Machloket-Kamiot and a dangerous game of l’shem Shamayim

This article was constructed with the help of either writings, lectures or shiurim of Rabbi’s Noach Isaac Oelbaum, Berel Wein, Uri Sklaar, Asher Hurzberg, Yossi Bilus, Dovid Rosenfeld, Nissan Mendel

A television still from Russian NTV channel shows State Duma deputies Vasily Shandybin (L) and Alexander Fedulov fight during the State Duma lower house of parliament session in Moscow, February 7, 2003. The tussle started when independent deputy Fedulov made a rude statement about Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov, and Shandybin, a Communist too, rallied to his party leader’s defense.
“MACHLOKET – strife.” Can we avoid it? One is prone to fall into a MACHLOKET-strife at least once in their life. Just once? Ha!! That’s a joke. Unfortunately, for those of us who do not live in caves but have to deal with people – and all too often with family members – the topic of “machloket” is all too relevant. Some exercise the concept daily: for some, fighting and bickering is a necessity, a way of life. It fuels their engines. Without arguing they cannot survive, life is boring otherwise. Regrettably, there are those who are professionals at making people hate them as a result of their argumentative nature, and with some others, MACHLOKET follows them where ever they go, like a tail.

Human nature is such that wherever there is a public gathering and people congregate regularly, at one point or another there will be some strife. No one is immune. Walla! The Bet Hakneset- Synagogue is a prime target. Occasionally there are problems even in the house of worship. ‘I didn’t get an Aliya, that Gabai!’ ‘He’s sitting in my seat!’ ‘He outbid me knowing I have a yortziet!’ These are all are shul complaints. Ironically, we go to shul to rid ourselves of our sins and end up making more.

Machloket can be found anywhere. I know of neighbors who didn’t speak for years because one snuck out and read the delivered newspaper before the subscriber and didn’t put back the paper back correctly in the bag….can you imagine!

Arguments per se are not “wrong” or groundless. There is nothing wrong with having disagreements with another human being – and airing them. People will always have differences; there will always be what to argue about. Yet their debates can be for the sake of Heaven.

L’shem shamayim!! (For the sake of the Heavens.) “I’m not doing it for me. I’m doing it for G-d and therefore I have a license to embarrass-hurt-insult-ruin people’s lives.”

Let’s keep in mind the prototype MACHLOKET which is found in this week’s parsha and involves Korach, the cousin of our leader Moshe. Korach accused Moshe of many things and disguised his intentions through “I’m doing it L’shem shamayim!!”

It would be interesting to explore a very dark time in Jewish history which would add an understanding to perhaps prevent us from falling into the trap and following the tempting route of being argumentative.

There was a famous Machloket which stemmed from, yes, a different Machloket and just went too far, with lasting horrible repercussions which we still feel 3-400 years later. Let’s give a little background.

We are the chosen people, the chosen talented suffering people. Being persecuted for so many years we have always yearned for the redemption, especially when times are tough.

When one mentions Mashiach the usual response by many is the rolling of the eyes. The coming of the Mashiach has been for the most part lip service in most communities. Many responds by saying, “First become a good Jew before worrying about the arrival of Mashiach.” Why do we turn the other way at every mention of the Mashiach? One reason for the cold attitude towards the Mashiach is because of the fiasco that happened many years ago which has left a black eye in Jewish communities till this very day. It was 1648, and by many accounts of Jewish authorities of the times, it was considered “a messianic year.” In today’s times, every year someone proclaims is a messianic year. There was a slick, charismatic, and brilliant figure by the name of Shabtai Tzvi. He was a great communicator, a teacher with a photographic memory who got Smicha at age 20. He learned Kabbalah which helped give him overall a very mystical appearance. Shabtai Tzvi proclaimed that he was born on Tisha B’ Av, which is one of the signs of bei
ng the real deal. He would fast during the week, whip himself, isolate himself for long periods of times, and immerse himself in ritual baths 30 times a day; a real character, a James Dean type. Tzvi convinced everybody that he was pious.

Some Rabbis were concerned. Apparently, he was a manic depressive, flight of moods, just an over-all strange kook. At the age of 22, he was married twice and divorced twice with no Get. The Rabbinical authorities warned him of ex-communication which made him even more popular.

Wherever he went he had a following, telling people fables of fighting with wild dogs and wolves with his bare hands. In every part of our history, people, desperate for a savior, are susceptible to finding a miracle worker. People want to believe what they want to believe.

On one of his visits to Yerushalayim he met Nathan of Gaza, a public relations genius, who made Tzvi into an international star. Within one year, people started to believe that he was the Mashiach. He affected world economies. The Jews began to sell their property all over the world for the pilgrimage to Israel. The Jews stopped working and even bullied their long time non-Jewish tormentors. Because of years of persecution, they were desperate for the Mashiach, a hero.

At some point, Shabtai Tzvi went too far. He raised eyebrows by marrying a 12 year-old girl, eating non-kosher and making a Bracha on it. The ultimate push-over-the-edge moment was when he was unable to control himself in mimicking and ridiculing the Sultan. One day, he came dressed with a costume similar to the Sultan’s uniform. The Sultan arrested him, brought him to the highest court and made him deny he was the Mashiach. The Sultan gave him a choice to convert, which he accepted. The non-Jewish world laughed at the Jews; persecution increased. Furthermore, war against kabbalah study increased. The faith in the establishment eroded.

Till today, the ripple effects of Shabtai Tzvi are felt. The cold attitude towards Moshiach is a protection as a result from the enormous pain this false prophet brought upon our nation.

