Pirkei Avot 5:20
Every controversy which is for the sake of Heaven will endure in the end; and every one which is not for the sake of Heaven will, in the end, not endure. Which is a controversy for the sake of Heaven? Such was the conflict of Hillel and Shammai. And which is not for the sake of Heaven? Such was the conflict of Korach and his entire assemblage.
Every controversy which is for the sake of Heaven will endure in the end; and every one which is not for the sake of Heaven will in the end not endure.
The Sages uphold the reality of the solid, unwavering authority of the Written Torah and, in addition, the need for the Oral Torah – the correct interpretation and application of the written text. The Oral Torah constantly is open for debate as each generation faces new innovations and challenges. As a result of such debate, decisions are established that affect the life of each community as well as Judaism in general.
Any debate, argument or controversy naturally will have at least two sides or opinions. What this mishnah, or verse, tells us is that the conflict or discussion itself is not the main issue but the how and why of the argument. What is the inner motivation of those involved? The basic difference addressed is whether the debate is “for the sake of Heaven” or not. Heaven often is used as a euphemism for God. Thus, the question can be rephrased, “Is the basis of the argument for the sake of God’s Name and Kingdom?” We can examine the two examples given.
Which is a controversy for the sake of Heaven? Such was the conflict of Hillel and Shammai.
Hillel and Shammai were two of the most noted Sages in Jerusalem at the time of the Second Temple. Each had their own school with a large group of students or followers. There was constant disagreement between them as the School of Shammai usually took a much stricter view on points of Jewish law, or halacha ( how to walk it out) than did the more lenient School of Hillel. However, it was well understood that both groups honored God and the truth of His Word and shared the central objective of teaching and guiding their people in the ways of Torah and in helping them learn how to observe and keep the commandments or mitzvoth.
Although they often disagreed strongly, the Talmud records that there was no personal rivalry or bitterness between Hillel and Shammai and their followers. They would enjoy Shabbat meals together and there was intermarriage and fellowship between the two schools. Irving Bunim quotes the Talmud: “Three years did the Schools of Hillel and Shammai debate, each claiming, “The halacha is as we teach.” Then a heavenly echo resounded, “Both these and these are the words of the living God; but the halacha follows the School of Hillel.” And the Talmud asks: “If both are the words of the living God, why did the School of Hillel merit to have the normative law established as it taught?
Because they were kindly and humble, teaching both their views and the views of the School of Shammai.”*
The final halachic decisions were established by the majority vote of the ruling body of Sages and all sides would accept the decision without contention. The differing views of any debate “for the sake of Heaven” are recorded in the Talmud as they present an integration of thought that offers lasting enrichment and consideration of the matters at hand.
And which is not for the sake of Heaven? Such was the conflict of Korach and his entire assemblage.
We read in the book of Numbers, chapter 16, the account of how Korach and his followers rebelled against Moses’ God-given authority and wanted to usurp his position of leadership. Korach also was of the tribe of Levi and related to Moses and, being obviously a powerful personality, he decided that he was as entitled and better suited to lead. Although his words sound very pious and holy, Korach’s goal was to gain personal power and the assembly (eidah) that he gathered about himself were influenced to that end. They were not seeking to know God’s will and truth in the matter; their aim and motivation were not “for the sake of Heaven” but were purely selfish.
In the end, Korach and his band, who opened their mouths against the purposes of God, were punished when the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them all alive. The words of Hillel and Shammai continue to instruct God’s people today, while nothing of Korach’s was left to endure.
* Irvng M. Bunim, Ethics from Sinai, Vol.3; Talmud Yerushalmi – Berakoth i 4; Kiddushin i 1