy one.  When we come to synagogue.  When we celebrate Shabbat at home with our families.  When we walk into a room with a mezuzah on the door.  And yes, even when we fight.  We have to learn how to fight holy, not engage in holy war.