It is arguable that human beings are the only species that argues — because arguments require sophisticated use of language. Without advanced language, animals are pretty much doomed to ritualized standoffs and downright fighting. We, by contrast, differentiate spats from rows, prefer mild disagreements to outright quarrels, and institutionalize disputation as international diplomacy, congressional debate, collective bargaining, and courtroom litigation. We judge the merit of a culture by the energy it expends on argument as opposed to the speed with which it takes up arms.
By that measure, Judaism ranks as pretty advanced. To be sure, the Bible is filled with blood feuds that degenerate into violence, but rabbinic texts positively revel in argument.
Not all arguments are equal, however. Disputes over contracts, property, custody, and inheritance are appetite-driven; they end up in a court of law, with a winner and a loser. The rabbinic ideal, however, is our paradigmatic pair of ancestral opponents, Hillel and Shammai, who engage in “arguments for the sake of heaven” — disputes over what God wants us to do, unaffected by issues of personal gain. Everyone wins here, even the arguments’ “losers,” because the end result is further insight into living the good life. Arguments driven by appetite are necessary, part of our nature insofar as we are human; arguments for the sake of heaven are desirable, part of our nature insofar as we are made in the image of God.
This week’s sedra features the Torah’s classic example of an argument that is “not for the sake of heaven.” Korach and his band of discontents dispute the right to the priesthood, not because they wonder what God wants, but because they covet the priestly emoluments of power, status, and wealth. The argument slides catastrophically toward outright civil war, until God enters the fray to end it.
That we are ever after warned to avoid such arguments of misplaced appetite goes without saying. But surprisingly, Rav Chaim of Volozhin’s comment on the episode urges us to avoid arguments for the sake of heaven too! Compared to Hillel and Shammai, we are of little worth, Rav Chaim maintains. We are “paltry people” who “should distance ourselves” from the kind of argument that made the Hillel-Shammai debates famous.
Now Rav Chaim was a very great man, a student of the Vilna Gaon and founder of the Volozhin Yeshivah. One hesitates to argue with him — in fact, his advice cuts off all possibility of doing so, since it forbids all argument, including argument against his argument. Perhaps he meant to warn us against the tendency to mistake one kind of argument for another — to participate in an argument of appetite but call it an argument for the sake of heaven.
Perhaps also he was influenced by his time. He lived at the dawn of modernity (1749-1821), when Jews were challenged by the Enlightenment on one hand and emancipation on the other. Looming on the horizon was the questioning of tradition, not just by Reform Jews but by modern Orthodoxy as well, not to mention, eventually, Zionists, socialists, and others. Rav Chaim may have seen these arguments “for the sake of heaven” as dangerous.
Was Rav Chaim right?
He was not. Some of those well-intended debates have indeed turned out to be false starts — Jewish Bundists, for example, who joined the communist opposition to the czars. Others, however — Zionism and religious pluralism — have saved us from disappearing as a significant world religion. Rav Chaim’s mistake was to imagine we are congenitally “lesser lights” than the rabbis of old, when in fact, we are not. Or, even if we are, we are all we have, and in that regard, we are the same as every generation. Jews have regularly demeaned themselves as being of lesser stature than the generations who came before, but they have not, on that account, desisted from arguing their way to important new insights “for the sake of heaven.”
In our time especially, we need to insist on questioning the past as we plan for the future, or there will be no future to plan for after that. Never before have there been so many options for Jewish life — including the option to leave it altogether. People seek proof that Jewish wisdom can hold its own with the intellectually stimulating alternatives all around us. We need rabbis and lay leaders who take risks, think independently, and buck the system when the system hunkers down into a status quo that perpetuates mediocrity and playing it safe.
Sometimes habit and tradition are just wrong; argument for the sake of heaven is always right.