The mishnah in Pirkei Avot 5:20 differentiates between an argument for the sake of heaven (לשם שמים), seek the truth and not for this sake (i.e. ulterior motives). Numerous commentators have discussed factors for determining the validity of an argument. This article will focus on the following factors:
- Torah sources
- Character of disputants
- Intrinsic value of argument
- Historical outcome
An argument for the sake of heaven must be based on Torah sources for its validity, specifically:
- Written Torah
- Oral Torah
- Codes of Law (with commentaries) in our time
Failure to comply with these sources automatically invalidates the argument, irrespective of the disputant’s fervour. In the case of Korach his arguments were invalid because he questioned,”Why do you exalt yourself over the congregation of Israel?” (Numbers 16:3) He thereby contested Moses, the embodiment of the written and oral law. In fact Moses was chosen by Hashem. Moses in his humility initially rejected the position of leadership (Exodus 4:13) until persuaded by Hashem and the assurance that his brother Aaron would be his associate (Exodus 4:14). The Israelites heard the first two of the ten commandments from Hashem but the remaining eight from Moses (Makkot 23b) establishing him as the prime prophet for all time (Deut. 34:10 and Rambam 7th principle of his 13 principles of the faith.). In addition Hashem states before the giving of the Torah that the Israelites will believe in Moses as their prophet (Exodus 19:9). In face of this how could Korach have the audacity to challenge Moshe’s authority especially after witnessing the ten plagues in Egypt, splitting of the Red sea, and giving of the manna?
Korach contended that all Israelites are holy (Numbers 16:3). In fact the Torah states that all the children of Israel possess the potential for holiness but that goal is not guaranteed. The Torah specifically uses the future tense for the attainment of holiness in Lev. 19:2 קדשים תהיו and Exodus 19:5 תהיו לי ממלכת כהנים. The Talmud Kiddushin 30b states that the evil inclination battles against a person daily and the main antidote against this inclination is the study of Torah. Hence the attainment of holiness is a constant struggle requiring enormous effort and self-control and not a given, as Korach claimed.
Character of disputants
One must also examine the character of the disputants to determine if the argument is for the sake of heaven or simply for ego or power. The above cited Mishna records the disputants for an argument for the sake of heaven (i.e. Hillel and Shammai). However when mentioning the dispute of Korach only he and his followers are recorded, implying that there is no moral equivalency between Moses and Korach. The Torah extols the moral virtues of Moshe: humility (Numbers 12:3), faithful (Numbers12:7), and man of G-d (Deut. 33:1). It is interesting to note that the Torah does not describe Korach’s character flaws. Perhaps Moses in his humility did not wish Hashem to denigrate his opponent. However in the Talmud Korach is described as overly ambitious (Sotah 9b) and arrogant through recently acquired wealth (Sanhedrin 110a).
Intrinsic value of argument
In addition to Torah sources one must analyze the integrity of the argument. Korach appears as a champion of the people stating that all are holy and therefore entitled to share in the priesthood (Numbers 16:3). Moses counters the argument by saying that that the Levites have a sufficiently exalted position (Numbers 16:7). In addition Korach is not really interested in the people because he did not relinquish his role as a Levite and give it to the Israelites when selected by Hashem (Numbers 16:9). (In fact throughout history demagogues strive for reform under the guise of equal rights only to arrogate power to themselves and their direct supporters.)
On occasion a theological argument may appear to have merit but the historical outcome under the guidance of Hashem determines the validity of the argument. In the case of Korach, Hashem swept them away immediately after Moses’ request thereby invalidating their claim. The Talmud in Sanhedrin 110a states that Korach and his followers admit from Gehinom that Moses and his Torah are true and that they are liars. By contrast the arguments of Hillel and Shammai are studied and debated from the Mishna and Talmud up to this very day by numerous Torah scholars and their students.
One can observe that over the ages many have attempted to change Judaism ignoring either the written or oral Torahs. However these movements did not survive or remain miniscule (e.g. Sadducees, Samaritans, Karaites) implying that Hashem will not allow his Torah to be misinterpreted or misapplied.
Torah Judaism encourages discussion and debate allowing for different points of views provided that the arguments are for the sake of heaven which means seeking the truth. Certainly, the arguments must be intrinsically sound and based upon Torah sourcesas discussed above. In addition if a position has been disproven, whether by one’s teacher, colleague or even student, the disputant must accept and appreciate the other position because the objective of the discussion is not about ego but fulfilling the will of Hashem.. As the Talmud (Kiddushin 30b) says that even if a teacher and his student are engaged in a heated, Torah debate and appear to be enemies. After the argument is resolved they become the best of friends because they both seek the truth, exemplifying an argument for the sake of heaven.