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Pirke Avot Chapter Five, verse twenty

Last week we were talking about love that endures and love that does not. We have talked before about what endures. This week we will look at controversies that endure:

Every controversy which is for the sake of Heaven will in the end endure; but one which is not for the sake of Heaven will not endure in the end. A controversy for the sake of Heaven? Such was the controversy of Hillel and Shammai. And one which was not for the sake of Heaven? Such was the controversy of Korah and all his company.

This verse admits of different interpretations. First of all, it’s using the term controversy (in the Judah Goldin translation above, but it’s the same word in all the translations I have) to cover a wide range from discussion to rebellion. And it’s seem to be a Good Thing for a controversy to endure, which leads to different interpretations as well. The Meiri suggests that in the case of Hillel and Shammai, because the controversies were for the sake of Heaven, we continue to read the arguments on the losing side, and so the controversy endures, despite the law being settled. Rabbi Jonah ben Abraham, on the other hand, points out that where Korah was killed immediately, Hillel and Shammai and their disciples were not; it was the disputants who endured. Another interpretation is that a controversy in for the sake of Heaven will come to a conclusion, and that the question will be settled, thus enduring, while a controversy that is not for the sake of Heaven will not be settled, as the disputants are not open to persuasion, but will continue to be controversial and unsettled.

R. Travers Herford says that the eventual favoring of one side of the controversy over the other is incidental, the main result being that the truth is served. On the other hand, is the truth not served when Korah is killed? Is the outcome not incidental in that case? Another interpretation is that the controversies in question are challenges to legal authority: those that challenge said authority for the sake of Heaven will succeed in making enduring reform, but those (such as Korah) who challenge authority merely to increase their own petty power will fail to make reforms at all. How is the authority to tell? How is the rebel to tell?

I dislike the openness of interpretation, here, which allows me to shape my inference of the text to my understanding of the meaning, rather than the other way around. This dovetails in the verse with the likelihood of self-delusion, or at least self-misunderstanding; all I need to do is convince myself that I am disputing for the sake of Heaven, and I am fine. Rick Santorum, I’m sure, is convinced that he is disputing for the sake of Heaven, as in his own way is Dan Savage.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,