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Good Arguments vs. Bad Arguments

Good Arguments vs. Bad Arguments

This week’s Torah portion bears the name of a man who led a rebellion against the leadership of Moshe and his brother, Aaron. Korach was unhappy with the fact that he was passed over for a prominent position that he felt rightfully belonged to him. He expressed his dissatisfaction by challenging Moshe’s authority and accusing him of nepotism. He puts together a coalition of like-minded people who were not happy with Moshe for their own various reasons.

The simple fact of the matter is that positions of authority distributed by Moshe were directives from God and not of his own making. After much argumentation and confrontation, the issue was Divinely resolved when the earth swallowed up Korach and his pals. Ouch.

The Mishna in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of our Fathers) uses this event as a prototype of disagreement and argument to illustrate the difference between good arguments and bad arguments:

Any dispute that is for the sake of Heaven will endure and be long-lasting. And any which is not for the sake of Heaven – in the end will not endure. What type of dispute was for the sake of Heaven? The arguments of Hillel and Shammai (two Talmudic sages). What type of dispute was not for the sake of Heaven? The arguments of Korach and his cohorts.

The commentaries note the lack of symmetry in the Mishna when comparing disagreements “for the sake of Heaven” and those that are not. The initial part of the Mishna makes sense – it mentions the arguments of Hillel and Shammai. But the second part of the Mishna should have stated “the arguments of Korach and Moshe”, not “Korach and his cohorts”. Korach was not at odds with his supporters who were his allies and were on his side against Moshe. He was arguing against Moshe and this is how the Mishna ought to have been written: What type of dispute was not for the sake of Heaven? The arguments of Korach and Moshe.

The solution to this anomaly can be found by understanding the personalities of those doing the arguing as well as their purpose and agenda behind the disagreement. If two parties have differences and their main goal is to figure out the truth of the matter, then even though they oppose each other, they are actually on the same team. The disagreement is an expression of their love for truth and the proper course of action that needs to be achieved. Each party is attempting to understand all possibilities before deciding an outcome.

When arguing this way, the person they are arguing with is not an adversary to be bested, but a foil to refine their own view and perspective. Each side is more than happy to accept the other’s viewpoint. This is what Hillel and Shammai were doing when arguing with one another and why the Talmud elsewhere says of them – even of Shammai who loses most of the disagreements – “Both these and those are the words of the Living God.” They might not agree with one another in the end, and indeed there are countless differences between Hillel and Shammai, but they both contribute essential wisdom from their respective outlooks.

A good test to see if you are really interested in arriving at the truth is if you can see the merits of the opposing side even though you may disagree. Few differences fall into the category of 100% right vs. 100% wrong. If you cannot admit any good points of your adversary, chances are that you are not of the school of either Hillel or Shammai and not arguing altruistically “for the sake of Heaven.” 

On the other hand, those whose arguments are not for truth and good, but for their own ego and position – these folks, even when they appear to be on the same side and allies to one another, are really not. They are not interested in getting to the truth but only in fulfilling their personal agendas. Inasmuch as they are acting only for selfish motives and goals, teamwork is non-existent and this is why the Mishna states that the argument is between “Korach and his cohorts”.

In reality they are anything but his allies. As soon as they dispose of Moshe and anyone else in their path to power, they will be arguing amongst themselves since each person will become an impediment to the ambitions of the other.

This is the dynamic that (thankfully) happens amongst Israel’s many enemies. Most of the Arab world behaves like “Korach and his cohorts”. If their focus is hatred of Israel, then and only then are they unified. But as soon as Israel is not the center of their attention, they immediately begin to fight violently and horrendously among themselves, perpetrating atrocities to one another far worse than anything from their perceived enemy, Israel. This is what we have witnessed so often in the last number of years. For a little while they focus their hate on Israel. But for the most part, when Israel is not in the news, it’s about many factions at odds with each other in Syria, in Yemen, in Sunni vs. Shiite, in Iran vs. Saudi Arabia, in Iraq… and on and on it goes.

One of the most difficult things in life is to have the self-discipline and sincerity to analyze one’s motives in a disagreement. A genuine sense of honesty is always necessary to assess if one’s arguments are to get to the truth of the matter or if they are ego driven. Are you arguing like Hillel and Shammai or like Korach and his lackeys?

Hillel and Shammai were only interested in truth, and it is for this reason that their disagreements are considered “for the sake of heaven” and their views and insights still studied and analyzed, influencing people until this very day and thereby enduring for thousands of years. Korach and his associates were only concerned with advancing their personal agendas and hence, they and their silly designs disappear into the nethermost part of the world – their half-baked viewpoints and ambitions buried forever with them deep into the earth.


And it really doesn’t matter

If I’m wrong – I’m right!

Where I belong – I’m right!

Where I belong


See the people standing there

Who disagree and never win

And wonder why they don’t get in my door

-The Beatles

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