Lazer Gurkow

A True Debate

Political Debates

Election seasons are dramatic and engaging, but the candidate debates frustrate me. They resemble ancient gladiator battles, which make them entertaining, but they are not informative. In a true debate the purpose is finding the truth no matter who has it, in a political debate the purpose is scoring points. I grow frustrated when one politician presents data to prove that the economy is on the incline and the opponent presents data to prove the very opposite. Who is telling the truth? I suspect neither is. They are not debating to find the truth, they are debating to win an election so they both fudge the data.

Samuel Johnson once said, “You raise your voice, when you should reinforce your argument.” I heard that first when I was in High School and it has stayed with me since. We raise our voices because we are loath to lose the debate. If we were actually right, we would simply reinforce our argument. Our sages in the Mishnah said it best. “Arguments undertaken for the sake of heaven, such as those between the schools of Hillel and Shamai are lasting, arguments undertaken for ulterior motive, such as those of Korach and his followers, are not lasting.”

Shamai Versus Korach

Hillel and Shamai never debated for the sake of proving each other wrong. Their desire to get at the truth was genuine. Hillel thought the truth was this and Shamai thought it was that, they debated to find the truth. A true debate hones and crystalizes both positions until the truth becomes clear. Neither side exults in victory. Their interests are purely altruistic.

In a true debate, opponents face off ferociously, but humbly. The common perception of humility is submissive – surrendering your position to others. That is not what it means at all. C. S. Lewis said it best.” Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it is thinking of yourself less.” When debaters face off to get at the truth, they pursue the truth with a vengeance. Their ferocity might disguise their humility, but afterwards the humility will be plain. After a true debate, the victor won’t gloat and the loser won’t mope.  They will both exult over finding the truth and then part with love.

When Hillel and Shamai engaged in true debate, neither side won or lost. Both sides found the truth. Thus the debate was recorded, the arguments were preserved and the names of both parties are lovingly remembered. In certain cases, we follow Hillel and in other cases we follow Shamai, but we always remember them both. Together, they arrived at the truth.

In fact, there was truth even on the losing side. In practice, only one position can be followed, but in concept, both views are dimensions of the Divine truth. Both are genuine because they were pursued humbly not with ego. They were inspired by a desire for truth, not a desire for victory.

Not so Korach and his followers. They were motivated by self-interest. They engaged Moses in “gotcha” tactics that are familiar to us from political debates. They didn’t care about the truth, they simply wanted to win. Theirs, was not a true debate. It was an ego trip, which is why it went down in infamy. Korach’s name was not preserved with love like Shamai’s was. Korach is forever branded a rebel.

No Mention of Moses

A careful reading of the Mishnaic text will yield a fascinating insight. Our sages identified the true debaters as Hillel and Shamai, but they identified the infamous debaters as Korach and his followers. Why wasn’t Moses name mentioned? Korach and his followers didn’t debate each other, they debated Moses. Why was his name omitted?

The answer is as simple as it is deep. Moses didn’t engage in the debate for selfish purpose. Moses was perfectly sincere. In his own words, “What are we? Your arguments are not with us, they are with G-d.”] Korach accused Moses of nepotism and grabbing the reins of power for selfish reasons. Nothing could be further from the truth. Moses saw himself only as the agent of G-d Almighty. Moses’ name was omitted from this conversation because his part in the debate was precisely for the sake of heaven.

Yet, it still leaves us trying to understand the meaning of our sages’ words. Korach didn’t debate his followers. On the contrary, they were on his side of the debate. Why are Korach and his followers identified here as disputants?

Common Cause

The answer reveals a deep insight about human nature and the true depth of our sages’ perception. When a group of people coalesce in common cause, their coalition can only last if they are common in purpose. If each has an ulterior motive, the coalition will fail. Because each motive is different from the others, the group will disintegrate. This is what happened to Korach.

Korach’s father had three brothers. The oldest was Amram, the father of Aaron and Moses, the second was Yitzhar, Korach’s father. He figured that the leadership of the nation should go to the oldest son of the oldest brother and the high priesthood should go to the oldest son of the second brother. He therefore opposed Moses leadership and advocated on behalf of Moses’ older brother Aaron. If Aaron, the oldest son of the oldest brother was appointed leader, it would make sense that Korach, the oldest son of the second brother should be appointed High Priest.

His 250 followers from the tribe of Reuven had no interest in the High Priesthood. They were all firstborns and wanted their rights back. After the sin of the Golden Calf, the firstborns were replaced by the Levites because the Levites had not participated in that sin. They rebelled to become priests, not High Priests. Datan and Abiram had no interest in either position. Their only interest was to foment opposition to Moses.

On the surface, they all wanted the demotion of Moses and Aaron, but each wanted it for a different reason, hence they debated each other. It was not long before their coalition splintered. One group was consumed in flames and the other group was swallowed by the earthquake. The message is that arguments undertaken for inappropriate and selfish purpose cannot be lasting.

We see this all the time in our own families and communities. One person grows upset and draws others to his or her cause. They lead a fight against their common enemy, but their coalition doesn’t last. It falls apart because of internal disagreements and squabbles.

Movements that begin solely to oppose the status quo rather than to pursue a common vision are not long lasting. Movements undertaken for humble and noble reason, are the ones that tend to last.

About the Author
Rabbi Lazer Gurkow, a renowned lecturer, serves as Rabbi to Congregation Beth Tefilah in London Ontario. He is a member of the curriculum development team at Rohr Jewish Learning Institute and is the author of two books and nearly a thousand online essays. You can find his work at
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