How we disagree can have major implications for the health of a society. The recent presidential election demonstrated what a threat it is to the institutions of democracy when an incumbent president and their enablers make raw power the bottom line, and the most important value in political dispute. Our ancient rabbis understood this well when they wrote, “Every dispute that is for the sake of Heaven, will in the end endure; But one that is not for the sake of Heaven, will not endure.
Which is the controversy that is for the sake of Heaven? Such was the controversy of Hillel and Shammai. And which is the controversy that is not for the sake of Heaven? Such was the controversy of Korah and all his congregation.
The great sages Hillel and Shammai were bitter ideological opponents who argued to discover truth. They made their best arguments and at the end of the day accepted, with humility, the outcome of the votes of the sages. Korach was jealous of Moses’ power and simply wanted that power for himself. Our sages warn us that those who engage in arguments just for the sake of power will not endure. We can expand this to include communities that make raw power the supreme value in their disputes.
Eight nights, eight ways to deepen your involvement, awareness and impact
For each night of Hanukkah, we have a recommended activity — a way to learn more about the issues, get more involved in J Street or help drive change. You can do all eight in order, switch them up, or pick and choose what’s most meaningful to you.
Night 1: Print and use our ‘action dreidel’
Night 2: A Georgia miracle?
Night 3: Help illuminate your community with J Street programming
Night 4: Speaking of gifting…
Night 5: Invite others to find their inner hero
Night 6: Issues that will require our dedication in the year ahead
Night 7: Draw inspiration from the Women in Black
Night 8: Learn from multiple sources and perspectives
We must use power — through organizing money and people — to achieve victories for a higher purpose and not just for power’s sake. This subtle difference applies to how we engage in disputes about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as much as it does to US politics. President-elect Biden reflected this idea in his victory speech: “Our opponents are not our enemies.” We should shudder at the relevance of this warning to our current political environment, but also be encouraged by the model of Hillel and Shammai that we are heirs to a long Jewish tradition of principled disagreement that is needed now more than ever.
In a machloket l’shem shamayim, we engage with our ideological opponents with the trust that they, too, are trying to find the best solution to our common challenges. We may vehemently disagree, but we accept that our ends are ultimately the same.
Rabbi David Jaffe leads the Inside Out Wisdom and Action Project and is the author of the National Jewish Book Award-winning Changing the World from the Inside Out: A Jewish Approach to Personal and Social Change.