arguing for the sake of heaven
Every argument for the sake of heaven will in the end be of lasting value, but every argument not for the sake of heaven will not endure. Which is an argument for the sake of heaven? The argument between Hillel and Shammai. Which is an argument not for the sake of heaven? The argument of Korach and his company. (Mishna, Avot 5:17)
For Jews and Israelis, argument and lively debate are a way of life. But the Mishnah is careful to point out that there are actually two types of argument. The type of argument which is of lasting value is typified by the arguments between the great scholars Hillel and Shammai. The type to be avoided is the one we read about in this week’s reading, that of the rebel Korach and his followers.
What is it about Korach’s argument that makes it the archetype of the destructive disagreement, and what it is about Hillel and Shammai that makes their disputes ‘arguments for the sake of heaven’?
In this week’s portion Korach, a cousin of Moses, amasses 250 followers and launches a rebellion against Moses. Although Korach is careful to clothe his claims in democratic rhetoric (“All the people are holy” he insists, “why do you raise yourself above them?”), to the rabbis it is clear that he is not motivated by anything other than personal ambition. Indeed, in the Mishna quoted above, one would expect that by contrast to the phrase ‘Hillel and Shammai’, the Mishna would refer to the argument between ‘Korach and Moses’. But instead it refers only to ‘Korach and his followers’, since they had no real quarrel of substance with Moses. As the Meiri (France, C13th -14th) notes: “Korach’s motivation was to undermine Moses and his position, out of envy and contentiousness and ambition for victory.”
For the Mishna, the opposite of having an argument like that of Korach, is not have no argument at all, but rather having the right kind of argument. This kind of argument is typified by the debates between the great Mishnaic scholars Hillel and Shammai. Indeed much of the Mishna records the differences of opinion between these two scholars, and later, between their schools of followers. At one point the Mishna asks why, if the law in each case goes according to only one of them, the opposing opinion has to be recorded:
Why was it necessary to record the views of both Shammai and Hillel, seemingly for no purpose? To teach future generations that one should not stubbornly insist on one’s views, since the great teachers did not obstinately maintain their positions. (Mishna, Eduyot 1:4)
For the Mishna, the primary difference between Korach on the one hand, and Hillel and Shammai on the other, is that the former was motivated by personal ambition while the latter were motivated by a desire to find the truth. As the Meiri puts it: “In [Hillel and Shammai’s] debates, one of them would render a decision and the other would argue against it out of a desire to discover the truth, not out of obstinacy or a wish to prevail over his fellow.
But the Mishna also highlights another difference between the two types of dispute; while Korach was seeking to foment rebellion and discord among the people, Hillel and Shammai, even as they argued about fundamental questions for law and principle, remained keenly aware of the need to preserve unity among the people. The description given by the Mishna is striking in its relevance to the fractured state of Jewish life today:
Although one school declared some people ineligible for marriage that the others declared eligible, nevertheless the School of Shammai did not refrain from marrying women from the families of the School of Hillel and the families of the School of Hillel did not refrain from marrying women from the School of Shammai. And notwithstanding all their disputes concerning questions of purity and impurity, they did not refrain from using one another’s belongings… (Mishna, Eduyot 4:8).
With all the arguments and debate in Jewish and Israeli public life, the contrast between Korach, and Hillel and Shammai, suggests two questions that may be worth asking when we find ourselves with differences of opinion: Are we genuinely motivated by desire to discover the truth – even if it conflicts with our own opinion? And, even as we differ in our opinions, are we making an effort to preserve the unity between us? If we can answer both questions affirmatively, the Mishna suggests, then we can be confident that our arguments are truly ‘for the sake of heaven’ and that their value will endure.
In others’ words
“This is not the first crisis in our history, and I am sure it is not the last. It is also by no means the worst crisis. But this does not ease the pain it inflicts, the anxiety it promotes, and the alienation it causes. We cannot, we must not allow this crisis to become a disaster. We cannot, we must not allow it to pull us apart. Our sages tell us that fraternal hatred caused the destruction of the Temple. We will betray the trust of all Jews if we let mutual resentment and hostility overwhelm us again. In this case too, we must unite behind those things that truly bind us to one another.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Speech to Council of Jewish Federations, November 1997
On a lighter note:
A young rabbi went to take up a position in his new community. On his very first Shabbat, the Torah portion happened to include the Ten Commandments. When the time to read this section came, half the congregation stood up, and other half remained seated. Soon a fierce argument broke out between the two halves of the congregation as to whether they should stand or sit.
The rabbi looked desperately at the chazzan and the gabbai of the synagogue. “Tell me” he asked, “What is the custom in this community?”
“We always stand,” declared the chazzan.
“No, we always sit,” insisted the gabbai.
Eventually, the rabbi decided that he would travel with the chazzan and the gabbai to a nearby old age home, where Mr. Gradstein, one of the founder members of the community was still living.
The following day, the three drove to the old age home, and entered Mr. Gradstein’s room.
“We’ve come to ask you about the synagogue’s custom for reading the Ten Commandments,” explained the rabbi.
“We’ve always stood, haven’t we, Mr. Gradstein”, shouted the Chazzan excitedly.
“No,” said the old man, “that wasn’t the custom.”
“See, we’ve always sat down, haven’t we?” insisted the gabbai.
“No,” said the old man. “That wasn’t the custom either.”
“But Mr. Gradstein”, pleaded the rabbi. “You have to help us find out the custom. At the moment it’s dreadful: half the congregation stands, half sits, and everyone shouts at each other.”
“Ah”, said the old man. “That’s the custom!”