The lost art of argument for the sake of heaven

The Jewish tradition is one of argument.

Hundreds of disagreements among the Sages appear in the Mishnah and Talmud. Most of them are formulated without indicating any rancor. This presentation of arguments conforms to the maxim found in Pirkei Avot, the tractate of Mishnah usually called in English “The Ethics of the Fathers.” In Avot 5:17 we find the following: “Any argument that is for the sake of heaven in the end will endure, and any argument that is not for the sake of Heaven in the end will not endure.”

Commentators were puzzled by this statement. Why should an argument for the sake of Heaven endure? Shouldn’t it end with a final conclusion to the argument and all factions at peace?

The explanation of this maxim that resonates most with me is the one that says that when people argue for the sake of heaven they put aside ego and the need to win at all costs. By not descending into ad hominem insults and dismissal of the truth of the other participant in the argument, the parties to the argument bring to light different facets of ultimate truth. In this way, they arrive at as much truth as human beings are vouchsafed. This truth, which is the end product of a combination of deeply held principles tempered by a willingness to yield in the face of a point of view that resonates with the mind or the heart, endures and has a powerful impact on the lives of those who hear and accept it.

An argument for the sake of heaven demands the ability to listen. It also demands the ability to be malleable, to change your way of thinking or living when someone else’s perceptions ring true, even though you wish to cling to the familiar. These capabilities, however, mostly characterize saints, and most of us, including this writer, are far from being saints. The pity is that too many of us no longer even aspire to saintliness.

This failure to be in touch with our higher selves not only hurts others but devalues ourselves as well. The biblical tradition holds that humanity was created in the image of God. It is that aspect of the divine imprinted in our DNA that gives us and our fellow human beings worth and dignity. When we cannot hold a respectful argument in which the other’s worth and dignity are as precious to us as our own, we have lost the art of arguing for the sake of heaven.

This has not been the best season for the argument for the sake of heaven. For the sake of the American dream of “liberty and justice for all,” however — and for the sake of heaven — we must learn to argue with each other respectfully, with compassion and empathy for one another. If we can accomplish this, we will have the truths that make our lives meaningful, deepened and enhanced by assimilating important truths of others, even when their truths shake us up a bit.

The word for argument in Hebrew is makhloket. Its root means division. Please God, the future will make whole that which now is considerably divided. The same Hebrew root lies behind the Hebrew word for portion, something divided properly according to the recipients’ needs. Division and divisiveness come to an end when each person receives his or her appropriate and adequate portion, not only of the so-called pie, but of respect and concern. Jobless American, white or black, must have their fair portion of wealth, respect, and concern. Women and men, gay or straight, must have their portion of rights, respect, and concern. And people who have come to our shores seeking better lives, in quest of the same things we or our ancestors hoped for, need and deserve their portion, too.

If we do not do all in our power to give the manifold communities of whatever race or religion that make up this Union their fair portion — no easy task — we will engender angry arguments, not for the sake of heaven, that will produce nothing worthwhile or enduring.

May God give us the wisdom, and more importantly the patience and humility, to recapture the art of the argument for the sake of heaven. Where there has been incivility, may there now be civil discourse. Where there has been hurt, may there now be healing. May we aspire to be the best we can be, for the sake of heaven and for our own sakes.

About the Author
Rabbi Michael Chernick holds a doctorate in rabbinic literature and semikhah from Yeshiva University. He served as professor of rabbinic literature at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion for forty years.He is an oleh hadash with continuing close ties to the United States. Rabbi Chernck regards himself as "a Jew for all Jews."
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