Argue Passionately, Right From the Heart


Social psychologists list several distinctions between a debate and a dialogue. A debate assumes that you have the right answer, while a dialogue assumes that many people can share in crafting an answer. A debate is about winning; a dialogue is about exploring. A debate is more about defending one's view; a dialogue admits that another's thinking can improve on one's own scope.

This week, we encounter the quintessential argument and debate in the Torah. It pits Korach against Moses. Korach fulminates against the authority and majestic leadership of Moses. Our sages use this as the paradigmatic case of an argument that is "not for the sake of Heaven."

We are all familiar with the creation story. After each day and major event, God pronounces judgment and utters, ki tov – "it is good."

Interestingly enough, the word, mitzuyan, or "excellent," never appears in the Torah. The world is good, sometimes even very good. Apparently, the tradition is teaching that only through human agency and our partnership with the Divine can the world be elevated to the status of excellent.

The one exception is on day two of creation. There, God withholds judgment. Why?

Because, according to the Midrash, that was the day in which machaloket was created. This is a word that we all know, perhaps not linguistically or etymologically, but experientially and practically. It means "argument and contention."

"What is an example of a machaloket, which is for the sake of heaven?" asks Pirkei Avot. "The machaloket between Hillel and Shammai. And what is the example par excellence of a machaloket which is not for the sake of heaven? This is the argument of Korach and his followers."

Note that the formulation of the latter is different than the former.

To be consistent, the Mishnah should have stated, the argument that is not for legitimate reasons is the one between Korach and Moses. After all, it was his authority that was called into question, and it was against his leadership that he was rebelling. Why this distinction?

A Ray of Reasoning
The answer, I believe, is obvious. If one is willing to entertain the ideas, thoughts and opinions of the "other" – in the words of the Mishnah, if Hillel was willing to hear Shammai, and vice versa – then this would be a legitimate form of dissent and dialogue. But if one is not willing to hear the words of the other – not even to acknowledge or pronounce the other's name – then this is symptomatic of a noxious and obnoxious argument.

In the words of the social psychologists, Hillel and Shammai have a dialogue, Korach and his crew engaged in rude and crude debate. The latter was motivated by a personal agenda and self-aggrandizement, and the former by a quest for truth and communal betterment.

How interesting is the Torah's description of the beginning of the resolution in the Korach crisis. Boker V'yoda – "in the morning, it will be known." When you allow a ray of reasoning into a discussion, when you allow for another's thoughts and analysis to shed light, then that discussion is elevated to the status of "an argument for the sake of heaven."

Machaloket l'sheim shamayim, "an argument for the sake of Heaven," is one of the boldest and most daring notions of our tradition. Yes, it is all too rare in the public domain and all too forgotten in public discourse, but wouldn't it be nice to live in such a world, illuminated by the light of reasoned dialogue, rather than one singed by the heat of crass debate?

Rabbi David Gutterman is the executive director of the Vaad: Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia.



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