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Koraĥ: Argument and Encompassment

In light of divisive discourse tearing Israel apart it is time to contemplate the art of argumentation to discover how debate need not divide Although the word “argument” does not appear in our parasha, the events that it chronicles – and especially the challenge against Moses’ leadership mounted by Korah and his followers – give the term a bad name. But we would be wrong to deduce from the story that one should avoid all arguments. In one famous mishna, the story of Korah and his followers serves as an example for a negative argument. But there are also positive arguments:

Every argument that is for [the sake of] heaven’s name is destined to endure. But if it is not for [the sake of] heaven’s name, it is not destined to endure. What is [an example of an argument] for [the sake of] heaven’s name? The argument of Hillel and Shammai. What is [an example of an argument] not for [the sake of] heaven’s name? The argument of Korah and all of his congregation. (Avot 5:17)

It is not easy to distinguish between the two kinds of arguments. My late teacher Rabbi Yehuda Amital gave voice to this complexity in his explanation for the statement “Every argument that is for [the sake of] heaven’s name is destined to endure.” He would say that in any argument in which all sides are certain that their motives are purely “for the sake of heaven’s name,” no one will concede, and the argument will thus be “destined to endure,” forever unresolved. While people will in some cases give up a personal need, when they claim to represent God and fight for something that they have couched in terms of holiness, they sanctify their obstinacy and refuse to compromise or concede.

The solution cannot be to avoid arguments altogether, for debate is a core component of our identity. Is there anything more Israeli and Jewish than deliberating, debating, and arguing? True, it is a trait that has fueled many jokes about Jews, and can be a source of misery, but to relinquish it would be tantamount to relinquishing our very selves.

The Talmud tells of R. Yoĥanan’s search for someone to take the place of his study partner, Reish Lakish, who had died. R. Yoĥanan is disappointed by all of the candidates, because they try to prove the veracity of his statements, as opposed to Reish Lakish, who would argue with everything R. Yoĥanan said, pushing him to deepen his study. Ultimately, R. Yoĥanan is unable to fill the void left by Reish Lakish’s death. He is so frustrated that he tears his clothes, cries, and ultimately loses his mind and dies (Bava Metzia 84a). Argument is intellectual fertilizer that breeds creativity and productive thought. Let us examine the idea of argument more closely, so that we can better determine when it brings ruin and should be avoided, and when it is a source of blessing toward which we should strive.

Some Are More Equal than Others

In our parasha, Korah and his followers confront Moses and Aaron with the following argument: “All the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them; wherefore then lift ye up yourselves above the assembly of the Lord?” (Num. 16:3) On the face of it, it is a legitimate claim, propounding a vision of a just society, founded on the idea that we are all holy – every individual is created in the image of God, and the Jewish people is a “kingdom of priests, and a holy nation.”

Moses, in response to Korah’s claims, falls upon his face and calls for a test that will determine who is God’s chosen (Num. 16:4–5). Later, he challenges Korah and his followers, calling them “wicked” and sinners (16:26). Does Korah not deserve a more pertinent response? Clearly, Moses himself has a lot to say on the matter. In fact, judging from other sources in the Torah, it would appear that he even agrees with some of the claims Korah levels against him.

Moses chooses to ignore Korah’s argument because he understands that Korah himself does not believe in its veracity, and is in fact motivated by extraneous concerns – namely, a thirst for power. His argument against Moses and Aaron’s special status is designed to conceal his own ambition. Korah employs the populist demand for equality in order to marshal the people, just as in Animal Farm, George Orwell’s satirical novel, when the pigs rally the other animals around them with the claim that “all animals are equal.” With time, the animals learn the hard way the second half of the sentence: “But some animals are more equal than others.”

We can find proof of Korah’s insincerity in the context in which he lodges his claim. Korah and his men are already elites. As Moses notes, Korah enjoys exalted status and is set apart from the people by virtue of his Levite lineage (Num. 16:9). And the Torah describes his 250 followers as “princes of the congregation, the elect men of the assembly, men of renown” (16:2). If indeed their hearts yearn for equality, they should first have tried to turn to the masses and empower them in the vein of the titular character in the film The Life of Brian, who addresses his crowd of admirers and proclaims, “You are all individuals.”

In light of the above, we can understand the assertion in Avot that an argument that is “not for [the sake of] heaven’s name…is not destined to endure”: when the argument is impure and stems from personal ambition – meaning, when it is designed to conceal the true motives of the arguer, who does not sincerely believe in the argument – nothing will come of it.

Who Am I?

