High ideal: Argument for the sake of Heaven


The Korach rebellion was not just the worst of the revolts from the wilderness years, it was also a direct assault on Moshe and Aaron. Korach and his fellow rebels in essence accused Moshe of nepotism, failure, and fraud — of attributing to G-d decisions and laws devised himself for his own ends.

So grave was the attack that it became, for the Sages, a paradigm of the worst kind of disagreement: “Which is an argument for the sake of Heaven? The argument between Hillel and Shammai. Which is an argument not for the sake of Heaven? The argument of Korach and his company” (Mishnah Avot 5:17).

Menahem Meiri explains this teaching in the following terms: “In debates [between Hillel and Shammai], one of them would render a decision and the other would argue against it, out of a desire to discover the truth, not out of cantankerousness or a wish to prevail over his fellow. An argument not for the sake of Heaven was that of Korach and his company, for they came to undermine Moshe, our master, may he rest in peace, and his position, out of envy and contentiousness and ambition for victory.”

The Sages were drawing a fundamental distinction between two kinds of conflict: argument for the sake of truth and argument for the sake of victory.

The passage must be read this way because of the glaring discrepancy between what the rebels said and what they sought. What they said was that the people did not need leaders — they were all holy; there should be no hierarchy or rank.

Yet from Moshe’s reply, it is clear that he had heard something different:

Moses also said to Korach, “Now listen, you Levites!. Is it not enough for you that the G-d of Israel has separated you from the rest of the Israelite community and brought you near Himself to do the work at the L-rd’s Tabernacle and to stand before the community and minister to them? He has brought you and all your fellow Levites near Himself, but now you are trying to get the priesthood too” (Bamidbar 16:8–10).

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It was not that they wanted a community without leaders, it was that they wanted to be the leaders. The rebels’ rhetoric had nothing to do with the pursuit of truth and everything to do with the pursuit of honor, status, and power.

First, Moshe proposed a simple test. Let the rebels bring an offering of incense the next day, and G-d would show whether He accepted or rejected their offering. This is rational. Since what was at issue was what G-d wanted, let G-d decide. G-d would let the people know, in an unambiguous way, who was right.

But Moshe did not stop there, as he would have done if truth were the issue involved. As we saw in the quote above, Moshe tried to argue with Korach by addressing the resentment behind it. He told Korach that he had been given honor, and that while may not have been a priest he was a Levite.

He then turned to Datan and Aviram, the Reubenites. Given the chance, he would have said something different to them, since the source of their discontent was different from that of Korach. But they refused to meet with him — another sign that they were not interested in the truth. They had rebelled out of a profound sense of slight that the tribe of Reuben, Jacob’s firstborn son, seemed to have been left out altogether from the allocation of honors.

At this point, the confrontation became more intense. For the only time in his life, Moshe staked his leadership on a miracle:

Then Moses said, “By this you shall know that it was the L-rd who sent me to do these things, that they were not of my own devising: If these men die a natural death and suffer the fate of all mankind, then the L-rd has not sent me. But if the L-rd brings about something totally new, and the earth opens its mouth and swallows them, with everything that belongs to them, and they go down alive into the grave, then you will. Know that these men have treated the L-rd with contempt.” (Num. 16:28–30)

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No sooner had he finished speaking than “the ground under them split apart and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them” (16:32). The rebels “went down alive into the grave” (16:33).

One cannot imagine a more dramatic vindication. G-d had shown beyond possibility of doubt that Moshe was right. Yet this did not end the argument.  Far from being apologetic and repentant, the people returned the next morning still complaining — this time not about who should lead, but about the way Moshe had chosen to end the dispute: “The next day the whole Israelite community grumbled against Moshe and Aaron. ‘You have killed the L-rd’s people,’ they said” (17:6).

You may be right, they implied, and Korach may have been wrong. But is this a way to win an argument?

This time, G-d suggested a different way of resolving the dispute. He told Moshe to have each of the tribes take a staff and write their name on it, and place them in the Tent of Meeting. On the staff of the tribe of Levi, he should write the name of Aaron. One of the staffs would sprout, and that would signal whom G-d had chosen. The tribes did so, and the next morning they returned to find that Aaron’s staff had budded, blossomed, and produced almonds. That, finally, ended the argument (Bamidbar 17:16–24).

What resolved the dispute, in other words, was not a show of power but something altogether different.

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In the Near East, the almond is the first tree to blossom, its white flowers signaling the end of winter and the emergence of new life. One could almost say that the almond branch symbolized the priestly will to life against the rebels’ will to power.

The priest does not rule the people; he blesses them. He connects the nation to the Divine Presence. Moshe answered Korach on Korach’s terms, by a show of force. G-d answered in a quite different way, showing that leadership is not self-assertion but self-effacement.

What the entire episode shows is the destructive nature of an argument not for the sake of Heaven — that is, argument for the sake of victory. In such a conflict, what is at stake is not truth but power, and the result is that both sides suffer. If you win, I lose. But if I win, I also lose, because in diminishing you, I diminish myself. Even a Moshe is brought low, laying himself open to the charge that “you have killed the L-rd’s people.” Argument for the sake of power is a lose-lose scenario.

The opposite is the case when the argument is for the sake of truth. If I win, I win. But if I lose I also win — because being defeated by the truth is the only form of defeat that is also a victory.

In a famous passage, the Talmud explains why Jewish law tends to follow the view of the School of Hillel rather than their opponents, the School of Shammai:

Because they were kindly and modest, because they studied not only their own rulings but also those of Shammai, and because they taught the words of Shammai before their own (Eiruvin 13b).

They sought truth, not victory.

Judaism has sometimes been called a “culture of argument.” It is the only religious literature known to me whose key texts — the Hebrew Bible, Midrash, Mishnah, Talmud, the codes of Jewish law, and the compendia of biblical interpretation — are anthologies of arguments. That is the glory of Judaism. The Divine Presence is to be found not in this voice as against that, but in the totality of the conversation. 

In an argument for the sake of truth, both sides win, for each is willing to listen to the views of its opponents and is thereby enlarged. In argument as the collaborative pursuit of truth, the participants use reason, logic, shared texts, and shared reverence for texts. They do not use ad hominem arguments, abuse, contempt, or disingenuous appeals to emotion. Each is willing, if refuted, to say, “I was wrong.” There is no triumphalism in victory, no anger or anguish in defeat.

The story of Korach remains the classic example of how argument can be dishonored. The Schools of Hillel and Shammai remind us that there is another way.

“Argument for the sake of Heaven” is one of Judaism’s noblest ideals — conflict resolution by honoring both sides and employing humility in the pursuit of truth.