A student argues a point in the Talmud at Ateret Israel Yeshiva in Jerusalem. (Nati Shohat/FLASH90) (Nati Shohat/FLASH90)
Ateret Israel Yeshiva, Jerusalem


By Rabbi Ari Enkin, rabbinic director, United with Israel

By Rabbi Ari Enkin, rabbinic director, United with Israel

If we consider ourselves to be intelligent, honest and reasonable people, we must always accept that the other side might also have a point. Only then can an argument be legitimate.

In this week’s Torah portion, Korach, we learn all about the disasters that conflict and argument can cause. Korach rebelled against Moses and challenged the legitimacy of his leadership. Korach was bad, and in the end the ground opened up and swallowed him. But not all arguments are bad. As the Mishnah (oral tradition) states:

Any dispute that is for the “sake of Heaven” [i.e. sincere] is destined to endure, and any dispute that is not for the sake of Heaven is not destined to endure. Which is a dispute that is for the sake of Heaven? The dispute(s) between Hillel and Shammai, two great Torah sages. Which is a dispute that is not for the sake of Heaven? The dispute of Korach and all his supporters.

The commentators note that the Mishnah is not written in equivalent, parallel language. The first point of the Mishnah, discussing a “good” argument, includes the names of both sides: Hillel and Shammai. The second point of the Mishnah, which is used to illustrate the likes of a “bad” argument, only lists the name of Korach – one side of the argument. For consistency, the Mishnah should have listed the second point as the dispute of Korach (and all his company) and Moses.

Why the difference?

As the Mishnah notes, there are two types of arguments: a good one and a bad one. What makes an argument good? A good argument is when both sides realize, understand and accept that there is another side to the argument. In the case of Hillel and Shammai, who argue throughout the Talmud on many different laws, they always acknowledge that their opponent’s position is legitimate, although they disagree with it. And more important, both sides seek only one thing: the truth. They realize that in order to arrive at the truth, or at least give it one’s best shot, they must listen to the other side. They must admit that maybe, just maybe, they are wrong that and the other side is right. Only after listening and processing the other side’s opinion can they legitimately disagree and argue differently.

In the case of Korach, however – the case of a “bad” argument – Korach believed that only he was right. He felt that there was no alternative opinion, and worse, that he was not obligated to hear it out. These types of people are not interested in the truth. Korach’s attitude was that Moses did not even exist. Hence, the Mishnah excludes Moses’s name from the argument because it was not an argument between Korach and Moses. Moses’s opinion did not matter – he did not exist!

If we consider ourselves to be intelligent, honest and reasonable people, we must always accept that the other side might be right. The other side might have a point. The other side’s opinion is legitimate, just as our own. We do not have to agree with our opponents, but we do have to validate them in order to validate and legitimize our positions. As the Talmud teaches, “Just as the faces of people do not exactly resemble one another, so, too, their opinions do not exactly resemble one another.” Meaning, just as no two people look exactly alike, so too, no two people think exactly alike.

A person could be proud to consider himself a disciple of Hillel and Shammai when he is tolerant and not bothered by someone who disagrees with him. However, when a person cannot tolerate disagreement with his own opinion and feels that only he is right, then he is a disciple of the wicked Korach.

For more insights by Rabbi Ari Enkin on this week’s Torah reading, click on the links below: