Makhloket l’Shem Shamayim

by Rabbi Jared H. Saks

Rosh Hashanah 5782

On April 6, 1962, Leonard Bernstein collaborated with pianist Glenn Gould on Brahms Piano Concerto Number 1 in D-minor in what has been considered as one of the most controversial concerts in the history of the New York Philharmonic. WNYC’s Sara Fishko relates, “Behind the scenes, the two musical stars could not agree on the interpretation:  Gould told Bernstein that he wanted to play down the ‘virtuosic’ elements of the piece, and play in a more meditative style. Maestro Bernstein argued in favor of playing the piece as he often had, in the traditional way. They were at such odds that Bernstein issued a ‘disclaimer’ before he launched into the performance – which they played ‘Gould’s way.’”[1]

Before conducting the piece, Bernstein said, “I’m not, um, as you know, in the habit of speaking on any concert expect the Thursday night previews, but a curious situation has arisen which merits, I think, a word or two. You are about to hear a rather, shall we say, unorthodox performance of the Brahms D Minor Concerto, a performance distinctly different from any I’ve ever heard, or even dreamt of for that matter, in its remarkably broad tempi and its frequent departures from Brahms’ dynamic indications. I cannot say I am in total agreement with Mr. Gould’s conception and this raising the interesting question:  ‘What am I doing conducting it?’ I’m conducting it because Mr. Gould is so valid and serious an artist that I must take seriously anything he conceives in good faith and his conception is interesting enough so that I feel you should hear it, too. But the age old question still remains:  ‘In a concerto, who is the boss; the soloist or the conductor?’ The answer is, of course, sometimes one, sometimes the other, depending upon the people involved. But almost always the two manage to get together by persuasion or charm or even threats to achieve a unified performance.” As Sara Fishko reports, “For the first time in anyone’s memory, a classical music conductor felt he had to warn the audience about the unorthodox performance to follow.” In The New York Times review the following day, Harold Schonberg wrote, “First the conductor comes out to read a speech. He says he doesn’t like the way the pianist will play the concerto… Glenn Gould is waiting in the wings to play Brahms and has to listen to Leonard Bernstein saying that this was a Brahms he’d never dreamed of. He washes his hands of it.”[2] If this is how Bernstein feels about Gould’s take on the concerto, why, as he asks himself twice in the introduction, is he conducting it? This is his second response to his own question:  “Because I am fascinated, glad to have the chance for a new look at this much-played work; Because; what’s more, there are moments in Mr. Gould’s performance that emerge with astonishing freshness and conviction. Thirdly, because we can all learn something from this extraordinary artist, who is a thinking performer, and finally because there is in music what Dimitri Mitropoulos used to call ‘the sportive element,’ that factor of curiosity, adventure, experiment, and I can assure you that it has been an adventure this week collaborating with Mr. Gould on this Brahms concerto and it’s in this spirit of adventure that we now present it to you.”

In Hebrew, we call this conflict between Bernstein and Gould makhloket l’shem shamayim, a conflict for the sake of heaven. While the initial reviews of the concert were disparaging, over time, Gould’s vision for the piece was more deeply understood and, more significantly, the collaboration of the two artists, in spite of their conflict, came to be appreciated. When the concert was released on disc in 1998, critic Tim Page wrote for the liner notes, “All in all, this is a revelatory disc, exploring aspects of Brahms’s vast, symphonic conception that had been long neglected. Moreover, it is an important souvenir of two great musicians – musicians who could collaborate on an interpretation that was significant, original and moving, even when in substantial disagreement about just what the interpretation should be.”

In Pirke Avot in the Mishnah, we read, “Every argument that is [for the sake of] heaven’s name, it is destined to endure. But if it is not [for the sake of] heaven’s name, it is not destined to endure. What [is an example of an argument for the sake of] heaven’s name? The argument of Hillel and Shammai. What [is an example of an argument not for the sake of] heaven’s name? The argument of Korach and all of his followers.”[3] I’ll come back to Hillel and Shammai in a moment, but let me remind you of Korach’s rebellion.

The story takes place in the book of Numbers. Korach, Datan, and Abiram, all Levites and therefore close relatives of Moses and Aaron, challenge the latter’s leadership and relationship with God, “You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Eternal is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Eternal’s congregation?”[4]

At first glance, it’s easy for us to identify with Korach and his followers. Why is Moses in charge? Why do he and Aaron have a closer relationship with God than others? Shouldn’t everyone have access to God equally? But, as Rabbi Marc D. Angel writes in The Koren Pirke Avot, “The controversy of Korah and his cohorts was not for the sake of Heaven. Their goal was to overthrow the leadership of Moses and Aaron in the hope of seizing political power for themselves. They did not offer a positive agenda; rather, they preyed on the fears and frustrations of the public. When controversies are for the sake of personal gain, they are resolved by a show of power. The side that is stronger defeats the opponent; the controversy is over; history continues. These controversies are a zero sum game. One side wins, one side loses.”

