Learning How to Have Arguments for the Sake of Heaven’s Name
Rabbi Daniela Szuster
This week’s parashah begins by telling us that Korach, with a group of followers, confronted Moses and Aaron publicly and questioned their leadership. They affirmed that all in the community are holy, are equal in God’s eyes, and that none could be holier than the others.
You may think that Korach’s argument was correct. However, the Torah indicates that something was not correct in his argument and in his behavior. Something was wrong with him; therefore, he was punished for this rebellion.
Related to this episode, it is written in Pirkei Avot: “Every argument that is for the sake of heaven’s name, it is destined to endure. But if it is not for the sake of heaven’s name — it is not destined to endure. What is an example of an argument for the sake of heaven’s name? The argument of Hillel and Shammai. What is an example of an argument not for the sake of heaven’s name? The argument of Korach and all of his congregation.” (Pirkei Avot 5:17)
According to this Mishnah, the problem was that Korach and his people made an argument that was not for the sake of heaven’s name. It was not for a good purpose. Maybe it was made for personal interest.
Usually, when we discuss this episode, we focus on Korach and his people’s motivation to question Moses and Aaron. In this message, I would like to focus on what it means to argue for the sake of heaven’s name.
Following this Mishnah, a great example of this type of argument are the arguments between Hillel and Shammai. Why? How did they discuss different issues? What can we learn from their arguments?
When you study Mishnah, you find out that Hillel and Shammai, two well-known rabbis, teachers of two different schools, disagreed about almost everything. However, their discussions were for the sake of heaven’s name.
I would like to share with you three different explanations of this concept of “Machloket leshem shamaim”, “argument for the sake of heaven’s name.”
Explanation #1 – Rabbi Ovadiah Bartinoro (also known as “The Bartenura”, was a 15th-century Italian rabbi best known for his popular commentary on the Mishnah. In his later years, he rejuvenated the Jewish community of Jerusalem and became recognized as the spiritual leader of the Jews of his generation.)
Despite their disagreements, they did not refrain from eating together. Beit Shammai did not abstain from marrying women from the families of Beit Hillel, nor did Beit Hillel refrain from marrying those from Beit Shammai. They showed love and friendship towards one another. They disagreed, but they were able to be friends.
According to Rabbi Ovadiah Bartinoro, we can learn from them that it is possible to disagree with someone and maintain good relationships.
Explanation #2 – Rabbi Naftali Herz Wessely, (he was an 18th-century German-Jewish Hebraist and educationist.)
Since their disagreements were for attaining the truth; therefore, when the truth became known, they would not continue to insist on their side’s opinion, and they would accept in joy the correct opinion that became clarified… Because from the onset, they did not intend to disagree other than for the sake of Heaven.
According to Rabbi Naftali Herz Wessely, we can learn from Hillel and Shammai to be open and to listen to the other side and be ready to admit that we were wrong.
Explanation #3 – Rabbi Shimon ben Zemach Doran (known as Rashbatz (רשב”ץ), was a Rabbinical authority, student of philosophy, astronomy, mathematics, and especially of medicine, which he practiced for a number of years at Palma (de Majorca). A major 15th century posek, his published decisions in matters of Halacha have been widely quoted in halachic literature for hundreds of years.)
It is possible to explain that the opinion of both will continue to exist, the one who forbids and the one who permits, because both are the words of the living God. (Eruvin 13b).
Rabbi Abba said in the name of Shmuel: For three years, Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel argued. One side said that the halachah is like us, and the other said that the halachah is like us. A Bat Kol [i.e. a Heavenly voice] called out: Elu v’elu divrei Elohim chaim — These and These are the words of the Living God. (Babylonian Talmud, Eruvin 13b)
According to Rabbi Shimon ben Zemach Doran we can learn from Hillel and Shammai that both parties may be right during an argument.
How do we deal with disagreements in our lives? Do we try to maintain good relationships while we disagree? Are we open to admit that we are wrong when we are wrong? Can we acknowledge that sometimes both sides may be right? Are our arguments for the sake of heaven’s name?
I believe we can learn from Hillel and Shammai and the teachings of our sages how we should manage our disagreements. It is not bad to have disagreements; indeed, it is good to have different opinions. However, we should have discussions with people who disagree with us and speak to them with respect, maintaining good relationships, being aware of our real intentions, being open to admit when we are wrong and knowing that sometimes both maybe right.
May we learn from Hillel and Shammai’s arguments, which were arguments for the sake of heaven’s name, and avoid arguments like the ones Korach and his people had when they defied Moses and Aaron, as these were arguments that were not for the sake of heaven’s name.