The Jewish people are no strangers to internal conflict, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s unreasonable to expect all the members of a community to march lock-step in agreement with each other at all times. Nor would we want them to, since healthy disagreements within communities expand their horizons and make them better. The important question is: What are healthy disagreements and how can we promote them?
Our sages teach us that Korach’s rebellion against Moshe (recounted in this week’s parsha) is actually the paradigm for unhealthy and destructive conflict:
“Any dispute that is for the sake of Heaven will have a constructive outcome; but one that is not for the sake of Heaven will not have a constructive outcome. What sort of dispute was for the sake of Heaven? – The dispute between Hillel and Shammai. And which was not for the sake of Heaven? – The dispute of Korach and his entire company. (Pirkei Avot: 5:17)
According to our Mishna, the distinction between healthy and unhealthy conflict lies in our motive: Whether or not it is for the sake of Heaven. Maimonides further clarifies that an argument to prove someone else wrong is “not for the sake of heaven,” whereas an argument intended to help someone discover the truth is “for the sake of heaven.” Which is all very clear, except for one problem: Have you ever seen an argument where everyone involved wasn’t convinced that they were pursuing the truth?
Rabbi Yochanan Zweig of the Talmudic University of Florida offers a novel approach: I know that I’m arguing in a constructive manner, not when I believe that I’m pursuing truth, but rather when I believe that my adversary is.
Not everyone is motivated by a pure desire for truth, but most people genuinely believe they are right, and most, while not necessarily correct, have a perspective that contains elements of truth that we can learn from. If I believe that my adversary is motivated by a desire for truth, I will be open to what he has to say, which will ensure that the argument remains constructive, even when I continue to embrace my position.
Hillel and Shammai are the paradigms for healthy disagreement because even though the law was generally decided in favor of Hillel’s opinion, the school of Hillel not only learned Shammai’s approach, but they made sure to learn it first. The search for truth doesn’t necessarily have to be the search for ultimate TRUTH. It can simply be an attempt to understand another person’s personal truth, because in so doing I not only learn, but I build a bridge of understanding that brings us closer and enables us to find collaborative and creative resolutions to our conflicts.
But what if my adversary is not a Hillel or a Shammai? There are dishonest people out there; some knowing and deliberate, and others driven by deeper agendas that they’ not even be aware of. I can’t read people’s hearts to know their motivations, so how can I protect myself and avoid engaging in pointless and potentially destructive controversy?
The best way to determine if others are arguing for the sake of heaven is if they are willing to listen, stick to the issues, and refrain from personal attacks. Korach didn’t just present another point of view; he accused Moshe of being power hungry and controlling, which Moshe properly understood to be a projection of his own deeper motivation. Furthermore, our oral tradition points out that when Moshe tried to reason with Korach, he refused to respond because he knew he couldn’t win. It was then that Moshe realized that he had nothing to gain by arguing further.
As a resident of Seattle, I am amazed that there are people who actually seem to believe that all conservatives are heartless, or that all liberals are mindless. As member of the Jewish community, I am shocked and appalled by some of the things that have been said about people I know: vicious attacks designed to turn adversaries into two-dimension villains, fitting subjects for a comic book series but bearing little resemblance to the characters that I know. As a counselor working with couples, I’ve been blown away by some of the uncharitable assumptions that husbands and wives make about each other; assumptions that are miles from the truth, but are nonetheless accepted by the very ones who should know how baseless they really are.
Regardless of whether they are in the public realm or in the privacy of our own home, our disagreements must be based upon a sincere mutual desire for truth, fueled by a belief in the essential goodness of others. As soon as we or our adversaries lose sight of this fundamental fact, it’s game over. In such a case it is imperative that we, like Moshe before us, put an end to the discussion and whenever possible, appeal to a higher and more impartial authority.