Every controversy that is in the name of Heaven [l’shem shamayim],
the end thereof is [destined] to result in something permanent.
But one that is not in the name of Heaven,
the end thereof is not [destined] to result in something permanent.
Which is the [kind of] controversy that is in the name of Heaven?
Such as was the controversy between Hillel and Shammai.
And which is the [kind of] controversy that is not in the name of Heaven?
Such as was the controversy of Korah and all his congregation. (Mishnah Avoth, 5, 17)
The Sages saw in Korach an archetype of a person motivated by self-interest, and therefore they categorized his protest against Moshe and Aharon as a controversy “that is not in the name of Heaven”
Perusal of the above-quoted Mishneh raises several questions:
A. How do we differentiate between “controversy in the name of Heaven” and “controversy not in the name of Heaven?” What exactly is “in the name of Heaven”? Can a clear and sharp differentiation always be made?
B. What is the meaning of “destined to result in something permanent”?
C. It is interesting to note that the Mishneh chooses examples from different worlds: the Biblical world (Korach} , and the early Tanaaic period (Hillel and Shammai).
The earliest attempt at differentiation between the two types of controversy is found in Avoth D’Rebbi Natan (Chap 40):
“Every controversy which is in the name of Heaven etc”. Which is the controversy for the sake of Heaven? Every assembly which is with religious purpose [“L’shem mitzvah”]; every assembly which was with religious purpose was that of the Men of the Great Assembly, and that not for the sake of religious purpose is the assembly of the people of the Generation of the Scattering [i.e., the generation of the Tower of Babel].
The Sages of this Baraita replaced the concept “l’shem shamayim” – “for the sake of Heaven”- with “l’shem mitzvah” – for religious purpose, and in addition, “controversy” is replaced with “assembly”. The ultimate determinant of the type of controversy is the goal of the assembly or the controversy. The motivation and the goal determine whether something is positive or negative; perhaps the Baraita is teaching that although something may seem at first to be a divisionary disagreement, as long as it is truly ‘l’shem mitzvah” it does not damage the unity, whereas false unity which is not “l’shem mitzvah”, divides.
The Meiri, in his commentary, understands the concept “l’shem shamayim” [for the sake of Heaven] as referring to the manner in which the controversy is conducted.
[…] and said that if the other party responds and differs not in order to vex or to triumph, but rather to reach the truth, as against “not for the sake of Heaven”; “not for the sake of Heaven”, is when he responds and differs in order to anger and to win.
The Meiri, then, determines the goal of the controversy from the manner in which it is conducted; one who is really concerned with the truth, and not concerned primarily with “winning”, will not argue in a vexatious manner. “L’shem shamayim”, then, is synonymous with conducting controversy with the purpose of determining the truth.
R. Obadiah of Bartinura explains “l’shem shamayim” in similar fashion, but he emphasizes not the manner in which the controversy is conducted, but rather its goal:
And I heard the word “the end” interpreted as “the goal” of the controversy. Controversy which is for the sake of Heaven is one which has as its purpose and desired end the attainment of truth. This exists, as we have said, when through the controversy the truth becomes clear. And, as is clear from the controversy between Hillel and Shammai in which halachic rulings follow the House of Hillel [Talmudic tradition attributes primacy of Bet Hillel’s rulings to their gentlemanly deportment – Translator’s note], but controversy not for the sake of Heaven has as its desired goal the search for authority and the love of triumph. This end is not permanent, as we found in the controversy of Korach and his assembly, where their goal and final intent was the desire for honor and authority, but the opposite was achieved.
