Which of the following makes you the angriest:
• Arguing with someone when you know you are right?
• Arguing with someone when you know they are wrong?
• Arguing in general?
One of the comments I hear all too often is, “The thing I love most about Judaism is that it teaches us to ask questions, provoke, and/or argue about anything and everything.” I am never sure how I am supposed to respond to such comments. In more ways than one to say anything would be to prove “them” right. However, I am not sure that our tradition is so cavalier when it comes to questioning, provoking, or arguing. In fact, I would suggest that the truth is actually the opposite of the impression that so many have of our tradition. Consider the following:
In Pirke Avot (5:17) we are taught (consider the passage an echo from the Torah portion for this Shabbat, Korah):
Every dispute that is for the sake of Heaven, will in the end endure; But one that is not for the sake of Heaven, will not endure.
Which is the controversy that is for the sake of Heaven? Such was the controversy of Hillel and Shammai.
And which is the controversy that is not for the sake of Heaven? Such was the controversy of Korah and all his congregation.
What is the difference between the two? To put it most simply, Hillel and Shammai were concerned about the ultimate outcome of their disputes. They were pursuing the truth. Korah and his congregation were more concerned with position and power. They were pursuing the gratification of their ego. And, in the end, it is not just the outcome of the dispute that endures, it is the disputants as well!
In fact, when there was a dispute, Jewish law tended to follow the view of the School of Hillel rather than Shammai because (Eruvin 13b):
they were kindly and modest, because they studied not only their own rulings but also those of the School of Shammai, and because they taught the words of the School of Shammai before their own.
So what? Who cares? What does any of this have to do with us? After all, I know that I am right and they are wrong. They have to be, don’t they? After all, how can I be right unless they are wrong?
That is exactly my point!
Even as our tradition calls for careful deliberation, review, and investigation of any/every matter of concern, it does so in the pursuit of truth … of discerning what it is that God has called upon us to do. It is easy to bend to the voice that is the loudest, or the fist that is punching (even if it is the air) the hardest. However, if one does not stand for something, they will not only bend, they will fall for any/everything. Questioning, provoking, and/or arguing for the sake of the question, the provocation, and/or the argument is not productive. In fact, it is destructive. Rather, we should, especially when engaged with a matter of concern, always try to open ourselves up to seeing the truth behind all the noise … listening and looking for how we can walk together rather than in spite of each other.
So, the next time you find yourself about to get into an argument (or, if you are already in the midst of a heated disagreement), take a deep “Hillel breath” and ask yourself to justify the position of the other side. Pause for one more moment and look at what you are trying to say. Then, see what you have in common. We will accomplish much more that will endure if we walk together toward a common goal.
The Place Where We Are Right
by Yehuda Amichai
From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow
In the spring.
The place where we are right
Is hard and trampled
Like a yard.
But doubts and loves
Dig up the world
Like a mole, a plow.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
Where the ruined
House once stood.