The Right Way to Argue

July 3, 2024

In the Torah portion of Korach (Numbers 16:1–18:32), we read about a dramatic and tragic rebellion against Moses and Aaron. Korah, along with Dathan, Abiram, and 250 others, accused Moses and Aaron of taking too many leadership roles for themselves. The rebellion ended tragically: the ground opened up and swallowed Korah and his closest allies, while a heavenly fire consumed the 250 followers.

This story stands in stark contrast to the debates between the schools of Hillel and Shammai, another notable set of arguments in Jewish history. As the sages write (Ethics of Our Fathers 5:17), “Every argument that is for the sake of heaven’s name, it 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 Korach and all of his followers.”

What is the difference between these two arguments? Why is Korah’s rebellion considered “not for the sake of heaven” and not destined to endure, while the arguments between the House of Hillel and the House of Shammai were considered “for the sake of heaven” and destined to endure?

Korah’s rebellion was driven by personal grudges and power struggles. Korah, Moses’ cousin, felt he deserved a leadership role. Moses, being the son of Kehat’s eldest son Amram, already held power. Korah, the son of Kehat’s second son Yitzhar, thought he should be the High Priest. Dathan and Abiram, descendants of Reuben, Jacob’s firstborn, believed that they should be leading the people. The 250 princes, described as “Princes of the Assembly, famous in the congregation, men of renown,” either believed they deserved leadership based on merit or were all firstborn and resented the Levites for replacing the firstborn in the ministerial role after the sin of the Golden Calf. This group, each with its own agenda, united only in their opposition to Moses and Aaron. Their argument was not constructive because it lacked of true unity and a common purpose.

On the other hand, the debates between the Houses of Hillel and Shammai were quite different. The sages provide four reasons for what made their arguments constructive despite their disagreements. Hillel and Shammai maintained personal relationships. They dined at each other’s homes and even married off their children to each other. Their debates were motivated by a sincere desire to understand and apply the Torah correctly, not by personal gain. They listened to each other and were open to admitting when they were wrong. And, they saw each other’s sides as equally valid interpretations of the divine word, and they acknowledged that though they held opposite positions, each position could hold truth.

The contrast between Korah’s rebellion and the debates of Hillel and Shammai offers valuable lessons for handling disagreements today. Maintaining respect even amidst disagreements is crucial. Debating issues without attacking individuals helps keep the focus on constructive outcomes. Ensuring that arguments are motivated by a genuine desire to seek truth and understanding, rather than personal gain or power, creates an environment where conflicts can lead to growth and improvement. Finally, openness to different perspectives and a willingness to admit when one is wrong, encourages a culture of humility and continuous growth.

In a world increasingly divided by conflict and differing viewpoints, the ancient wisdom of Hillel and Shammai’s constructive debates offers a valuable guide for healthy and productive discussions. By fostering respect, pure intentions, and open-mindedness in our arguments, we can turn disagreements into opportunities for deeper understanding, creating an environment of love and peace rather than conflict and hate.

Shira Schechter

Shira Schechter is the content editor for TheIsraelBible.com and Israel365 Publications. She earned master’s degrees in both Jewish Education and Bible from Yeshiva University. She taught the Hebrew Bible at a high school in New Jersey for eight years before making Aliyah with her family in 2013. Shira joined the Israel365 staff shortly after moving to Israel and contributed significantly to the development and publication of The Israel Bible.

Shira Schechter

Shira Schechter is the content editor for TheIsraelBible.com and Israel365 Publications. She earned master’s degrees in both Jewish Education and Bible from Yeshiva University. She taught the Hebrew Bible at a high school in New Jersey for eight years before making Aliyah with her family in 2013. Shira joined the Israel365 staff shortly after moving to Israel and contributed significantly to the development and publication of The Israel Bible.

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