The Talmud is without doubt a book in which ‘controversy celebrates”, but in reading Pirke Aboth carefully we note that the archetype of controversy for the sake of Heaven is the controversy between Hillel and Shammai – not the controversy between their respective disciples, “the House of Hillel” and “the House of Shammai”, thus teaching us that man’s heart can inject power motives into a controversy which first began as a search for truth. Indeed, alongside the idyllic picture of the warm relations between the two schools we find the following:
Although Beth Shammai and Beth Hillel are in disagreement on the questions of rivals, sisters, an old bill of divorce, a doubtfully married woman, a woman whom her husband had divorced and who stayed with him over the night in an inn, money, valuables, a perutah and the value of a perutah, Beth Shammai did not, nevertheless, abstain from marrying women of the families of Beth Hillel, nor did Beth Hillel refrain from marrying those of Beth Shammai. This is to teach you that they showed love and friendship towards one another, thus putting into practice the Scriptural text, Love ye truth and peace (Trac. Yevamoth 14a),
The Talmud Yerushalmi (Shabbat 1, 4) tells of a majority which the disciples of Beth Shammai attained by force:
And these are some of the rulings pronounced in the upper chamber of Hannya b. Hizkiya b. Garon when they went up to visit him, and they counted and [disciples of] Beth Shammai outnumbered those of Beth Hillel and they enacted eighteen measures on that same day. (Mishnah Shabbat 1, 4)
Our Mishnah: These are some of the rulings pronounced in the upper chamber of Hannya b. Hizkiya b. Garon when they went up to visit him, etc – that day was as difficult for
the day on which the calf was made. Israel
R. Leizer said: On that day they overfilled the measure [of laws].
R. Yehoshua said: On that day they made the measure [of laws] just even.
Said to him R. Leizer: Had the measure been deficient and they came and filled it, fine, (this may be compared to) a barrel filled with nuts; no matter how many sesame seeds you add, it holds them all.
Replied R. Yehoshua: Had it been filled and they came took some away, fine; like a barrel which filled with oil, as you add water, it scatters the oil.
Taught R. Yehoshua Onaya: The disciples of Bet Shammai stood above them and they killed some of Beth Hillel. It is taught: Six of them went up and the rest stood over them with swords and daggers. (Yerushalmi Shabbat 1, 4)
The Mishnah does not reveal how Bet Shammai achieved the majority which resulted in the enactment of a number of their rulings on that day. In the Talmud itself there is a controversy between R. Eliezer and R. Yehoshua regarding the way in which these measures should be evaluated; do they strengthen or do they weaken. But it is absolutely clear that the opening passage of the discussion “that day was as difficult for
the day on which the calf was made”, referring to the violent manner in which
the majority was achieved, expressed dissatisfaction with the silencing of
controversy and argument between the two schools. Indeed, Tractate Sotah (47b) quotes
a statement - originating in the Tosefta - which views the controversy as resulting
from lack of proper preparation:
“With the increase of disciples of Shammai and Hillel who had not served [their teachers] sufficiently, dissension increased in
Israel and the Torah became like
two Toroth”. It is possible, however,
that this statement disparages not the existence of controversy per se,
but even hints at the Yerushalmi story relating to the manner in which the controversy
deteriorated into violence.
In contradiction to this statement, there exists another famous one in Tractate. Haggiga (3b) in praise of controversy:
And he [R. Elazar b. Azaria] also took up the text and expounded: “The words of the wise are as goads, and as nails well planted are the words of masters of Assemblies, which are given from one Shepherd”. Why are the words of the Torah likened to a goad? To teach you that just as the goad directs the heifer along its furrow in order to bring forth life to the world, so the words of the Torah direct those who study them from the paths of death to the paths of life. But [should you think] that just as the goad is movable so the words of the Torah are movable; therefore the text says: ‘nails’. But [should you think] that just as the nail diminishes and does not increase, so too the words of the Torah diminish and do not increase; therefore the text says ‘well planted’; just as a plant grows and increases, so the words of the Torah grow and increase. ‘The masters of assemblies’: these are the disciples of the wise, who sit in manifold assemblies [lit. “assemblies assemblies”] and occupy themselves with the Torah, some pronouncing ‘clean’ and others pronouncing ‘unclean', some prohibiting and others permitting, some disqualifying and others declaring fit.
Should a man say: How in these circumstances can I learn Torah? Therefore the text says: ‘All of them are given from one Shepherd’. One God gave them; one leader uttered them from the mouth of the Lord of all creation, blessed be He; for it is written: ‘And God spoke all these words’. Also you make your ear like the hopper and get you a perceptive heart to understand the words of those who pronounce unclean and the words of those who pronounce clean, the words of those who prohibit and the words of those who permit, the words of those who disqualify and the words of those who declare fit.
