History & Culture

This Week in History: Labour of Divisions
Date Uploaded: 
Thursday 19th June 2014

By Rabbi Daniel Fine, former US Rabbi

Modern Hebrew is an evolving language. Lefasbek was annexed to mean 'to facebook someone’, Olimpiyada is 'Olympics' and the word le'fargen was imported from Yiddish, meaning 'to allow someone else to bask in their satisfaction'. If you carry an attaché briefcase, you should neither be shaken nor stirred, for the official Hebrew term is 'tik James Bond'. Another great Modern Hebrew word is historiah, meaning history. A teacher of mine once insisted that it be spelled with a taf (instead of a tet) so it could be understood to mean 'the hiding of G-d', following the Hebrew word lehastir (to hide) which is spelt with a taf. History is 'His story'; unravelling history lets us see G-d's Hand orchestrating events, revealing sequence, pattern and process.

 History is littered with conflicts and divisions. This week in history was no different. On June 15, Genoa expelled its Jews (1567) and France surrendered to Hitler (1940). On June 16, Spain declared war on England (1779). On June 17, Japan declared war on China (1938) and Iceland declared independence from Denmark (1944). On June 19, the French king Louis IX decreed that all Jews wear badges (1269), the great Rabbi Maharam M’Rotenberg was imprisoned in the Ensisheim Tower (1286) and Panama and Costa Rica recognised the new State of Israel (1948) – the next day witnessed a fatal explosion in the Cairo Jewish quarter. These are only some of the more renowned conflicts.

The Mishnah in Pirkei Avot (5:20, p.560 in the green siddur) relates that 'any dispute (machloket) for the sake of Heaven (‘Hillel and Shamai’) will endure, but any machloket not for the sake of Heaven (‘Korach and his followers’) will not endure'. Two main questions are asked on this. Firstly, why is it a blessing that a machloket for the sake of Heaven will endure – do we not just want the resolution? Secondly, why are the disputants billed as ‘Korach and his followers’ and not Korach and Moshe?

One answer is to translate the word machloket here as 'divisions' (not ‘disputes’). Thus a constructive division will endure, for the parts are working together to achieve a common positive purpose. Yet a destructive division (one that only Korach and his followers were trying to create in restructuring the leadership of the Jews) will not endure.

The world needs constructive divisions between individuals. People have different strengths and qualities – to be too homogenous can defy individualism and talents. Yet when making divisions, we should doublecheck that the divisions are ultimately constructive for all parties involved.