cloud shaped as a heart

When people argue in a sincere manner, “for the sake of heaven,” they are both interested in arriving at the truth. That means listening to the other side.

By Rabbi Ari Enkin, Rabbinic Director, United with Israel

This week’s Torah portion is Korach (Numbers 16:1–18:32) named after the Torah’s #1 rabble -ousing troublemaker. In fact, not only did Korach personify disputes and arguments, he was a very jealous character as well.

He was jealous that his cousins Moses and Aaron got all the glory. He also wanted to be a leader of the Jewish people.

The story of Korach gives us the opportunity to reflect on some famous historical disputes. However, I want to focus on good disputes, good arguments, good fights, unlike the fight of Korach.

What’s a good fight? It is a fight with sincere motives. As the Mishna (Jewish oral tration) says, any argument that is for “the sake of Heaven” is destined to have lasting, positive results, and any argument that is purely for selfish or arrogant considerations is certain to fail.

The Mishna gives the classic example of a “good fight,” an argument for the sake of Heaven, and that is “the ‘fight’ between Hillel and Shammai, two great Talmud sages who constantly argued with one another.  They fought over the truth. They fought over what each one truly believed was God’s will. This continued for generations afterward; “the house of Hillel,” namely the students of Hillel (and their students), would fight with “the house of Shammai.” This was a good fight. It was for the right reasons and motives. On the other hand, the Mishna says that the classic example of a fight that is insincere and “not for the sake of heaven” is the fight of “Korach and his followers.”

The question is asked: In order for the Mishna to use equivalent language when presenting the fighting of Korach, the Mishna should have said that the classic example of a fight that is insincere is “the fight of Korach and Moses” (the two adversaries), not “of Korach and his community.” In other words, if the Mishna uses “Hillel vs Shammai” on the one hand, it should have worded it “Korach vs. Moses” on the other. Not “Korach and his community,” as they were all the same team!

It is explained that when people argue in a sincere manner, “for the sake of heaven,” they are both interested in arriving at the truth. In order to get to the truth, one must hear the other side. One must think about the other side and then either accept it or reject it. I may not agree with the other side, but I acknowledge the existence of an opinion other than mine.

With regard to Korach, however, he believed that only he was right in every argument. He didn’t ever acknowledge the existence of another side or opinion. He wasn’t even willing to listen. Hence, it was not an argument of “Korach vs. Moses.” Moses’ side didn’t exist in Korach’s opinion! Hence, the Mishna presents it as the argument of “Korach and his followers.”

Getting back to famous (but good!) historical disputes, let us begin with the disputes of Hillel and Shammai since we just mentioned them. Here are some of the famous arguments they had.

Shammai believed that only the worthy should be permitted to study Torah while Hillel argued that Torah study must be open to all.  Shammai said that telling lies is always forbidden while Hillel allowed telling “white lies,” such as to say that a bride was beautiful even if she was truly ugly.

The Chanukah dispute may be the most famous Hillel vs. Shammai dispute. Shammai was of the opinion that on the first night of Chanukah we should light eight candles, seven candles on the second day, and so on. Hillel, on the other hand, argued that on the first night of Chanukah we light one candle, two candles on the second night and so on. Hillel’s argument on the importance of always “ascending in holiness” was accepted as law, and hence, this is why we light Chanuka candles the way we do.

In almost all disputes between Hillel and Shammai, the law is in accordance with Hillel. One of the reasons for this is because Hillel was very careful to study his opponent’s opinion before issuing his own. In fact, Hillel would even cite his opponent’s ruling before issuing his own.

Another Famous Jewish Dispute

Another example of a famous Jewish dispute is the fight between the Hasidim and the Mitnagdim (opponents to the Hasidic movement). The Hasidic movement is actually somewhat of a new stream in Judaism founded by Rabbi Yisrael ben Eliezer (1698–1760), also known as the Baal Shem Tov. Based largely on mystical themes and originally aimed at the less learned, the Baal Shem Tov emphasized joyous worship of God and observance of the commandments.

This new movement was met with fierce opposition by Lithuanian Jews, now known as the “Mitnagdim,” led by Rabbi Eliyahu of Vilna, who perceived a laxity in the observance of Jewish law among the Hasidim. Eventually, the Hasidim proved themselves as pious Jews and opposition to the movement has all but disappeared. In fact, in Israel, the two groups merged together on a single party list for the Knesset, Israel’s parliament.

Finally, the ritual “disputes” between the Ashkenazim and Sephardim is truly sincere, that is “for the sake of Heaven.” Ashkenazi, literally meaning “German,” refers to Jews originating from most parts of Europe.  Ashkenazi initially referred to Jews residing in Germany, where Ashkenazi Jewry began. Sephardi, literally meaning “Spanish,” refers to Jews from Spain, North Africa, and the Middle East. Most Jews today are Ashkenazi.

Since Ashkenazi and Sephardi communities developed on their own, they disagreed and came to different conclusions on a number of ritual matters. For example, Hebrew is pronounced differently between the two groups (modern-day Israeli Hebrew largely follows the Sephardi practice). Sephardim permit eating rice on Passover while Ashkenazim forbid it. Sephardim name children after living relatives, which is considered taboo by Ashkenazim. Sephardim are stricter in kosher meat preparation than are Ashkenazim.

All of the above disputes are examples of healthy and respectful disputes that only served to enhance the dignity and honor of Judaism and Jewish law. May we, too, be sure to follow the example of Hillel and Shammai and ensure a sense of mutual respect when arguing with others.