Sounds familiar, right? We seem to live in a world of unhealthy controversy, not unlike the conflict between Korach and his followers and Moses and Aaron. But our tradition has guidance for us on how to have healthy controversy, controversy that is for the sake of heaven. Let’s return to Hillel and Shammai. I’ve said it from this bimah before, but if you know anything about Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai, the houses of Hillel and Shammai, you know that they never agree. And, yet, Pirke Avot tells us that their conflicts were l’shem shamayim, for the sake of heaven. The disagreed on how to celebrate the holidays. They disagreed about who could marry whom. They even disagreed on who was allowed to study Judaism. The Talmud tells us that even though they disagreed on so many things, they showed love and friendship towards one another.[5]

Rabbi Angel writes, “The Korah model of controversy is contrasted with the debates between Hillel and Shammai. Those disputes were for the sake of Heaven. Neither Hillel nor Shammai was seeking personal power or glory. Each was presenting his interpretation of the Torah and his application of Halakha. Each had cogent arguments to support his view. Although they disagreed strongly on various issues, they were not opponents out to destroy each other but were colleagues in search of truth.”

We read in Tractate Eruvin, “Rabbi Abba said in the name of Shmuel:  For three years, the House of Hillel and the House of Shammai argued. One said, ‘The halakha is like us,’ and the other said, ‘The halakha is like us.’ A heavenly voice spoke:  ‘These and these are the words of the living God, and the halakha is like the house of Hillel.’ A question was raised:  Since the heavenly voice declared:  ‘Both these and those are the words of the Living God,’ why was the halakha established to follow the opinion of Hillel? It is because the students of Hillel were kind and gracious. They taught their own ideas as well as the ideas from the students of Shammai. Not only for this reason, but they went so far as to teach Shammai’s opinions first.”[6]

“Jews are not new to discord. We have a long, and perhaps, cherished history of expressing our differences.”[7]Our biblical ancestors debated God. Prophets and kings squabbled. “The Mishneh in Pirke Avot upholds ‘machlochet l’shem shamayim’ – ‘a dispute for the sake of heaven’ – as the quintessential model for what qualifies as a healthy form of disagreement.”[8] The reason that Hillel and Shammai are upheld as exemplars of this kind of discourse is, “because they prevented their differences from creating divisions within their community.”[9]

So, what makes an argument one that is l’shem shamayim, for the sake of heaven? “At its core, an argument for the sake of heaven is one whose objective is not the defeat of the other, but rather the humble embrace of an ultimate truth.”[10] It is about finding a solution, not about winning. Instead of creating divisions, it bridges differences. “Often people have negative associations with conflict. Rabbinic Judaism, however, has always valued machloket, conflict… The rabbis saw engaging in machloket as a critical part of uncovering truth. The key, however, is to engage in machloket in a constructive way—one that preserves the relationship.”[11]

Commentaries on the Mishnah explain what about Hillel and Shammai’s disagreements made them for the sake of heaven. First, despite disagreements, they kept a close relationship. They ate in each other’s homes. They married their children to each other. They debated the issues without attacking each other and without damaging their relationship. They listened to the other side and were willing to accept being wrong if the evidence supported the other side. Most importantly, they had a motivation beyond winning. Their motivation, instead, was arriving at the best solution for the community they both cherished.

“The really remarkable feature of the Jewish tradition of machloket is that it is itself a basis for community. The community of contention, the contentious community, is not as paradoxical as it may seem. The parties to a disagreement are members of the disagreement; they belong to the group that wrestles together with the same perplexity, and they wrestle together for the sake of the larger community to which they all belong, the community that needs to know how Jews should behave and live. A quarrel is evidence of coexistence. The rabbinical tradition is full of rival authorities and rival schools—it owes a lot of its excitement to those grand and even bitter altercations—but the rivalries play themselves out within the unified framework of the shared search. There is dissent without dissention, and yet things change. Intellectual discord, if it is practiced with methodological integrity, is compatible with social peace.”[12]

When we engage in conflict today, our tradition calls us to ask whether or not the conflict is l’shem shamayim, for the sake of heaven. Rabbi Andrea London writes, “We must find our higher purpose and engage in vigorous debate across the many divides in our nation to build a society in which all people live with dignity… We seldom engage with people from different backgrounds sharply divergent from our own. And yet we assume that our narrow experience provides sufficient knowledge from which to ascertain the right solutions and the right leaders for our society.”