R. Yitzchak Minkovsky of Karlin (1787-1849), in his commentary (Keren Orah, Yevamoth 122b) explains the above as follows:
“Who sit in assemblies assemblies” – the repetition is intended to point out two kinds of assembly, one material and the second spiritual; that the two unite in their soul to direct everything toward a single source, to the ways of the Oneness and the goal of study for its sake, so it seems to me. And when they convene with this intent, some ruling that something is impure and others declaring it clean, the unity and the love from all the extremes will increase if there rests upon them the light of Torah, its secrets will be revealed to them and they will be like saplings “well planted”, and this is what is written “V’et Waheb bdsufah” [literally translated “Against Waheb in a whirlwind”, but homiletically read as] “and in the end there is love because the aim of this controversy is to increase love and unity. This, then, is the [R. Elazar b. Azariah’s] explanation: Lest one say, ‘How can I study Torah from now on?’, because without understanding the intended goal, controversy would seem to be a dividing factor, and how can both sides continue to exist? Therefore does it (Tosefta Sotah 7, 12) teach us “All were given by a single shepherd, one God gave them, one leader spoke them, all from the Master of all creation, blessed be He. This refers to our words above, because they have a single source, and one God gave them, etc., from the Master of all creation, blessed be He. And just as the purpose of Creation was criticized by some at the time of Creation. They too were created in order to achieve the Blessed One’s uniqueness and unity, for He is one and His name is one, and so did the Torah effect wholeness, for through the sages’ disputes light was increased and they comprehended its truth that the Torah is a single, complete, and true entity. And this is what the Sages said (Aboth 5, 17) “Every controversy which is in the name of Heaven is destined to result in something permanent” because its purpose is the purpose of existence and of unity.
According to this elucidation, controversy, when conducted in the name of Heaven, is not only for the sake of clarifying the truth but also for the purpose of achieving true unity, as expressed in the wonderful words of Rav Kook in Olat R’iyah (p. 330) in reference to “Scholars increase peace throughout the world”:
Some mistakenly think that world peace cannot be established unless though a single hue of opinions and attributes, and therefore when they see scholars delving into wisdom and Torah knowledge, and their study results in a proliferation of positions and approaches, they think that they [the scholars] are causing controversy and the opposite of peace. This is not true, for true peace can come to the world only through the multiplicity of peace. The multiplicity of peace means that all sides and approaches be seen, and it will become clear that all have a place, each according to its value, its place, and its matter.
At the beginning of Tractate Gittin (6b) the Talmud records a meeting between R. Abiathar and the prophet Elijah:
R. Abiathar soon afterwards came across Elijah and said to him:
‘What is the Holy One, blessed be He, doing?’ and he answered, ‘He is discussing the question of the concubine in Gibea.’ ‘What does He say?’ Said Elijah: ‘[He says], My son Abiathar says So-and-so, and my son Jonathan says So-and-so,’ Said R. Abiathar: ‘Can there possibly be uncertainty in the mind of the Heavenly One?’ He replied: Both [answers] are the words of the living God.
Perhaps this dialogue between R. Abiathar and Elijah—who represents Heaven in determining that “Both are the words of the living God”— echoes a discussion in Tractate Eruvin (13b) regarding the controversies between Bet Hillel and Bet Shammai: “Both these and these are the words of the living God”. (My thanks to Rabbi Benny Lau who called my attention to this link). Even in Heaven controversy has representation, i.e., the Heavenly vision encompasses this complexity, and this being so, it may be that “controversy in the name of Heaven” is that controversy which brings us closer to the complex and encompassing vision which exists in “Heaven”. May it be His will that we be wise enough to conduct the most important and most difficult controversies in a spirit of mutual respect, for the sake of clarifying the truth, and thereby we will succeed—if only in small measure—in accomplishing R. Menachem Mendel of Kotsk’s elaboration on the words of the Psalmist “The heaven is the Lord’s heaven, and the earth He has given to mankind” – in order to turn earth into “Heaven”.