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Parashat Korah 5781

June 11, 2021

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A D’var Torah for Parashat Korah
By Rabbi Marc Rudolph (’04)

On the evening of Friday, April 6, 1962, Leonard Bernstein was to conduct the New York Philharmonic in a performance of Brahms D minor Concerto. The guest soloist was Glenn Gould, one of the most celebrated classical pianists of the 20th century. Before the concert began, Mr. Bernstein did something that initially surprised, puzzled and frightened the audience. He spoke to them. Mr. Bernstein was in the habit of speaking to the audience only at Thursday night previews, so many in the audience thought that he was going to announce that the soloist had become ill. Instead, Leonard Bernstein told the audience that they were about to hear an “unorthodox performance” of Brahms D Minor Concerto, a performance unlike he had ever heard, or even dreamt of. Mr. Gould was going to play the concerto in a way that departed significantly from the way it had traditionally been performed, with broad tempi and frequent departures from Brahms’ own dynamic indications. In fact, Mr. Bernstein told his audience, Mr. Gould’s conception of the piece raised the question of what Mr. Bernstein was doing conducting it! Sometimes, he said, a soloist and a conductor have different ideas about how a musical composition is supposed to be performed. But they almost always manage, through persuasion, or charm, or even threats, to achieve a unified performance. This time, however, Mr. Bernstein said, he was forced to submit to Mr. Gould’s wholly new concept of Brahms D Minor Concerto that he found rather incompatible with his own understanding of how this was to sound. Why then, Mr. Bernstein asked the audience, did he agree to conduct an interpretation of music with which he so thoroughly disapproved?

He could, after all, have caused a minor scandal by getting a substitute soloist, or, letting another person conduct! Instead he shared with the audience three reasons for his decision. First, he said, Glenn Gould was such an accomplished and serious artist that he ought to take anything he conceives in good faith. Second, he found moments in the pianist’s performance that emerged with astonishing freshness and conviction. Third, Glenn Gould brought to music a curiosity, a sense of adventure and a willingness to experiment which Mr. Bernstein admired. Maestro Bernstein felt that we can all learn something from hearing the concerto as performed by Glenn Gould. With that introduction, Mr. Bernstein went on to conduct Brahms Concerto in D Minor with Glenn Gould as the piano soloist, doing it Mr. Gould’s way.

This is a wonderful example of how two highly principled and talented individuals dealt with what appeared to be an intractable disagreement. In this week’s Torah portion, and with that concert in mind, we find the intractable conflict between Korah and Moses. How is the disagreement between Leonard Bernstein and Glenn Gould and Moses and Korah similar? Both are remembered to this day! But there the similarity ends. Bernstein and Gould both went on to have storied careers. Moses went on to lead the Israelites to the border of the Promised Land. Korah, as we know, was swallowed by the earth.

The story of Leonard Bernstein and Glenn Gould is a wonderful illustration of an ancient rabbinic teaching. The rabbis teach that in every disagreement that is for the “sake of heaven” both parties involved in the dispute[1] are destined to endure. If it is not “for the sake of heaven”, both parties are not destined to endure. As many know, the paradigm for a disagreement “for the sake of heaven” is the differences in approach to Jewish observance by the schools of Hillel and Shammai. Both schools sought to understand the true will of G-d through study of Torah. They did so with respect for one another, never resorting to personal attacks, understanding that each school was in an earnest search for the truth. But they arrived at different conclusions. It wasn’t the conclusion that mattered; what mattered in the long run was the equanimity with which they accepted their differences, the respect that they showed one another in disagreeing, and the absence of ulterior motives in reaching different judgements. Korah wasn’t seeking the truth, according to the rabbis. He was making an argument that was merely a pretense for his lust for power, his thirst for victory, and his desire for honor and glory. Therefore, he, and his followers, did not endure.

Leonard Bernstein was able to conduct the Brahms Concerto in D Minor with Glenn Gould because he was willing to seek the essential truth of the music and put that above any considerations of power or prestige. He believed that Glenn Gould had something to offer despite his own almost total disagreement with Gould’s interpretation of the music. He was able to put his ego aside for a higher purpose – or, in the Rabbis’ words, “for the sake of heaven.”

The next time we disagree with someone, let us consider these two models of relationship. Are we able to honestly engage with those with whom we differ? Can we put aside our sense of self-worth, our pride, our fear and truly listen to the other? Can we acknowledge there are things we do not know? Can we find some truth, something worthwhile, something valid in the other’s point of view? Are we even able to consider the possibility, heaven forbid ……. that we might be wrong?

(In loving memory of my favorite composer and pianist, Rabbi Moshe Cotel z”l R’ Academy for Jewish Religion [2003] )

[1] Pirke Avot 5:17  The word מחלקת is alternatively understood as “group”. See, for example 1Chronicles:26:19, 28:21 and other places.
Rabbi Marc Rudolph (’04) is the Senior Rabbi at Congregation Beth Shalom in Naperville, Illinois and is the current President of the Chicago Board of Rabbis.