Some conflicts today are Korach-like controversies in which defeat of the other is the goal. Others are like those of Hillel and Shammai, where we realize we are on the same side. Even as we disagree on various points, we remain capable of being respectful and friendly in our disagreements. Rabbi Angel writes, “A problem arises when theological and philosophical debates transform themselves into battles for power that call for the total defeat of opponents. On the surface, these controversies may seem to be ‘for the sake of Heaven’; yet, they are in fact fueled by the desire to crush opposition.” We have to ask ourselves:  What is our motivation? Are we driven to find common ground and common good or are we simply out to win?

There are, of course, limitations to makhloket l’shem shamayim. “Not every person is worthy of our respect—certainly, not the torrent of bigoted and hateful speech that was unleashed in the [2016] election cycle. Such speech must be condemned and marginalized.”[13] We also have to avoid what some call ‘both-siding,’ when we think we’re being fair and seeking a diversity of perspectives, but give voice to hateful and awful perspectives that are rooted in a Korach-like approach to discord. We need to hear other sides and have real debates, but they should always involve essential truths and never involve debate about whether or not a proven fact is valid. We can debate how we respond to climate change or racism or even the current pandemic, but we cannot accept opinions that say these matters are not real. When we engage in both-siding, we allow toxic, uninformed views to cloud real debate.

Simultaneously, we cannot allow the presence of these arguments that merely seek to cut down opponents to derail our pursuit of peace, even when we differ on how to achieve it. Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook wrote, “There are those who err thinking that world peace will not be built except by means of one form in points of view and qualities. Therefore when they see students of Torah scholars inquiring into wisdom and the knowledge of Torah, and, by means of their searching, the perspectives and approaches multiply, they believe that they thus cause argument and the opposite of peace. Yet truthfully this is not so, for true peace cannot come into the world except by means of the value of a peace of many faces. A peace of many faces means that all sides and approaches are seen; and it becomes clear how there is a place for them all, each one according to its worth, its place, and its content.”[14]

“[We] may be convinced that [we] have the real truth, but [we] may still see that others—who do not share [our] understanding of truth—are good, sincere, and thoughtful people trying to do their best. [We] can learn from them, respect them, and be friendly with them. We are disputants—not enemies. In distinguishing between the Korah-type controversies and the Hillel-Shammai-type controversies, this mishna provides insight on the nature of human conflict. By juxtaposing them, it may be alluding to the thin line between these two types of controversies. Power struggles can dress themselves up as religious debates; theological and philosophical disputes can be mere camouflage for egotistical and unsavory oppression of opponents.”[15]

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, of blessed memory, wrote in his book The Dignity of Difference, “Truth on earth is not, nor can be, the whole truth. It is limited, not comprehensive; particular, not universal. When two propositions conflict it is not necessarily because one is true the other false. It may be, and often is, that each represents a different perspective on reality, an alternative way of structuring order. In heaven there is Truth [with a capital T]; on earth there are truths. Therefore, each culture has something to contribute. Each person knows something no one else does. The sages said:  ‘Who is wise? One who learns from all.’ The wisest is not one who knows [themselves] wiser than others, [rather]… one who knows all … have some share of the truth, and is willing to learn from them, for none of us knows all the truth and each of us knows some of it.”[16]

What if, when presented with an approach that seems so off base to us, we saw it as Bernstein saw Gould’s interpretation of the concerto, outlandish, but nonetheless worthy of our respect? We are called to see the potential in the other out of respect for the truth they bring to the table. If we can do this then our conflicts will be makhloket l’shem shamayim, conflicts that lead us toward peace. Shanah tovah u-m’tuka, may you have a happy, healthy, and sweet new year.


[1] https://www.wnyc.org/story/battling-over-brahms/

[2] Harold C. Schonberg, Music:  Inner Voices of Glenn Gould, The New York Times, April 7, 1962, p. 17.

[3] Pirke Avot 5:17

[4] Numbers 16:3

[5] BT Yevamot 14b

[6] BT Eruvin 13b

[7] Chanan Weissman, A More Perfect Argument, Sh’ma Now, January 2017. 

[8] Ibid

[9] Ibid

[10] Ibid

[11] Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, What is Machloket lShem Shamayim?

[12] Leon Wiseltier, The Argumentative Jew, Jewish Review of Books, Winter 2015.

[13] Andrea London

[14] Abraham Isaac Kook, Olat Ra-Ya, Vol. 1, p. 330.

[15] Marc D. Angel, Commentary on Pirke Avot, The Koren Pirke Avot

[16] Jonathan Sacks, The Dignity of Difference, pp. 64-65

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