Unlike in the case of Korah, whose selfish motives are patently clear, the arguments we encounter in our lives often present a more insidious danger. Many of us become agitated and angry when we argue, even when the topic is not personal and our interlocutor is someone we respect. The intensity and tension rise, and suddenly we are frightened by the ferocity of our own emotions and our fierce desire to win the argument. But why is that so?

The spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle has a good explanation for this phenomenon. He explains that people tend to identify with their opinions, often to the extent that, even without their awareness, their opinions become their identity. Who am I? If I identify with my thoughts, then when someone argues with me and opposes my views, I will experience the argument as an existential threat. When my opinions are not accepted, by extension I, too, am rejected. Thus arguments become battles for survival; no wonder they are so freighted with emotion. At the end of the day, even ideological arguments are fueled by personal motives and are not truly “for the sake of heaven.” Our innermost needs, which we are unable to see, detract from our capacity to have a genuine conversation on a matter of disagreement.

In dealing with this issue, Tolle suggests raising awareness of the fact that our inner selves lie beyond our opinions and thoughts, and are in no way dependent on them. There is much truth to what Tolle says, but at the same time we must take care to not become alienated from our ideas. Some things are of existential significance, and to sever ourselves from them would be to sever ourselves from life itself.

I wish to suggest a model that posits an inner essence beyond opinions and thoughts. This fundamental awareness infuses me with a basic security in my own existence, thus establishing it in a manner that is not contingent on my opinions and thoughts. And yet, opinions and thoughts are the mediums by which I interface with reality, so that they are important to me even if I do not identify with them. In other words, it is dangerous to gaze inward when my thoughts are what defines my perceived essence. Instead, I propose a movement that is mostly outward-facing and does not disregard that which is outside of us.

The Truth Contains Everything

Maimonides propounds what I think is the most apt definition of argument, interpreting “for the sake of heaven” to denote a “search” for truth (Maimonides’ commentary on Avot 5:17). This definition is founded on two elements: truth and search. The “truth” is the essential, critical thing, which is why we privilege the claim itself over any underlying ulterior motives. The “search,” or “drisha” (also “request”), for truth is, to my mind, a quest. This means that when we are certain that we have apprehended the truth, and think that all we must do is convince the other of its merits, there will be a dialogue of the deaf. There is no point to such an argument; on the contrary, it will only deepen the conflict. However, when we consider ourselves to be in a process of searching, and are open to hearing and listening to the other, arguments can become a fertile ground for growth. While we are not expected to betray our basic premises in conversation, we should be open enough to deepen and enrich our ideas through the encounter with a different viewpoint.

This complex conception of truth, which first appears in rabbinic sources and is delineated in Kabbala, is key to the process. After stating that God’s “seal” is truth, the Yerushalmi Talmud (Sanhedrin 1a), expounds on the meaning of the word “truth,” or “emet,” by noting the three letters that compose it: alef, the first letter of the alphabet; mem, which is in the middle; and tav, which is last. The Talmud implies that any single perspective will always be incomplete, and therefore untrue. The truth contains everything. In a corollary to the Yerushalmi, Professor Uriel Simon, my father-in-law, points out that “sheker,” the Hebrew word for “lie,” is composed of three consecutive letters – shin, kuf, and resh – at one end of the alphabet.

The Yerushalmi’s conception of truth has a lot in common with the basic kabbalistic point of view, according to which everything contains a divine spark and the truth is the correct balance between every single thing. It is interesting that oftentimes, the most boisterous conflicts in Israel are defined as disagreements between right and left. This calls to mind the ancient kabbalistic work The Bahir, which, after opening with the statement that Gabriel is the angel of the left side and Michael is the angel of the right, asserts, “In the middle is Truth. This is Uriel.”

This is not to imply that the truth must be a compromise, in which each side relinquishes half of its stance. Rather, the middle is a place that encompasses the positive points of each side. Such an outlook can promote a new way of thinking regarding problems that initially lead to a seemingly intractable conflict.

An effort to make room for the other’s outlook is essential to the argument stage, at least in the sense that each side is given full expression. The argument facilitates a dialogue in which each stance, and the price it entails, is given full consideration, as part of an attempt to build something new out of a fusion of the two. The kabbalistic model of encompassment is similar to the Hegelian dialectic: at first there is a conflict between the thesis and its antithesis, but ultimately they are united through synthesis.

About the Author
Yakov Nagen is the Executive Director of the Ohr Torah Interfaith Center, a division of Ohr Torah Stone. He also heads its Blickle Institute for Interfaith Dialogue and Beit Midrash for Judaism and Humanity. He is a Rabbi at the Yeshiva of Otniel and has written ten books about Jewish Spirituality, Talmud and Interfaith.
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