How to save ourselves from creating Hell on Earth


Every dispute that is for the sake of Heaven, will in the end endure; But one that is not for the sake of Heaven, will not endure. Which is the controversy that is for the sake of Heaven? Such was the controversy of Hillel and Shammai. And which is the controversy that is not for the sake of Heaven? Such was the controversy of Korah and all his congregation.

Mishna, Pirkei Avot, 5:17

We live in an era that represents an epic crossroad of human history on multiple fronts.

Our material successes have created a large human footprint; combined with materialism, and aided by intractable problems of equity, responsibility and collective action, we are in the midst of a silent yet ongoing sixth extinction, with dramatic declines in biodiversity and catastrophic threats to the geological and biological processes that sustain life on earth.

Our technological successes have yielded improving artificial intelligence, but attendant concerns of morality, responsibility and caution are largely ignored in a world driven by unfettered profit and innovation.

Competing political interests once again threaten existing political systems, with the institutions of democracy hanging in the balance and the threat of global war (with even more destructive weapons) a serious possibility yet again.

Times such as these cry out for reasoned debate, give and take across differences of opinion, and collaboration. Yet our political and civic systems are not currently up to the task.

The Jewish mystical tradition of Kabbalah imagines that the seven days of biblical creation can be understood to refer to not only tactile creation of the physical world but to the emanation and negotiation of divine instincts into a harmonious reality. The first day, then, was when chesed, loving kindness, was manifest; the second day, gevurah, strength and critical judgment.

How can these divine polar opposites, charitable loving-kindness and punishing accountability, chesed and gevurah, reach stasis?

The Zohar, in its commentary on Parashah Breishit, draws and expands on the notions of debate mentioned in Pirkei Avot:

“[T]he conflict between Korah and Aaron was left against right. Moses, contemplating the act of Creation, said, ‘it is fitting that I mediate the conflict between left and right.’ He endeavored to reconcile them, but the left was unwilling, and Korah stiffened his resistance. He said, ‘Hell must certainly join in the heat of the conflict of the left. Since he does not want to join above, merging in the right, he will certainly descend below by the intensity of his rage.’

“Korah did not want this conflict to be harmonized by Moses because it was not for the sake of heaven; he cared nothing about the supernal glory and denied the act of Creation” (Zohar, 1:17a, Priztker Edition).

Here, the “right” represents loving-kindness and the “left” strength. The problem is cosmic and self-automating. Critical energy, a necessary element for all discernment and dispute, is naturally disagreeable. Taken to its extreme, it is not interested in civic discourse or harmony.

While necessary, discord always involves playing with fire. Disagreement, rooted in critical judgment, can turn to rage, and rage in turn becomes the basis for the creation of Hell.

This, explains the Zohar, is the Korah problem, and in turn, represents an apt and damning description of our current situation. Current discourse is governed not by the advancement of reason or ideas, or even by a desire to resolve disputes through compromise or accommodation. It’s about “owning” others, manifesting anger and tearing things down.

How then might we respond, spiritually and otherwise? When debate is about the self, about being right, about being heard, it is prone. And it is not about “creation.” The Zohar urges a mindset centered on “harmony,” “supernal glory” and the “act of creation.”

This is about recognizing our own mortal limits and interdependence, and acting from a holistic perspective where we are not the end-all and be-all but rather pieces of a whole.

When disagreement manifests, we must seek integration, act with humility, recognize the divine within disagreement and encourage the same in our disputants.

The current status of our civic discourse is a reflection of our individualism and hubris. May we learn to have conflicts and debates as a surprising, much-needed spiritual practice, for the sake of heaven, and save ourselves from creating Hell.

BARRY DOLINGER is the rabbi at Congregation Beth Sholom, in Providence, and president of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island.