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For Argument’s Sake

Jewish tradition teaches that appropriate arguments are conducted for the sake of Heaven.

If you’re a Briton of a certain age, you are probably familiar with the irreverent 1970s comedy Monty Python’s Flying Circus. The show was a staple of my formative years and I was helplessly drawn into the countless unlikely scenarios that played out in their skits, a roller-coaster mix of surreal setups and clever wordplays. But Monty Python comedy does more than make you laugh — it forces you to see just how ridiculous the human condition can be, particularly if people take themselves too seriously.

One famous skit, known as the “argument sketch,” has a simple premise: An average-looking fellow enters an office and informs the receptionist that he’d “like to have an argument.” Unfazed, the receptionist asks if he’s interested in a one-off argument or if he’s thinking of taking a course. The penny drops — this is no ordinary office; it is a facility which offers a variety of human interactions that, in a non-Monty Python world, we all try and avoid: arguments, verbal abuse, listening to complaints, being hit over the head.

The guy is sent to a room where a man is sitting behind a desk. “Is this the right room for an argument?” he asks. 

The man looks up, quizzically. “I’ve told you once,” he says. 

“No, you haven’t.” 

“Yes, I have.” 

“When?” 

“Just now.” 

“No, you didn’t!” 

“Yes, I did!” 

“You didn’t!” 

And so it goes, back and forth, until the customer, in total frustration, challenges his interlocutor: “Look,” he says, “this isn’t an argument, it’s just contradiction — and an argument isn’t just contradiction. An argument is a connected series of statements intended to establish a proposition.”

I was always struck by this point: An argument is only an argument if it is a connected series of statements intended to establish a proposition, not just a sequence of pointless disagreements.

The award-winning executive coach Peter Bregman, writing in the Harvard Business Review, explains why most arguments are utterly ineffective: 

Think about it: you and someone have an opposing view and you argue. You pretend to listen to what they’re saying but what you’re really doing is thinking about the weakness in their argument so you can disprove it. Or perhaps, if they’ve debunked a previous point, you’re thinking of new counterarguments. Or, maybe, you’ve made it personal: it’s not just their argument that’s the problem — it’s them. And everyone who agrees with them. In some rare cases, you might think their argument has merit. What then? Do you change your mind? Probably not. Instead, you make a mental note that you need to investigate the issue more to uncover the right argument to prove the person wrong.

The Talmud records several Jewish traditions regarding arguments, the most famous of which can be found in Pirkei Avot (5:17): “Any argument for the sake of Heaven will endure, while [an argument that is] not for the sake of Heaven will not endure.” The Mishnah gives examples of both: a controversy for the sake of Heaven is exemplified by the disagreements between Hillel and Shammai, while Korach’s polemic with Moses is identified as the paradigm of an argument that is not for the sake of Heaven. According to the Talmud, “someone who is persistently argumentative has sinned, as it says (Numbers 17:5): ‘do not be like Korach and his supporters.’” 

The Talmud contains countless arguments — some 300 in total between the schools of Shammai and Hillel over major and minor points of Jewish law. And yet, the Talmud informs us (Yevamot 14b): “Beit Shammai did not refrain from marrying women from Beit Hillel, nor did Beit Hillel refrain from marrying women from Beit Shammai, which means that they remained friendly and affable towards each other.” Not only was there a constructive purpose in their debates — namely, the establishment of Jewish law — when it came down to practical life, there was a total accommodation of each other’s opinions. 

Meanwhile, as we learn in this week’s Torah portion, Korach’s intent was anarchy. A cousin to Moses, Korach challenges his leadership, arguing that all of the Israelites are holy and that Moses has arrogated too much power to himself. Korach’s goal was not to improve social conditions, but to disrupt the social order and deconstruct society. His argument with Moses was merely an attempt to delegitimize him — not because he had anything better to offer, but because he needed to be right and prove Moses wrong. And while contradicting Moses may have been satisfying in the short term, ultimately, just like the Monty Python sketch, it was an exercise in futility.

Nothing has changed. Humans still argue. There are those who argue like Hillel and Shammai, and those who argue like Korach. And the difference between the two hasn’t changed either — we all know why one kind of argument is right, and why the other is wrong. Truth is undoubtedly important, but ultimately it is more important for peace to prevail.

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