“Which arguments are for the sake of Heaven? Those of Hillel and Shamai. Which arguments are not for the sake of Heaven? Those of Korah and his company.” (Abot, 5:17)
As if last week’s debacle with the spies was not catastrophic enough, this week things get worse as Moshe and Aharon are faced with a coup that threatens to rip apart any remaining cohesiveness of the fledgling nation. Korah, a close cousin of Moshe and Aharon, accuses the two brothers of monopolizing the power over the people and of limiting the priestly status (kehuna) to their own family. Our sages see the conflict of Korah and company against Moshe and Aharon as the paradigm of destructive dispute. The hakhamim advise us to stay away from Korah-type quarrels, warning that although the earth may not swallow us as it did Korah, we will, nonetheless, find ourselves on a condemned path of life.
But not all arguments are destructive. Some conflicts are an essential part of learning and can be eternally valuable. It is not always easy, though, to detect which are productive and which are damaging. What signs can we look for to determine which is which?
One feature of wholesome arguments is that they serve to advance our understanding and knowledge. Opportunities are presented for each side to further refine, strengthen and defend its position in response to refuted points. In this vein, argument becomes essential to wisdom, understanding and the development of ideas. The dialectics of Hillel and Shamai are recognized by the sages to be of this class. With Hillel and Shamai, it was not a question of who was right, but rather, what elements of the issue must be clarified? How does the other person’s argument conflict my own position? And what defense – if any – must I employ to maintain my idea? None of the differences in their discussion were personal.
And for all the arguments over whether certain containers were “pure” or “impure,” there was no hesitation on the part of either group from using [containers that] the other group would use…This teaches you how they treated one another with love and fellowship, in keeping with the words, You shall love the truth and the peace…(Zekharia, 8:19)
In these instances, where the goal is not to triumph but rather to discover and elucidate realities, argument happens with respect. The opponents often develop a love for one another, recognizing that their arguments provide each other’s ideas with strength and validity. This is highlighted in Talmud (Baba Metsia, 84a) with the loss of Ribbi Yohanan’s famous study opponent, Resh Lakish.
Resh Lakish died, and Ribbi Yohanan ached for him exceedingly. Said the Sages, “Who can we send to him [to take Resh Lakish’s place] and bring him some comfort? Let’s send Ribbi Elazar ben Pedat who is brilliantly knowledgeable.”
[Ribbi Elazar] went, and sat before Ribbi Yohanan. Everything that Ribbi Yohanan said, he would respond with a source to prove R. Yohanan right.
Ribbi Yohanan cried. “You are supposed to be like Resh Lakish!? Why, Resh Lakish would respond to everything I said with twenty-four objections and challenges, I would have to respond with twenty-four counters, and the concepts would keep broadening! All you can come up with is ‘I can prove your contention!’ You think I don’t know myself what is correct about what I am saying?”
What then, was wrong with Korah? Why did his argument cause such strife? His words seemed so simple and innocent: “All of the community is sanctified and God is within them.” Innocent on the surface, perhaps. But as Moshe hears the words coming from Korah’s lips, he knows that Korah threatens to tear the strength and stability of the nation asunder. Korah exposed his hatred for the broadening that comes from the unique differences that are the beauty of Creation. Moshe heard Korah claiming that the detail was unimportant, the individual meaningless. Instead of seeing the beauty in all of the different aspects of Yisrael, Korah saw only one thing – Korah. Detail to him was unimportant, and thus, so was reality. Korah was not interested in enrichment and definition. He sought only to assert his opinion no matter what the outcome, even if it meant death and destruction.
We have all known such arguments and, unfortunately, similar people. The people who are involved in Korah-type conflicts will never truly listen to the opinion or vision of the other side. They will yell and scream – or better – refuse to discuss at all (16:12). Such arguments rip away at the fabric of Creation, threatening isolation and destruction.
How indeed, can we know the difference? We can ask ourselves some questions. Is there genuine interest in understanding the opinion of the oponent? Is there maintenance of respect for the dialectic and those involved? Is there a joy in uniqueness? If there is, it is a dispute that is the life-blood of learning and discovery. If there isn’t, step back. You wouldn’t want to fall in like Korah!
Shabbat Shalom to you all,
Rabbi Joseph Dweck