How Not to Have a Conversation

Every week, the Union for Reform Judaism publishes commentary on the weekly Torah portion on their website. Rabbi Skloot is writing the URJ’s d’var Torah for the Book of Numbers, which we will share with you every Friday, here, on this blog. Shabbat shalom!

Korach, Numbers 16:1−18:32

If I had stopped to listen once or twice

If I had closed my mouth and opened my eyes

If I had cooled my head and warmed my heart

I’d not be on this road tonight (James Taylor, “That Lonesome Road”)

Imagine a group of people, twenty or so, who all disagree about a range of issues — political, philosophical, theological — meeting weekly for dinner and conversation. Occasionally there’s laughter. Sometimes someone speaks excitedly, passionately. Sometimes someone interrupts. There are moments of discomfort, but never contempt. There moments of confusion, but not hostility. There are hard questions. There are assertions of “I don’t know.” There is sometimes silence.

How rare are conversations like these today! So often, whether on television or in pews, our conversations about substantive issues are filled with arm-twisting, contempt, and a remarkable lack of curiosity. We confuse conversation with persuasion. We close our ears and stop listening.

I recognize the urge to stop listening. I see it in myself. Sometimes, in an election year like this one, it feels as if our country is on a precipice and could easily topple over. When you feel so precarious, it’s easy to stop listening and start talking. It’s easy to forget how to have a conversation.

In those moments, I think back to my college years when I participated in a weekly discussion group for students of different religious traditions and backgrounds. The purpose was to speak openly and honestly about — in the words of our slogan — “what matters to us and why.” In the course of our conversations, we would sometimes encounter points of agreement, issues and ideas that many of us held dear but, heretofore, didn’t know we shared. Far more interesting, however, were the moments when we encountered points of disagreement and difference. These were sometimes uncomfortable, but it was only in coming face to face with the “other” that we clarified our thinking, earned to appreciate the uniqueness of our own point of view, and cultivated the humility necessary for living in a world full of disagreements.

Conversations like that occur rarely these days, even in synagogues. In the words of the historian and public intellectual Julian E. Zelizer, “We no longer seek debate, nor do many shuls even allow it to happen. We are having trouble being tolerant of the other side” (“The Closing of the American Jewish Mind,” Tablet, December 9, 2015). The same could be said in the hermetically sealed ideological chambers of American popular culture too.

We see the consequences of this kind of intellectual narrowness and the absence of civil conversation in this week’s parashah, Korach.

Korah is one of the great villains of the Torah; the leader of a rebellion against Moses. Our parashah begins:

“Now Korah, son of Izhar son of Kohath son of Levi, betook himself, … to rise up against Moses, together with two hundred and fifty Israelites, chieftains of the community, chosen in the assembly, men of repute. They combined against Moses and Aaron and said to them, “You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Eternal is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Eternal’s congregation?” (Numbers 16:1-3).

Moses arranges a contest to see who is more favored by God. Aaron and Korah each bring incense to the Tent of Meeting. Soon, God’s voice can be heard telling the Israelites to retreat from Korah and his party. “Stand back from this community that I may annihilate them in an instant!” God commands (16:21). All of a sudden, “the ground under them burst asunder” and “and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up with their households, all Korah’s people and all their possessions” (16:31-32).

According to our Sages, though, the contest between Korah and Moses is about more than who has superior incense (Midrash Tanchuma, Parashat Korach 2). It is, rather, about how not to have a conversation.

In the Midrash, first, Korah challenges Moses about the rules that govern the making of a tallit: “If [there is] a tallit that is entirely blue, is it exempt from having fringes?” Moses’ answer, of course, is no.

But, “How can a cloak that is entirely composed of blue not be exempt, yet just four blue threads in its fringes make it exempt?” We can hear the contempt in Korah’s voice.

Then Korah asks, “Is a house that is full of holy books exempt from the commandment to place a mezuzah on its door?” Moses’ answer, of course, is no.

“A house with a whole Torah containing two hundred and seventy-five sections still needs a mezuzah on its door, a mezuzah containing only a single section?” We can hear the hostility.

Then Korah goes for the jugular: “These rituals were not commanded by God, you made them up all by yourself!” And that’s what does Korah in.

To our Sages’ minds, Korah’s exchange with Moses was marked by a remarkable lack of good will. Korah entered the conversation determined to prove his point, determined to disgrace his adversary. He had no intention of having serious discussion about the philosophy of Jewish ritual. He had no respect for Moses’ point of view. Long ago, he had stopped listening and started talking, and he didn’t stop until the “earth opened its mouth and swallowed” him up.

The story of Korah and his rebellion, as understood by our Sages, is thus a parable about how not to have conversations about substantive issues. Korah’s sin was not in disagreeing with Moses, but in how he made that point of view known, with contempt. If only we, in this election season, would learn from Korah’s unfortunate fate. If only we would, to paraphrase James Taylor, “stop to listen once or twice … / close our mouths and open our eyes … / cool our heads and warm our hearts … ” so that we aren’t swallowed up by our own anger.