I Samuel 11:14–12:22
Jews like to argue. From our youngest days, we are taught to question to an almost pathological degree. God’s people know how to argue about anything. We have all heard the jokes — two Jews, three opinions. It is part and parcel of who we are. It is our greatest weakness but also our greatest strength.
Arguments and disputation can be a means of finding truth and strengthening community. The Mishnah is based on presenting different opinions on many topics. Our rabbis ask, why are multiple opinions preserved? After all, in most disputes, we know who has the answer we follow in our practice, so why tell us the opinions we don’t follow?
First, say the rabbis, we may find ourselves later facing a changed circumstance in which a rejected opinion may become necessary for practice. A thoughtful rabbinic opinion deserves to be saved, knowing that someday the dissent may be more important than the accepted decision. Second, while one opinion must “win” as practice, all sides of the dispute are attempting to learn more about God.
“These and these are the ways of God most high.” In other words, finite beings can only grasp the infinite through contradiction. For example, God is both beyond our grasp and immediately present. We are both created in the image of God and we are but dust and dirt. Both are true, and the Jewish endeavor is to find a holy place that grasps the opposing truths.
There are good arguments and bad arguments. A good argument is one for the purposes of heaven. These arguments serve a higher purpose and are about making our lives and the lives of those around us better. The debates over increasing security in the United States versus preserving liberty are such a holy argument. According to the Mishnah, these types of arguments are destined to last forever because they express the infinite. That argument of safety versus liberty has been ongoing since the U.S. was founded, and seems likely to continue as long as its values remain meaningful.
By contrast, bad arguments are about self-aggrandizement. Korach and his followers, as we will read in this week’s Torah portion, put forward such an argument. They rise up to challenge Moses’ leadership. They pretend that their argument is one of holiness by clothing it in words of equity. Korach asks why only Moses has access to the Holy of Holies. Shouldn’t all Jews be offered such access?
Yet Korach’s real purpose is to overthrow Moses’ leadership. He has no thought of expanding access to holiness. He intentionally misunderstands Moses’ leadership and uses it as a lever to turn the people away from him.
According to the Mishnah, this type of argument lasts only a limited time. That makes sense since it stems from one person’s ego. Once that person no longer is a factor, the argument goes away as well. It reflects no eternal values. This is why Moses falls down on his face when Korach challenges him. Moses, the man of humility, refuses to stand in his own defense. It is God who challenges Korach and who chooses the humility of Moses over the self-aggrandizement of Korach.
Holy arguments are vital; unholy destructive. People who love one another have to argue because it reflects how much they care about one another. I am a different person than my sister. Therefore she and I have a different sense of what matters. As a result, we sometimes disagree and argue because we both care about what the other does. This is an argument for the sake of heaven. Such arguments in the long term strengthen our connection.
Sometimes, though, people argue only to work through their own issues or to take advantage of another. In such a case, this serves only to damage a relationship. Name-calling is a good sign of a disagreement not for the purpose of heaven. Such arguments are destructive. They tear people apart and hurt communities. Such arguments never resolve anything, but they disappear because they damage the very community itself.
It is a strength of the Jewish people that we argue. Yet we must be attentive, so that our arguments are for the sake of heaven, to build rather than to destroy. May God so guide our tongues!
Rabbi David Booth is the spiritual leader at Congregation Kol Emeth in Palo Alto. He can be reached at RabbiBooth@kolemeth.org.