The Shabtai Tzvi fiasco would not go away and it took an ugly turn fifty years later. There was a disagreement between two great distinguished Torah scholars, Rabbi Yonnatan Eybeschutz (1690-1764) who was elected Rabbi of the Hamburg community and Rabbi Yaacov Emden (1697-1776). Rabbi Yonnatan’s friends in Altona and Hamburg appointed him as chief rabbi of the three united communities AHU (Altona, Hamburg and Wansbeck).
In the very first year of Rabbi Yonnatan’s taking up his position, there was a sudden rise in the number of deaths in childbirth. Having the reputation of a saintly kabbalist and miracle worker, many Jews turned to their rabbi for help. One of the ways to counteract the danger, which had often been practiced among kabbalists and miracle men, was to write special amulets (kameot). Rabbi Yonnatan wrote a number of them to be worn by expectant mothers, as he used to do earlier in Metz. An amulet which was supposed to have been written by Rabbi Yonnatan was brought to the attention of Rabbi Yaacov Emden, an outstanding Talmudist and kabbalist in Altona. The latter deciphered the mystical writing and found in it a hidden invocation to Shabbatai Tzvi. Rabbi Emden accused Rabbi Eybeschutz of being a follower of Shabbatai Tzvi. The leaders of the community rushed to the defense of their rabbi. They proclaimed a boycott of Rabbi Emden’s synagogue and ordered Rabbi Emden to leave town within six months. In the meantime the controversy spread to other cities in Germany and Poland, as some of the most celebrated rabbis took part in support of one or the other of the two sides in the controversy. Rabbi Emden saw himself compelled to leave Altona, and he secretly went to his brother-in-law Rabbi Arye Leib, Rabbi of the Ashkenazic community in Amsterdam. From there be continued his fight, writing to the Council of Rabbis of the Four Lands meeting in Constantine, and pressed his charges.

What happens often when two great figures argue is that their followers come to misunderstandings, resulting in tragic consequences. When great Rabbis argue they keep it L’shem Shamayim. They have their boundaries and they know which buttons to push and which not. The great Rabbis are well aware of the honor of their fellow friend, colleague and even foe. Does one recall how much respect and courtesy Moshe had for Pharaoh? Even though they don’t see eye to eye, men of great Torah knowledge are professionals in dealing with the dignity of the other. It’s amazing when scholars argue in the Yeshiva setting how there are no personal jabs. Nobody is shooting below the belt. The Talmud is full of arguments. One could only imagine how dry the Talmud would be in the absence of controversy-argument and debate are its very lifeblood. Argumentativeness is a quality with which it seems we have collectively as a nation been blessed (?), as the old cliché goes, “Two Jews – three opinions!” Furthermore, one never notices that one Rav demeans another in all the volumes of Shas.

However, often the case is that their followers are not quite so proficient in delicate argumentative interpersonal communication.

One such student of Rabbi Emden went over the boundaries. He went too far and got carried away by embarrassing, in public, Rabbi Yonnatan Eybeschutz. A Rabbi represents Torah and G-d. Insulting the Rav is as if one insults the Holy Books. Therefore, the Rav, depending on the circumstances, has to defend himself for he is defending the Torah.

It says in Pirkey Avot that if one ever is cursed by a Talmid Chacham it will sting like a scorpion’s bite. Rabbi Yonnatan retorted back, “May you never see a peaceful day in your life.” And so it was, the Rabbi’s words came true. The student never quite had a peaceful day since. He was constantly on the move, never sleeping in one bed more than two or three nights. Anyone who travels knows how grueling it can be on the body and how mentally exhausting it is. He was the wondering Jew; a Jew without an address.
Security personnel protect the Speaker of Ukraine’s parliament, Volodymyr Liytvyn, with umbrellas during a fight at a parliamentary sitting in Kiev, April 27, 2010. Ukraine’s parliament erupted into chaos as it ratified a bitterly controversial deal with Russia extending the lease of a key naval base.
Once he spent a few days in a particular town and he sat in on a shiur. The Rabbi, who was an important talmid chacham, was asked by the student traveler a question on the topic during the discourse. The Rav did not answer him. A little while later he asked the Rav a second question and the Rav ignored him again. After the shiur the student traveler approached the Rabbi and asked, “Why didn’t you answer me?” The Rav responded, “I sensed by the words of your question a certain disrespect towards the Torah and Torah scholars. This could be detrimental and cause you great distress, and I sense it has.” The traveler then told the Rav about his plight, and the Rav said, “If there is anyone that you insulted or hurt you must go and ask forgiveness of that person or your punishment will not cease.” Immediately he made plans to go to the town where Rabbi Yonnatan Eybeschutz resides.

Upon his arrival the student immediately made his way up the stairs of Rabbi Yonnatan’s house, only to find the family sitting shiva as the Rabbi had passed away the day before. The traveler was in tears – for the rest of his life he will have to endure this curse hovering over him.

I believe it’s a powerful lesson for us all, considering that we tend to get caught up in the arguments of the great Rabbis of our generation, taking sides as if it’s a baseball game, rooting for the Mets and hating the Yankees. We have no business putting down another Rabbi and getting involved in their arguments. Understanding the depth of the Torah concepts and their parameters is in the great Rabbis jurisdiction, not ours. We do not know the behind the scenes of their disagreement and it not fair for their sake, for our sake, and for our children’s sake to stick our two cents in. Doing so can bring upon ourselves TZAROT. Let’s not play with fire.

L’shem shamayim arguments have to be objective to the highest degree and it’s not so simple to attain that level. Korach’s proclamation that he was “l’shem shamayim” was not correct for he had personal ulterior motives and gains. The flag-of-principle rarely displays its true colors. More often than not, it’s really just an ‘alien’ flag in camouflage. How careful must one be, when raising one’s flag-of-principle, to be sure that the winds blowing are winds of truth and justice, and not winds of contention, self- gratification, and triumph.

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