Over the past couple of years, both Israeli and American society have experienced growing levels of divisiveness and hatred. Public discourse has become disrespectful and violent, filled with contempt and incitement. People have lost the patience to listen, and instead tend to attack anyone who disagrees with their views. Through social media fights and wars, what began as ideological arguments often ended in bitterness, sometimes even resulting in cutting ties with friends because of political differences.
COVID-19, this tiny virus that has become the joint enemy of all humanity, has brought a sense of proportion back to our lives and forced us to let go of these divisive elements, by demonstrating how much we are all dependent on one another. Despite, or perhaps because of, the intense experience of quarantine and isolation, people have experienced a tremendous degree of unity, camaraderie, and tolerance. Today we see less pushing and honking, yelling or cursing. In Israel, demonstrations of solidarity have crossed the boundaries between all sectors and denominations. Israel’s new united government, finally formed after three very ugly election campaigns, brings hopes for healing the deep wounds of divisiveness and polarization in our society.
As we begin to emerge from the global crisis, out of lockdown and returning slowly to some sort of routine and normalcy, it is imperative to pay attention to the lessons we have learned. If we can internalize them, we can pave the path to form a better society, with more compassion, empathy and mutual respect, despite the different opinions which will obviously remain.
In that vein, I wish to suggest a road map toward conducting what our Sages define as ‘machloket le’shem shamayim’ – dispute for the sake of Heaven. These principles could and should be implemented in any conversation, argument or conflict, within families and friends, workplaces and in the political arena, and – most importantly – on social media. These principles are discussed at length in my new book, “The Narrow Halakhic Bridge – A Vision of Jewish Law in the Post-Modern Age.”
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. What is a dispute that is for the sake of Heaven? The dispute between Hillel and Shammai. And one that is not for the sake of Heaven? The dispute of Korach and his congregation.”
Usually, in any dispute, each side claims that their intentions are “for the sake of Heaven,” so how can one determine who has the right motivation and who is destructive and dangerous? This mishnah offers an example of a positive dispute between Hillel and Shammai but does not explain the parameters that define it as such. What are the determining factors? Is it the topic of the dispute? And why did they say it was a ‘blessing’ that such a dispute will endure? Don’t we prefer that disputes are resolved?
I wish to point out three central criteria that will allow us to distinguish between constructive and destructive disputes.
(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 personal interests whereby 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 side is correct, as the Chatam Sofer explains:
“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 on the basis of 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 I have no concern whether he agrees with me because my intention is not to sway his opinion to agree with me, and so too should my colleague’s intention be to establish his opinion for himself; after the debate the decision will be made by majority rule. But those who want their fellow to agree with them, and [hence] their intention is to convince them, stray from the path of truth toward rhetoric, and thus their conclusion becomes warped.” (Responsa Chatam Sofer, Orach Chayim 208)
According to the Chatam Sofer, each side should be seeking to be convinced, and if they fail to be convinced by the other’s argument, their own opinion will be reinforced. One who debates in order to convince others loses the legitimacy of disputing “for the sake of Heaven”, even if the topic of the debate is exceedingly important. One who argues only in order to sway his partner is so convinced that the truth is entirely in his possession that he is unable to hear any criticism and to discern where he may have gone wrong.
(b) The manner of the dispute
In an argument for the sake of Heaven each party displays respect for his opponent. This does not need to reduce the argument’s intensity. Indeed, each side needs to defend its own opinion and fight valiantly for it, but this must be done in a respectful way, 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 intentionally skewing evidence in their favor, breaches the rules 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 Avraham Yitzchak Kook, who himself was the target of many personal attacks against his courageous leadership, suggests the proper framing:
“Every argument between a person and their fellow, or between one group and another, also builds worlds. 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 commensurate to the increase of disagreement, and the bond will increase commensurate to the magnitude of the separation.”(Orot Yisrael 4:6)
If our goal is to entirely separate an ideological argument from a personal one, and if we can judge each person favorably, while still disagreeing with the greatest intensity with their opinion and acknowledging our ideological differences, then we are on the right path. Anger, accusations, resentment, vitriol – all of these turn the heat of a debate into a destructive force, even for the holiest and most ideological people. In a dispute for the sake of Heaven, the disputants should remain friends. When friendship is missing then positive, constructive dispute cannot take place.
(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 able not only to be respectful, but also to maintain a friendly relationship despite the intensity of their argument. What determines the nature of a dispute is not the topic or the opinions of the disputants, but their personal relationship. Bet Hillel and Bet Shammai, although they disagreed about nearly everything, respected one another and love prevailed between them. Rabbi Yonatan Eybeschutz, who himself suffered a great deal from false accusations, explains the mishnah in that vein:
“This is how one can know: if the parties 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. This is the sign that the Sages of the Mishnah gave us, ‘What is a dispute that is for the sake of Heaven?’ – because in every argument it is claimed that it is for the sake of Heaven. [The Sages] answered, ‘like the dispute of Shammai and Hillel’ who loved and respected each other, this is the sign that the argument is for the sake of Heaven. But if it is an argument like that of Korach and his followers who festered resentment and hatred, and almost stoned Moshe, this is not for the sake of Heaven.” (Ye’arot Devash 2:8)
While we can and must disagree passionately, it is forbidden to denigrate or demonize. One may attack the opposing position, but it is forbidden to attack the other side in a personal way, or to claim they are motivated by external factors or by populism, because this approach turns debate from a constructive to a destructive force.
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 truth does not reside exclusively in their own camp. The reason that unity often seems to be an impossible aspiration is because people mistakenly believe that unity will only be achieved when everyone agrees; therefore, they must convince the other side to change their position. In fact, just the opposite is true. The secret to real unity lies in the understanding that there is room for a variety of different opinions. There is no need to fear dissenting opinions. Instead, one should understand that it is debate that allows each side to strengthen and sharpen their positions and worldviews.
Dispute that is truly for the sake of Heaven is responsible debate that occurs in a context of mutual respect, love and appreciation for the importance of every opinion. This can build bridges and re-establish that which we long ago destroyed through irrational hatred.
The Jewish community will soon start to recover from a period of horrendous devastation and destruction. Rabbi Kook’s words can guide us as to how to emerge from the COVID-19 crisis and rebuild community unity and solidarity:
“If we were destroyed and the world was destroyed with us on account of irrational hatred, then we will be rebuilt and the world with us with irrational love.” (Orot HaKodesh 3, p. 324)