Chaim Ingram

A holy dispute? How can we tell?

Dear Rabbi.   How can we tell if a machloket (argument) is le-shem Shamayim (for the sake of Heaven) or not?  Should one avoid all machloket  if it doesn’t concern him or her? Is the litmus test of a holy dispute that even when the parties disagree they can still be amiable and marry into each other’s families as did the disciples of Bet Hillel and Bet Shammai? Or is it more complex?  For example, I was at a shiur where someone kept taking issue with the rabbi.  How was I to tell whether the person’s intention was pure or to belittle the rabbi? Keen to hear your thoughts.  J. B.

 Dear J.B.

You ask a very cogent and challenging question.

There is a well-known Mishna in Pirkei Avot (5:20) stating that “any dispute for the sake of Heaven, sofo le-hitkayem”.  This Hebrew phrase is difficult to translate.  Going by the consensus of rabbinic explanation, I would render it as “its outcome will be of enduring worth”. The Mishna goes on to cite as a model example of a dispute for the sake of Heaven that between Hillel and Shammai.  Millions of Torah scholars have regaled their souls and continue to do so on the many constructive arguments in the Talmud between the academies that each Sage founded.   The opposite, an argument “not for the sake of Heaven” is typified by that of “Korach and his cohort” (As the Chatam Sofer famously declares: even among Korach and his ‘supporters’ there was no unity!)  Korach’s rebellion against Moshe will again be read from the Torah and expounded upon in multitudinous ways this week as it is each year, but one constant will pertain: the quarrel will not be acclaimed but derided.

A quarrel that is personally (as distinct from ideologically-) directed; and with hate-filled insults and barbs instead of rational argument; a disagreement that is conducted with defiance (e.g via unruly and anarchic protest marches) indicating a determination to take an intransigent stand rather than effect or support a resolution (the hysterical and intractable Datan-and-Aviram-style ritualistic mob protests which have been disgracing the streets of Tel Aviv every Saturday night these past months are a sad case in point); a dispute where the aim is purely to exert control and to triumph rather than to seek the truth – all these are indications of arguments not for the sake of Heaven as understood by our Sages.

However, sometimes, as your question suggests,  the boundaries are blurred and it is difficult to tell except with hindsight – and sometimes not even then.  To take the example you give of a Torah shiur participant arguing a point of halacha or peirush with the rabbi.  How do you tell?  If there are (a) aggressive overtones;  (b) repeated interruptions; (c) continued interventions even after the rabbi has indicated he would prefer to take questions later, these are likely to be signs of impure motives. But, depending on the level of scholarship of the participant, they could also be indications of a passionate desire to address what he (or she) believes to be distortion of the truth.

Probably the most dramatic and extraordinary dispute within the Jewish community in recent centuries was that between  two outstanding Torah scholars R’ Yaakov Emden (1697-1776) and R’ Yonason Eybeschutz (1690-1764) whom R’ Emden viewed – after close examination of amulets which the latter composed – as being a secret follower of the disgraced false messiah Shabbatai Tsvi (1626-1676) even after R’ Eybeschutz’s sworn denial of the charge and public repudiation of the charlatan.

Was this a machloket le-shem shamayim? Itt certainly doesn’t pass the “amiability” test. R’ Emden’s campaign against R’ Eybeschutz till the day he died was vitriolic and bitter, notwithstanding the former’s initial reluctance to get involved and his refusal to do so until absolutely sure R’ Eybeschuts wrote the amulets. Indeed that fact in itself indicates the motive was not personal (as some had thought, as R’ Eybeschutz had been elected Chief Rabbi of Hamburg, a position R’ Emden’s father had held and which many thought R’ Emden should inherit.)   

Eventually,  the prodigious R’ Yechezkel Landau (1713-1793), later to be known by his most famous work Nodeh biYehuda, in an attempted mediation, wrote a masterly letter in which he vindicated the reputations of both men.  In so doing, he  indicated that indeed in his view it had been an ‘argument for the sake of Heaven’.. R’ Emden, he declared, had ample moral grounds to believe and act as he had done. Yet R’ Eybeshutz, he maintained, was not guilty of heresy even if the amulets were as R’ Emden claimed them to be, as, in R’ Landau’s words, “heresy is only heresy if it encourages heresy” and R’ Eybeschutz, as a brilliant expositor of authentic Torah, never did.  (Anyone wishing to read the full story of this dispute will find it online, well- documented by Rabbi Pini Dunner, Rav of Young Israel, North Beverley Hills.)

R’ Landau has, I submit, drawn up a template for us to be able to answer your question.  When two Jews, known to be G-D-fearing and upright, have an ideological quarrel, even a bitter one, we should be dan le-kaf zechut, i.e. judge their motives favourably. Ideally, in an “argument for the sake of Heaven”, each protagonist should at least respect the integrity of the other, as did the academies of Hillel and Shammai Such an approach is the first important step to successful resolution. (R’ Emden reputedly was reconciled on his deathbed to R’ Eybeschutz and they were buried next to each other!)

If, on the other hand, a hotch-pitch of different protagonists, each individual or group with self-interested motives, band together in a “union-of-convenience” against a common ideological foe, particularly if that foe is an appointed or elected leader – as was the case of the rebellion of Korach and his crew against Moses and Aaron (and, sadly, in a contemporary ‘re-run’, of the disparate factions in the previous Bennett-Lapid government all united against Netanyahu ,mainly due to personal grudges, as I wrote two year ago) we can safely label it an “argument not for the sake of Heaven”.   

As to your question “should one avoid all machloket if it does not concern him or her”?No we should not! Instead, like the Nodeh biYehuda, we should attempt – if we are in a position to do so – to be peacemakers and end the quarrel!  In so doing, we shall , as the Mishna (Pe’ah 1:1) asserts, “enjoy the fruits (of our endeavour) in this world while preserving our  capital for the World to Come”!

About the Author
Rabbi Chaim Ingram is the author of five books on Judaism. He is a senior tutor for the Sydney Beth Din and the non-resident rabbi of the Adelaide Hebrew Congregation. He can be reached at