Changing the Culture of Dispute

Recently, our society has experienced growing levels of divisiveness and hatred. Public discourse has become very disrespectful and often violent, filled with contempt and incitement. Many people have lost the patience to listen and tend to attack anyone who disagrees with their views. Social media fights can transform an ideological argument into a bitter and personal war over people’s political differences.

The enormous levels of stress, pressure, anxiety and insecurity that many have experienced since the outbreak of COVID-19 have brought our society to new heights of hatred and divisiveness. Emotions are being channeled into anger, riots and violent demonstrations.

The days of mourning at the beginning of the month of Av are intended not just to remember the past but also to learn from our mistakes and try to fix them. According to our Sages, the destruction of the Second Temple that caused our nation’s 2000-year exile was an outcome of irrational baseless hatred – Sinat Chinam.

The remedy for the whole of society must begin with our personal actions, so I wish to suggest a road map to conduct what our Sages define as ‘machloket le’shem shamayim’ (dispute for the sake of Heaven). If we can implement these principles in every conversation, argument and conflict in our lives, between families and friends, in the workplace and in the political arena, and especially on social media, it will bring our society to a much healthier place. These principles are discussed at length in my new book “The Narrow Halakhic Bridge.”

The Mishnah in Pirkei Avot (5:17) teaches us the following: “Any dispute that is for the sake of Heaven will ultimately endure, and one that is not for the sake of Heaven will ultimately not endure.”

Usually, in any dispute, each side claims that their intentions are “for the sake of Heaven,” so how can one determine whose argument is for the sake of Heaven and who is destructive and dangerous?  What are the determining factors? Does it depend on the opinions of the disputants?  The topic of the dispute? Why is it expressed as a good thing that such a dispute will endure? Surely we do not want disputes to endure, but rather to be peacefully resolved!

I wish to suggest three central criteria that allow us to distinguish between constructive and destructive conflicts.

 (a)   The purpose of the dispute.

The purpose of the dispute must be to clarify the truth, even if this means admitting to one’s own error. If the disputants’ purpose is to win at all costs, the dispute becomes entangled with their personal interests, because each side wants to prove that they are superior and correct. If, however, the disputants’ purpose is to clarify the truth, then it doesn’t matter which of us is correct, because our goal is to reach the truth. The Chatam Sofer explains this idea:

“The intention of the disputants should not be . . . to convince the other of his opinion, for what do I care if he agrees with me or not? Rather, the debate should be in order to establish my opinion based on my understanding. By way of what my friend claims against me, I will see if what he claims is correct and I will retract my opinion, yet if I am not convinced, I will maintain my opinion…But those who want their fellow to agree to them and [hence] their intention is to convince them, stray from the path of truth toward rhetoric, and thus, the conclusion becomes warped.” (Responsa Chatam Sofer, Orach Chayim 208) 

One who argues only in order to sway their opponent is so convinced that they know the truth that they are unable to hear any criticism and to discern where they may have gone wrong.

(b)   The manner of the dispute.

In an argument for the sake of Heaven, each party displays respect for their opponent. This does not need to diminish the argument’s intensity; indeed, each side needs to defend their own opinion and fight valiantly for it. However, this must be done respectfully, based on the belief and understanding that the intentions and motivations of one’s opponent are also pure. Accusing the other side of having a hidden agenda and of intentionally skewing evidence in their favor, strays beyond the bounds of a dispute for the sake of Heaven. Personal, ad hominem attacks and accusations are a clear violation of the standards of legitimate debate. Rabbi Kook, who himself was the target of many personal attacks for his courageous leadership, offers the proper framing:

“Every argument between a person and their fellow, or between one group and another, also builds worlds, and since it is all part of improvement and building there is no reason to speak bitterly, but only to announce the magnitude of what each side is doing, that together they are building an eternal structure and repairing the world. Then, in accordance with the broadening of this understanding [that every argument builds the world], love will increase in proportion with the increase of hatred, and the bond will increase in proportion with the magnitude of the separation.”(Orot Yisrael 4:6)

If our goal is to entirely separate ideological arguments from personal disputes, and if we can judge each person favorably while disagreeing with the greatest intensity, then we are on the right path. Anger, accusations, resentment, vitriol – all of these factors turn the heat of a debate into a “foreign fire,” even among the holiest and most ideological people.

(c)   The relationship between the disputants.

While civil, respectful discourse is important, it truly is not sufficient. The most profound indication of a true dispute for the sake of Heaven is when the two parties are not only respectful to one another, but can also maintain a friendly relationship despite the intensity of their argument. Rabbi Yonatan Eybeschutz, who himself suffered from false accusations made against him, explains the Mishnah in that vein:

“This is how one can know: if the parties who are arguing, aside from the matter they are disputing, love each other completely, with heart and soul, this is a sign that their argument is for the sake of Heaven. But if they are enemies and harbor hatred toward one another because of their dispute, this is not for the sake of Heaven and Satan stands there amongst them.” (Ye’arot Devash 2:8)

Changing the Culture

The only way to truly engage in a dispute for the sake of Heaven is if every party strives to find the truth in their opponent’s position, based on the understanding that they do not have a monopoly on truth. The secret to true unity lies in the understanding that there is room for a variety of different opinions. While we can and must disagree passionately, it is forbidden to denigrate or demonize other people. One may attack their opposing position, but it is forbidden to attack them in a personal way. There is no need to fear dissenting opinions. Just the opposite: one should understand that debate allows each side to strengthen and sharpen their position and world view.

Dispute that is truly for the sake of Heaven is a respectful argument within a context of mutual respect, love and appreciation for the importance of every opinion. This can build bridges between individuals and groups, and hopefully, re-establish that which we long ago destroyed through Sinat Chinam – baseless hatred.

If Not Now, When?

COVID-19, this tiny virus that has become the joint enemy of all of humanity, should bring some proportion to our lives. It should inspire us all to let go of divisive arguments, and to realize how much we are all dependent on each other. The global crisis is not ending anytime soon, and we are still very far away from getting back to our normal routines. That is why, as we approach Tisha B’Av, it is imperative to pay attention to these lessons. Together we can pave the path to forming a better society, with more compassion, empathy and mutual respect, despite the different opinions which we will obviously retain.

We have been practicing social distancing for months, since it has proven to be the most effective way to battle the pandemic. Yet, the pandemic of Sinat Chinam (baseless hatred) from which we have been suffering for thousands of years should be battled with the exact opposite weapon – social closeness, not physical closeness rather emotional closeness despite all disputes and disagreements as Rav Kook beautifully writes:

“If we were destroyed, and the world was destroyed with us, on account of gratuitous hatred, then we will be rebuilt, and the world with us, through gratuitous love.” (Orot HaKodesh 3, p. 324)

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