Parsha shows the ‘truth’ of effective argument

Rabbi Josef Davidson

By Rabbi Josef A. Davidson

In Pirkei Avot 5:17 we learn: “Every argument that is for the sake of Heaven is destined to endure, and every argument that is not for Heaven will not endure. Which argument is for the sake of Heaven? The argument between Hillel and Shammai. And which is not for the sake of Heaven? That is the argument of Korach and his entire congregation.”

This week’s Torah portion, named for the debater whose arguments will not endure, Korach, opens with an open challenge to the authority of Moses and Aaron as leaders of the people. 

From the text, it would appear that Korach, Dathan, Aviram and On make up a party of demagogues, challenging Moses and Aaron in order to promote themselves. 

“If all of the people are holy,” Korach argues,“how is it that you [Moses and Aaron] are more holy?” 

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In the Midrash, Korach brings up all kinds of absurdities in an attempt to demonstrate how flawed the current administration is, questioning for example whether a building full of Torah scrolls still requires a mezzuzah, which contains only two small sections of the Torah, or whether a cloak that is dyed blue still requires tzitzit (fringes) attached to it with a single blue thread. 

In another Midrash, Korach offers a “straw [wo]man” argument about a widow with two daughters who is struggling to make a living, whose every effort seems to be thwarted by one or another text of Torah. He claims that Moses and Aaron are responsible for these barriers to her providing for herself and her daughters and that they shift the “blame” to God!

Sadly, disputation in our times more often has been the type that is not for the sake of Heaven. Whether in the realm of the religious or in the secular, debates seem to reflect the most severe elements. 

Each side considers itself the guardian of the “Truth” and is resolute in impressing that upon everyone. Lost is the civility that characterized the debates between Hillel and Shammai, who could not have been more divergent in their opinions but whose respect for one another was maintained throughout. 

Their  arguments were in search of the “Truth” rather than a declaration of it. And when the decision was made between each of their arguments, both abided by it. Their mutual respect and admiration extended to their descendants who intermarried with one another and continued to search for what it was that God wanted the Jewish people to do.

As we study Parshat Korach this week, we have an opportunity to witness how destructive are arguments that are ad hominem and/or taken to the absurd, rather than to propose solutions to the problems they perceive. 

Korach and his band are ultimately swallowed up by the earth, perhaps allegorical to their being consumed by their own demagoguery. We learn from this negative example that arguments for the purpose of making oneself greater at the expense of another, that debates in which one or more sides are closed to the possibility of other truths, ultimately fail. 

We can and have done better. 

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Josef A. Davidson serves Congregation B’nai Amoona and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association.