The Mishna in Pirkei Avot describes the dispute (machloket) that Korach instigated against Moses as one that was 'sheloh leshem shamayim' - not for the sake of Heaven.(1) Sheloh leshem shamayim refers to selfish reasons such as desire of honor. However, the Rabbis tell us that Korach and his cohorts confronted Moses not with personal attacks but with genuine ideological issues. They argued that the entire nation is holy and that they all heard God give the Torah. Therefore, Moshe and Aaron had no right to take for themselves the two highest positions in the nation; rather everyone should equally share power.
Although ultimately misguided, this argument seems understandable - how did the Mishna know that it was not for the sake of Heaven?
The answer is found in other Rabbinical sources which tell us of Korach's true motives in attacking Moses and Aaron. Korach felt that he was next in line to be the leader of Kehathite family and was angered when his cousin Elizaphan was appointed to this position ahead of him. This triggered Korach to attack the leadership of Moses and Aaron.(2) Thus, it is clear that his ideological crusade was really a pretext for his desire for honor; he posed as a genuine 'defender of the people' when in truth he was merely seeking out his own selfish interests.(3)
This led to the terrible sins that Korach committed and the devastating punishment that he and his supporters suffered - being swallowed in the ground for all eternity. Yet if one were to ask Korach himself if he were acting for the sake of Heaven or not then he would surely answer that he was - he convinced himself that he was right in his machloket because he saw prophetically that among his offspring would be the great prophet Samuel and twenty-four groups of Levites who would prophesy with ruach hakodesh (a form of prophecy). Therefore he reasoned that he was surely justified in his argument with Moses and Aaron. He failed to foresee, however, that his sons would repent and survive whilst he would disappear into oblivion.(4)
There are many lessons that can be learned from Korach - one of the most important is that a person can be convinced that he is acting leshem shamayim in criticizing others whilst in reality he is simply being misled by his yetser hara (negative inclination). What is the correct way to approach disagreement? The answer to this can be seen in the other disagreement which the Rabbis contrast to that of Korach - the disputes between Hillel and Shammai. Their dispute is described as one which was leshem shamayim because there was no underlying personal motives in their disagreement, only the desire to get to the truth. An indicator of this is that, despite the fact that they argued strongly in areas of Jewish law, that did not prevent their children from marrying each other.(5) There is nothing wrong with disagreement, but only if it is based on a sincere desire for truth. If it is, then the participants will not confuse ideological differences between personal hostility.
This attitude is exemplified in the following story involving Rav Yehuda Zev Segal, the Rosh Yeshiva of the Manchester Yeshiva. On one occasion, he had voiced criticism of a certain organization and his opinion was greeted by some with great disfavor. The Rosh Yeshivah was unmoved by such opposition and held his ground. Finally, one of the organization's directors decided to visit the Rosh Yeshivah and discuss the matter. Upon the man's arrival, the Rosh Yeshiva presented him with a gift - a volume of Chofetz Chaim (the seminal work about the laws of negative speech) which he had inscribed with a warm blessing. The man stood dumbfounded, not comprehending why his adversary would want to offer him a gift. The Rosh Yeshivah explained, "It was R'Yisroel Salanter's way to present a gift to someone with whom he had engaged in ideological debate, in order to make clear that the disagreement was purely ideological and not personal." (6)
We have seen that the key to preventing ideological disagreements from degenerating into personal hostility is to separate the individual from his behavior or attitude. One can be wrong but at the same time still be a good person. This is not an easy separation to make. One possible way of making it easier is to study the hashkafa (philosophy) and laws of bein adam lechaveiro (interpersonal relationships) - these give a person the Torah outlook of how to look at one's fellow Jew, even if he acts in a way that you deem to be wrong. Beyond this, as we stated earlier, it is very advisable to not get involved in attacks on other organizations without strict guidance from a competent Rabbinic authority. By working in this area then we can begin to fix this type of baseless hatred - that which the Netziv said was the cause of the Destruction of the Second Temple from which we are still suffering.
1. Pirkei Avot 5:17.
2. Bamidbar Rabbah 18:2.
3. This explanation was heard from my Rebbe, Rav Yitzchak Berkovits.
4. Tanchuma 5 quoted by Rashi 16:7 and Bamidbar Rabbah 18:8.
5. Yevamos 13a,b.
6. Ibid., p. 279.