Parashat Korach: How to be Disagreeable

On Friday evening, 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 did something that initially puzzled and frightened the audience. He spoke to them. Mr. Bernstein was only in the habit of speaking to the audience at Thursday night previews, so many thought that he was going to announce that the soloist had become ill. Instead, Leonard Bernstein 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, with broad tempi and frequent departures from Brahms’ own dynamic indications. In fact, Mr. Bernstein told his audience, Mr. Gould’s conception of the piece raised the question of what Mr. Bernstein was doing conducting it! Sometimes, he said, 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 that was incompatible with his own understanding of how this was to sound. Why then, Mr. Bernstein asked the audience, did he agree to conduct an interpretation of music with which he so thoroughly disapproved?

 He could, after all, have caused a minor scandal by getting a substitute soloist, or, letting another person conduct! He gave three reasons for his decision.  First, he said, Glenn Gould was such a valid and serious artist that he ought to take anything he conceives in good faith. Second, he found moments in Mr. Gould’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 we can all 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.

This is a wonderful example of how two highly principled and talented people dealt with what appeared to be an intractable disagreement. In this week’s Torah portion, and with that concert in mind, I would like to highlight another intractable disagreement, and a different kind of outcome.  Moses’ cousin Korah confronts him, along with 250 followers, demanding that Moses share leadership with them. Korach puts forth what appears to be a valid point. All of the Jewish community is holy, yet Moses has elevated himself above them all. They accuse Moses of being a despot who has engaged in nepotism by appointing his brother as High Priest and his nephews to key positions. Moses reaches out to the protesters and tries to meet with them, to reason with them, but they refuse to talk. Moses is left with no other choice than to arrange a test. The rebels are to appear the following morning, each with their firepans, which are used for sacrificial offerings. They are to stand across from Moses and Aaron, who will also each have a fire-pan. Moses promises that G-d will give a sign indicating who G-d has chosen to lead the Jewish people. The next morning Korach and his followers appear as instructed. A fire goes out and incinerates the 250 followers of Korach. Then the earth opens and swallows Korach and his family alive, along with all of their possessions.

What is the difference between the disagreement between Leonard Bernstein and Glenn Gould and the disagreement between Moses and Korach? One is that the disagreement between Leonard Bernstein and Glenn Gould resulted in an artistic performance still remember by many all over the world to this day. The disagreement between Moses and Korach ended in the disappearance of Korach and his followers from the face of the earth. It is a wonderful illustration of an ancient rabbinic teaching. The rabbis say that in every argument that is for the “sake of heaven” both parties involved in the dispute are destined to endure. If it is not “for the sake of heaven”, both parties are not destined to endure. Then they give an example of each. An argument for the sake of heaven is the argument between the School of Hillel and the School of Shammai. Both schools sought to understand the true will of G-d through study of Torah. They did so with respect for one another, never resorting to personal attacks, understanding that each school of thought was searching for the truth in earnest. But they arrived at different conclusions. It wasn’t the conclusion that really mattered; what mattered in the long run was the equanimity and love with which they accepted their differences. Korach wasn’t seeking the truth, according to the rabbis. He was making an argument that was merely a pretense for his lust for power, his thirst for victory, and his desire for honor and glory. Therefore, he, and his party, did not endure.

Leonard Bernstein was able to conduct the Brahms Concerto in D Minor with Glenn Gould because he was willing to seek the truth of the music and put that above any considerations of power or prestige. He believed that Glenn Gould had something to offer despite his own almost total disagreement with his offering. He was able to put his ego aside for a higher purpose – or, in the Rabbis words, “for the sake of heaven.”

So the next time you have a disagreement with someone, I ask you to take a step back. Is our own ego, our own pride, or our own fear, getting in the way?  Korach refused to talk. Are we really talking or are we are simply waiting our turn until the other person finishes, so we can talk. In other words, pretending to converse, but failing to truly communicate and engage with one another. Are we really willing to concede the truth of the other, or do we have no intention of changing our minds, arguing for arguments sake? That type of dispute results in no benefit and no hope for the future.  Are we willing to acknowledge that truth, respect it, even if we cannot share it? If we can, then that relationship shall surely endure.

Shabbat Shalom