Parasha Shelakh: Asking a Good Question

Isidor I. Rabi, the Nobel Laureate
in Physics was once asked, “Why did you become a scientist, rather than a
doctor or lawyer of businessman, like other immigrant kids in your
neighborhood? [He responded], “My mother made me a scientist without ever
intending it. Every other Jewish mother in Brooklyn would ask her child after
school, “Nu, did you learn anything today?” But not my mother. “Izzy,” she
would say, “Did you ask a good question today?” That difference – asking good
questions – made me become a scientist.” [1]
One of the characteristics of
Judaism that is most admired, by Jews and by non-Jews alike, is the openness of
our religion to asking questions. Some other religions have dogmas that must be
accepted and never questioned. Judaism, on the other hand, has a corpus of
literature – the Talmud—whose basis is almost entirely questions. In fact, few
questions are totally out of bounds. In this week’s Torah reading we have one
of them. In exploring this question, we will discover what kind of questions
are good questions and what kind are deserving of …… well, of the earth opening
up beneath you and your being swallowed alive to the netherworld.
The question deserving of that
particular punishment was asked by one Korach in this week’s Torah portion.
Korach, Moses’ cousin, challenges Moses. “Who made you the leader of the
people,” asks Korach, “are not all of the People of Israel holy, and is not G-d
among all of us?” This question ultimately led to G-d causing the earth to open
and to swallow Korach live.
The ancient Rabbis divided
questioning – and the disagreements over the answers to questions that
inevitably ensued – into two categories. The first category of questions were
placed in the group of “leshem Shamayim” – that is, questions and disagreements
“for the sake of heaven”. The quintessential example of this kind of
questioning and disagreement were the School of Hillel and the School of
Shammai. These sages, who lived during the Second Temple period, were often at
odds with one another around ritual and theological matters. The other category
of questions and disagreements was “lo leshem shamayim” – those “NOT for the
sake of heaven”. The example par excellence
of this – you guessed it – is Korach, our villain in this week’s parasha.  
According to Israeli scholar
Avigdor Shinan,[2] a
question “for the sake of heaven” is one that is posed in order to investigate,
clarify or strengthen the truth. The question posed “for the sake of heaven”
never seeks to denigrate the other. It is asked in dialogue, with utmost
respect for opposing opinions. The Talmud is the model for questions that are
asked “for the sake of heaven”. It contains a variety of opinions in response
to different questions, opinions that are not only different but at times
contradictory.  Yet, they are asked and
answered within a context of the belief that all the answers are worthy of
respect, or, as the sages put it, all are “the words of the Living G-d”.
A question asked “not for the sake
of heaven” is posed in order to create conflict, to increase power, to gain a
victory, or to humiliate the other.  The
questioner has no interest in learning anything new, in moderating his or her
position, or of paying any attention to the response of the other. He or she
simply wants to win the argument and impose their world view. For the person
who asks this type of question, power is more important than truth.  The questioner who asks “not for the sake of heaven”
has ulterior motives for his questioning, wants to create trouble, he casts
aspersion, seeks to destroy and tear down.  
The spirit of Korach lives on,
writes Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of Great Britain,
particularly in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel,
or, as it is commonly known, the BDS movement. Claims that proponents of the BDS
movement sometimes put forth – that Israel is not the birthplace of the Jewish
people, that there never was a Temple in Jerusalem, that Jewish settlement in
Israel is the equivalent of European colonialism, that Israel is an “Apartheid”
state – rival the claims of Korach and his company. Mark LeVine, a professor of history at the
University of California, Irvine and an outspoken supporter of BDS recently
wrote words that are painful for me to utter and might be painful for you to
hear. He writes, “There is only one criticism of Israel that is relevant: It is
a state grown, funded, and feeding off the destruction of another people. It is
not legitimate. It must be dismantled, the same way that the other racist,
psychopathic states across the region must be dismantled. And everyone who
enables it is morally complicit in its crimes.”[3] Such an argument not only
fails to give Israel a fair hearing, it paints anyone who disagrees with this
extreme position as morally corrupt. Both Korach and this university professor
engage in demagoguery: a type of rhetoric that stirs up the emotions, fears,
prejudice and ignorance of people and which eschews rational discourse. Leadership
like this incites the passions and short circuits rational thinking. It leads to
the scene described by British scholar Alan Johnson when he rose to speak
against a resolution to boycott Israel that was being debated at an Irish
University. He writes, “Anti-Israel student activists tried to break up the
meeting by banging on the tables, using the Israeli flag as a toilet wipe, and
screaming at me, again and again, ‘[Swear word] off our [swear word] campus you
[swear word] Zionist!’” [4]
This is the appeal of demagoguery. First it
divides the world into two groups – us and them. Then, it takes a very
complicated situation, about which people are anxious, and presents a simple
solution, which includes the elimination of the other, of “them”.  In the case of Korach, the people are anxious
about their survival in the wilderness, and Korach suggests they replace Moses
and Aaron and head back to Egypt. In the case of the Boycott, Divest and
Sanction movement, people are anxious about conflict in the Middle East, and
suggest the elimination of Israel as the solution.
So asking question, like much in life, can lead
to both positive and negative consequences, depending on the questions one asks
and the motivation of the questioner. Asking questions “for the sake of heaven”
can lead to greater truth and understanding. But asking other kinds of questions
can take us down the path of falsehoods and hatred. May we have the wisdom to
recognize the difference.                         
Shabbat Shalom

Letter to the Editor New York Times January, 1988 in A Different Night
by Noam Zion and David Dishon
[2] Pirke
Avot Perush Yisraeli Chadash
by Avigdor Shinan
Jewish Review of Books, Spring 2015 
“Climate of Opinion” by Alvin H. Rosenfeld