By Rabbi Joseph Dweck
“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.” (Pirkei Avot, 5:17)
Moses and Aaron are faced with a coup that threatens to dissolve the cohesiveness of the fledgling nation of Israel.
Korah, a close cousin of Moses and Aaron, accuses the two brothers of monopolising the power and of limiting the priestly status (kehuna) to their own family. Our sages see the conflict of Korah and company as the paradigm of destructive dispute. But not all arguments are destructive.
Some conflicts are an essential part of learning and can be forever valuable. How does one detect which conflicts are productive and which are damaging?
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.
Argument then becomes essential to wisdom, understanding and the development of ideas. The dialectics of Hillel and Shamai are recognised 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 defence – if any – must I employ to uphold my idea?
None of the differences in their discussions were personal. (Yebamot, 14b). In these instances, where the goal is not to triumph but rather to discover and elucidate realities, argument happens with respect. T
he opponents often develop a love for one another, recognising that their arguments provide each other’s ideas with strength and validity. Why then did Korah’s argument cause such strife? His words seemed so simple and innocent: “All of the community is sanctified and God is within them”. But Moses heard Korah claiming that the detail was unimportant and the individual meaningless. Instead of seeing the beauty in all of the different aspects of Israel, Korah sought only to assert his opinion no matter the outcome.
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. Is there genuine interest in understanding the opinion of the opponent?
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, it is nothing but arrogance disguised in noble debate.
• Joseph Dweck is senior rabbi of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews’ Congregation