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Arguments for the sake of heaven?

Is it a genuine disagreement or an ego trip?

"Jews Praying in the Synagogue on Yom Kippur" by Maurycy Gottlieb, 1878. Source: Public Domain/Wikimedia
"Jews Praying in the Synagogue on Yom Kippur" by Maurycy Gottlieb, 1878. Source: Public Domain/Wikimedia
Rabbi Yossy Goldman
Rabbi Yossy Goldman
Rabbi Yossy Goldman is Life Rabbi Emeritus of Sydenham Shul in Johannesburg and president of the South African Rabbinical Association. He is the author of From Where I Stand, on the weekly Torah readings, available from Ktav.com and Amazon.

Let’s face it: Jews love to argue. We can be extremely, often unnecessarily, argumentative.

Korach was an aristocratic cousin of Moses. This week in the Diaspora we read about how he led a rebellion against Moses and his brother Aaron, the High Priest.

But why is Korach considered such a villain? Aren’t debate and argument enshrined in Jewish life and law? Isn’t machloket—argument—the essence of the entire Talmud? Every page records conflicting opinions presented by the rabbinic sages: Shammai vs. Hillel, Rav vs. Shmuel, Abaye vs. Rava, to name just a few. Clearly, argument is essential to the Jewish way of life.

The rabbis explained that there are different types of arguments. The question to ask is this: Is it a machloket l’shem shamayim, an “argument for the sake of heaven,” or not?

This is the question of whether an argument is altruistic or ideological. Is it virtuous or venomous? Do the different viewpoints arise from a variety of perspectives or is each side simply on an ego trip? Is the argument an issue of principle, a personality clash or a power grab?

The Talmudic sages were focused on getting to the bottom of the halacha. They wanted to know: What is the definitive Jewish law? They were engaged in genuine ideological and rational debate. Often, they had to agree to disagree.

I imagine that Hillel and Shammai were good friends, not belligerent, quarrelsome, davka neighbors who never saw eye to eye. But as different, unique individuals, they saw things from different perspectives and debated how to interpret the words of the Torah.

Korach, on the other hand, was on an ego trip. He was locked in a power struggle in which he thought only of himself. That’s why, when Pirkei Avot discusses “arguments for the sake of heaven,” it cites the infamous Korach debacle as an example of an argument that was most certainly not for the sake of heaven.

The book uses the term Korach v’adato—“Korach and his faction”—to refer to Korach’s side of the dispute. This is in contrast to the arguments between Hillel and Shammai, which were very much “for the sake of heaven.”

Pirkei Avot deliberately does not say “the argument between Korach and Moses.” Korach did not deserve the dignity and legitimacy of being described for posterity as a valid opponent of Moses. The Korach argument was not a dispute between equally credible opinions.

Normally, we say, “These and these are both the words of the living God.” The Kabbalists held that, today, the halacha is understood according to Hillel’s interpretation, but in the messianic era, the halacha will be understood according to Shammai’s interpretation. This means that, while the halacha may only follow one of these two opinions, both opinions still have validity and meaning.

Korach, by contrast, was nothing more than a rabble rouser who sowed the seeds of dissension among the people. Thus, he suffered a bitter end, going down alive into the grave when the earth split open supernaturally.

I think that the message of this story is that, when we have an argument with someone, we should ask ourselves whether we are absolutely certain that it is a genuine disagreement and not an issue of our own egos, our desperate need to be right at all costs.

Always put your argument to the Korach test. Is your argument mere righteous indignation or are you standing on principle? Are you rushing to defend a slight to your personal pride? Are you genuinely distressed over a moral injustice or are you being vindictive because someone rubbed you the wrong way? Is your argument “for the sake of heaven” or your own selfish interests?

Clearly, there are times when we ought to stand on principle and defend the faith. There are times when we must stand up for the dignity and honor of someone else. Sometimes we must take a stand, especially if no one else will.

Certainly, it’s easier to turn a blind eye and stay out of it, rather than take a confrontational position. Personally, I’d much rather be Mr. Nice Guy than take up the cudgel for a cause not necessarily my own. But right is right. There are times when conscience and principle beckon.

Believe it or not, behind the beard, rabbis are usually very nice guys. But “the buck stops here.” Very often, we must say “no.” It would be much easier if we could say “yes” to every request, however inappropriate it may be. If we did so, we’d be much more popular.

For most of us, whether to speak out or remain silent is always a difficult call to make. Often, holding our tongue may genuinely be the preferred option. Undoubtedly, however, there will be those exceptional occasions when everyone else is strangely, almost inexplicably, silent and the situation demands that someone speak up for truth, justice and the right. So, let it be you.

Always weigh your decision very carefully, however. Remember that had Moses been cowed by Korach’s mutiny, Jewish destiny would have been very different. So, by all means let’s continue arguing. But let it always be for the sake of heaven, not our own petty desires.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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