Sunday, June 17, 2012

The art of argument / Korach

I would love to see the movie version of Korach’s rebellion. The graphics gurus would do a great job depicting the earth opening up to swallow the rebels; it would be impressive on the big screen.

Korach, a second tier priest, gathers two lieutenants, Datan and Aviram, and some 250 followers to challenge Moses’ and Aaron’s authority, saying, You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Lord's congregation?(Numbers 16:3). On the surface, their statement is correct: the entire community is holy, as God instructs Moses to tell all the Israelites: Speak to the whole Israelite community and say to them: You shall be hold, for I, the Lord your God, am holy (Leviticus 19:1). But this is only on the surface. Their real intent is a power grab.

The question Korach and his followers raise is legitimate. It is worth discussing and debating. But it is not their true agenda. When the debate is unrelated to the genuine agenda, this is not an appropriate machloket (argument). The Rabbis point this out:

A machloket le-shaym shamayim (controversy for the sake of heaven) will have lasting value, but a controversy not for the sake of heaven will not endure. What is an example of a controversy for the sake of heaven? The debates of Hillel and Shammai. What is an example of a controversy not for the sake of heaven? The rebellion of Korach and his associates. (Pirke Avot 5:19)

Korach and his followers are driven by blind ambition. They seek personal gain and power. They have only their egotistical and selfish interests in mind.

Debate is an art. But argument is something different: it’s emotionally fraught and more than one’s intellectual acumen is at stake. Debate and argument have something important in common, however. There are rules for both. In the context of marriage and family, there is a moral way to argue; it is defined by the rules of  “fair fighting.” (There are many formulations of the rules; here are three: 1, 2, 3, 4.) When one party wins and the other loses outright, the fight has not been fair. When the topic of argument is unrelated, or only tangentially related, to one party’s genuine agenda, there can be no machloket le’shaym shamayim.

We all run into at least one Korach in our lives. The Korachs of the world leave a trail of misery, frustration, and wounded feelings. For them, all life is a zero-sum game: they must win and others must lose. We live happier and healthier lives if we learn to recognize the Korachs and avoid them.

We are driving full-throttle through a political season. The airwaves and media are filled with argument. Are we hearing machloket le-shaym shamayim (controversy for the sake of heaven -- that is, for a worthy purpose, toward the end of benefitting people), or are we hearing the echoes of Korach, disputants engaged in ad hominem attacks rather than substantive discussion of issues? Korach doesn’t argue issues; he attacks Moses’ character. Do the candidates whose faces and words dominate screens and print media address issues in any serious, thoughtful way, or do they merely run attack ads? Are they Moses or Korach?

Pirke Avot illuminates a basic truth about human nature that applies on both the personal and societal levels: there is a world of difference between legitimate argument about issues in a search for truth, or solutions, or policy, and illegitimate argument focused only on assaulting the character of another in order to gain power.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

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