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Rabbi's Blog

rabbi 05 smallsf badge lgRabbi Joel Landau  ( has been the Rabbi of Adath Israel since May 2013. He was ordained by the Chief Rabbinate in Jerusalem and has served previously as a congregational Rabbi in Charleston, South Carolina and Irvine, California. A full biography of Rabbi Landau is available here.


The term “two Americas” generally refers to the political divide in the US. Axios-Ipsos conducted a poll called the “Two Americas Index,” which asked a series of questions to participants each month to see if they were becoming ideologically closer together or drifting further apart. According to one of their polls, many people have not shared a meal recently with a member of another race or someone who has a different political view. 

Science Daily reported on a study that set out to discover if there’s a physiological cause for divisiveness. Subjects were placed into artificial rivalries and then played video games against what they were told were members of the outgroup. While they did so, an fMRI machine measured their brain activity. What the researchers discovered is that aggressive behavior towards members of an outgroup lights up the same area of the brain that lights up when we experience pleasure.

To put it differently, taking out our aggression on someone that isn’t part of our group can be as satisfying to our animal instincts as eating a good piece of meat or a candy bar. This would certainly explain the irrational behavior that we see when people get into a machloket (an argument). Indeed, the Chafetz Chaim (1838-1933) notes in his commentary on this week’s parasha that we see from Datan and Aviram’s response to Moshe that getting involved in machloket can lead to the most irrational behavior. Rashi says that Dasan and Aviram were prepared to have their eyes gouged rather than engage with Moshe Rabbeinu. Why would anyone make such a comment? 

The Mishna in Avot 5:17 states:

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.

Shmuel Uzida (1545-1604), in his commentary to Perkei Avot called Midrash Shmuel points out that the two parts of the Mishna are not parallel. In the first half, the Mishna lists the two parties to the machloket: Hillel and Shammai. In the second half, it’s “Korah and all his congregation.” What happened to Moshe and Aharon being his opponents? He explains that the second half of the Mishna is focused on those who were “not for the sake of Heaven.” Moshe and Aharon were acting for the sake of Heaven.

Midrash Shmuel’s comments go beyond the linguistic clarification in the Mishna. When there is a nasty machloket, even if one has some relevance to the situation, there is the possibility of removing oneself from it and not being part of the machloket. Moshe Rabbeinu not only withdrew, he made gestures to bring peace, even at the expense of giving honor to his antagonists. There are always ways to take the highroad, avoid getting drawn into a machloket, and even bring the other side closer. Sometimes it takes the guidance of someone who is objective. 

I don’t know what would happen if researchers did an fMRI study in a beit midrash while people battled it out like Hillel and Shammai, but perhaps they might find those same pleasure areas of the brain light up. 

Based on the findings of the above study, we should try to channel that appetite for machloket towards those listed in the first half of the Mishna — the machloket “for the sake of Heaven”, debating issues for the sake of finding the truth.