Dvar Torah: On the 1st Anniversary of the Brexit Vote (Shabbat Korach 2017)

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 23 June 2017

A few moments ago, when we chanted the Amidah together, we had a choice about how to recite the first paragraph.
The book is laid out so you can sing down the columns – first the patriarchs then the matriarchs, or sing them in their pairs (and one three) – Abraham with Sarah and so on.
So, how did we decide which to do?

As a community we made the decision on a very special evening.  It was called “When Rabbis Collide”, and it was a public debate between the then three rabbis – Mark, Laura Janner-Klausner and me, about how to do it.
Because, you see, we disagreed.  But we also recognised that this was a question about which we had to have a decision.  There are plenty of things that we can do differently in tefillah, but this couldn’t be one of them.  Sometimes binary questions need decisions, need answers.
So we did what people do when they disagree and need to find an answer.  We argued.  But we did so in a special way: respectfully, openly, with real content and learning;  No one tried to impose their will on the others;  No one huffed or shouted, or lied or exaggerated; No one made it about them, about their victory – it was all about the questions, the idea; we listened to one another and responded.
And in the end, those who were there voted.
And that’s why we read the Amidah in the way that we do.  Over seven years later.

This was a model of what the rabbis called a “machaloket l’shem shamayim” – “an argument for the sake of heaven”.  The classic Rabbinic Text on it is found in Pirkei Avot.  It identifies a machaloket l’shem shamayim with the debates of Hillel and Shammai.  The contrast the rabbis make is with the controversy that we read about in tomorrow’s Torah portion – the dispute of Korach, who came to challenge Moses, according to the rabbis, with trickery of language, motivated by personal ambition and envy.

The insight of this text is profound.  Firstly, that argument can be good.  Judaism values argument, debate.  Ours is a dialectical tradition, built on robust disagreement.
What we also learn from the rabbis is that arguments need to be carried out in a particular way, and that when they are not then the result cannot endure.  Because our debate about the Amidah was healthy and ‘for the sake of heaven’, the result has lasted.  Because it was reached in a way which was good, the result endured because even those who disagreed understood that it was reached honestly and thoughtfully.

By contrast, questions argued about dishonestly, with deceit and personal ambition are not fully resolved.

On this Shabbat of Korach, and this 1st anniversary of the Europe Referendum, we pray that our leaders, and all of us remember this insight.  May we always be prepared to argue – but when we do so, may our arguments be good, and healthy, and for the sake of heaven.  For, if they are not, their outcomes can never endure.