A famous dispute


Tonight I want to tell you the tale of two disputes. The first is a famous dispute between the conductor Leonard Bernstein and the pianist Glenn Gould. The second is a dispute related in this week’s Torah portion between Moses and Korah.

On the evening of  Friday, April 6, 1962, Leonard Bernstein was to conduct the New York Philharmonic in a performance of Brahms D minor Concerto. The guest soloist was Glenn Gould, one of the most celebrated classical pianists of the 20th century. Before the concert began, Mr. Bernstein turned to the audience and spoke to them, something he rarely did.He told the audience that they were about to hear an “unorthodox performance” of Brahms D Minor Concerto, a performance unlike he had ever heard, or even dreamt of. Mr. Gould was going to play the concerto in a way that departed significantly from the way it had traditionally been performed, a way that was incompatible with Mr. Berstein’s own understanding of how it should sound. Sometimes, he explained, a soloist and a conductor have different ideas about how a musical composition is supposed to be performed. But they almost always manage, through persuasion, or charm, or even threats, to achieve a unified performance. This time, however, Mr. Bernstein said, he was forced to submit to Mr. Gould’s wholly new concept of Brahms D Minor Concerto.

Why, Leonard Berstein asked, would he have gone along with this? He could, after all, have caused a minor scandal by getting a substitute soloist, or, letting another person conduct! Instead he shared with the audience three reasons for his decision.  First, he said, Glenn Gould was such an accomplished and serious artist that he ought to take anything he conceives in good faith. Second, he found moments in the pianist’s performance that emerged with astonishing freshness and conviction. Third, Glenn Gould brought to music a curiosity, a sense of adventure and a willingness to experiment which Mr. Bernstein admired. Maestro Bernstein felt that everyone in the audience  could  learn something from hearing the concerto as performed by Glenn Gould. With that introduction, Mr. Bernstein went on to conduct Brahms Concerto in D Minor with Glenn Gould as the piano soloist, doing it Mr. Gould’s way.

The second story is in this week’s parasha which  relates the dispute between Moses and Korah. Korah, Moses’ first cousin, is jealous that Aaron has been appointed High Priest.  To compound the issue, another cousin, Elitzafan, has been chosen as the head of the clan to which Korah belongs. Korah incites a revolt that challenges Moses’ leadership. Moses tries to reason with Korah and his followers, but they refuse to talk to him. The episode ends in tragedy, as Korah and his followers are swallowed up by the earth.

 These two stories raise the question of how we deal with disagreements, both personal and societal. Does one side have to win, and the other be destroyed, as in the Biblical story of Korah and his rebellion? Or is there a way to listen to one another with respect and understanding, even though, in the end, there is still no room for compromise, as in the story of Bernstein and Gould. The Maestro, after all, ended up performing the piece precisely Glenn Gould’s way. Yet no one was destroyed, their relationship endured, the audience was treated to an original  interpretation  of the Concerto and both parties went on to illustrious careers. 

Here we can learn something from the philosopher Sir Isaiah Berlin. He rejects “relativism”, the idea that every side to a dispute has equal truth and equal validity. The relativist claims that there is no “absolute truth” — every opinion is equally true. The relativist claims that there is no “true” and “false” when it comes to beliefs and opinions. Rather, Isaiah Berlin favors a way of viewing disputes that he calls “pluralism”. A pluralistic understanding of disputes is that honest people, through their reasoning can attain  many different understandings of the” truth.” I can maintain that my view is “the truth” yet still respect those who have come to a different idea of “the truth”  arrived at through a sincere and thoughtful process. They may not share my understanding of the truth, but I can still respect them and be friendly with them. I do not need to destroy them, insult them, or delegitimize them. They are my fellow disputants, not my mortal enemies. I may even learn a thing or two from them! 

The Talmud is full of disputes like this. The Talmud records all  the opinions of the Rabbis on various sides of a dispute for posterity. The most famous of these are the disputes between the School of Hillel and the School of Shammai. In exploring the Bible to determine how G-d wants us to live our lives, they often come to diametrically opposite conclusions. In other words, two opposing “truths’ ‘!  Most of the time, we live our lives according to the opinions of Hillel. But, say the rabbis, that does not mean that the opinions of Shammai are not to be respected. They are to be preserved. One day, the opinions of Hillel may be put aside and we will govern our lives according to the opinions of Shammai. The opinions of Hillel may  be true only for our time! 

Both Hillel and Shammai and Bernstein and Gould model what we can call “healthy controversy”. This can take place only when we approach a dispute or debate with intellectual honesty and a desire to truly listen, with understanding, to the “truth” of others. A healthy controversy can only take place when we refrain from denigrating or insulting one another. It can only take place when we are motivated by a true desire to engage the other, and not with the goal to devalue, demean,  embarrass or overpower the other with our” brilliance” and rhetorical mastery. The rabbis call these healthy controversies “disputes for the sake of heaven”. May all of our controversies be …..”For the Sake of Heaven”.

Shabbat Shalom

Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash