We all nod in agreement when we hear the phrase. We chuckle when we hear the anecdote about the Jew who was discovered after years of living alone on a desert island. His rescuers noticed that he had built two huts. He told the puzzled people that they were shuls — “one is the one in which I pray, and the other is the one into which I would never set foot.”
We have no trouble believing that Jews tend to be contentious and express their disagreements with others, even stranded alone on a desert island. The question that must be asked is whether or not this is a good thing.
Long ago, one could find unanimity among wise men about certain values. Everyone consented that wisdom, diligence, and harmony were values worthy of acclaim. Then a great philosopher, Erasmus, wrote a book entitled In Praise of Folly. No longer could proponents of wisdom pretend everyone agreed with them.
More recently, the philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell wrote an essay entitled In Praise of Idleness. Gone from the list of universally held virtues were diligence and hard work.
What about concepts such as peace and harmony? Have they also suffered the fate of the aforementioned values? Have people begun to believe that contentiousness and argumentativeness, if not outright strife, are to be extolled?
This week’s Torah portion, Parshat Korach (Bamidbar 16:1-18:32), provides the occasion to reflect on just such questions. Korach is the biblical paradigm of the contentious individual. He is, to say the least, dissatisfied with Moshe’s leadership style and calls into question the entire social hierarchy. According to the rabbis, he was even skeptical of various rituals, unable to accept that a house full of holy books required a mezuzah, or that a tallit made entirely of blue colored wool required tzitzit with a blue fringe.
He had no difficulty finding contentious companions, and he eventually organized them into a band of rebels and fomented a full-fledged revolt against the authority of Moshe and Aaron.
For the rabbis of the Talmud, Korach epitomizes the negative trait of machloket, strife and discord. A famous passage in Avot distinguishes between legitimate disputes “for the sake of heaven,” and those that are not so motivated. They add: “What is an example of a dispute for the sake of heaven? The dispute between Hillel and Shammai. What is an example of one not for the sake of heaven? The dispute of Korach and all his company.” The former type of dispute has enduring value. The latter does not.
From this passage it is apparent that our sages do not categorically oppose debate and argument. Rather, everything depends upon the motive. If the motive is a noble one, “for the sake of heaven,” then debate is not only tolerated but it is valuable. If the motive is ignoble, and certainly if it is merely contentious, it is strongly condemned.
An example of such a harsh condemnation is to be found in the Midrash on this week’s Torah portion. The Midrash points out how each of the letters comprising the word machloket represents a different vile trait. Thus, the first letter, mem, stands for makkah, wound. The letter chet stands for charon, wrath. The letter lamed begins the word lakui, smitten. The letter kuf represents klala, curse. The final letter tav stands for tachlit, in this context a final tragic ending.
But just as much as improperly motivated disputes were condemned by our sages, so did they find value in disputes which had a constructive purpose. They particularly appreciated disputes that were motivated by the search for truth. Hardly a page in the Talmud does not record strong differences of opinion between the rabbis.
It is noteworthy in this regard that every single chapter of the Mishnah contains a dispute between the rabbis on one point or another. The only exception to this is the fifth chapter of Zevachim, “Eizehu mekoman,” which begins with the question, “What is the location for the Temple sacrifices?” No dispute at all is recorded in this unique chapter. Yet this is the chapter chosen for inclusion in the daily prayer book. It has been argued that it is precisely this chapter, which is devoid of even a trace of contentiousness, that merited inclusion in our sacred liturgy.
An objection has been raised to the criterion “for the sake of heaven” as a legitimate motive for dispute. Surely men have been motivated to commit horrible evil because they believed they were acting “for the sake of heaven.” One of the strongest arguments raised by freethinkers against religion is the fact that so much blood has been spilled over the millennia by people who were convinced that they were performing G-d’s will.
It is to counter such an objection that the rabbis gave as an example of an appropriate dispute the machloket between Hillel and Shammai. The disagreements between these two sages, and their disciples down through the generations, were characterized by tolerance and friendship. So much so that the Talmud records more than one incident when Hillel came around to Shammai’s way of thinking, and when Shammai conceded to Hillel.
The disputes between Hillel and Shammai endure to this day. Although we generally rule in accordance with Hillel, we carefully attend to the arguments of Shammai. I for one am convinced that we do so to perpetuate the attentiveness and harmony that both advocated and enacted.
Students of Torah must not only study the content of these ancient disputes. They must also learn to recreate the atmosphere that prevailed among the disputants, an atmosphere of civility and mutual respect and a willingness to concede one’s original position in order to achieve the truth.