Social psychologists list several distinctions between a debate and a dialogue. A debate assumes you have the right answer, while a dialogue assumes that many people can help craft an answer. A debate is about winning; a dialogue is about exploring. A debate is more about defending one's view; a dialogue admits that the thinking of others can improve one's own.
This week, we encounter the quintessential argument and debate in the Torah. It is the argument fomented by Korach against the authority and leadership of Moses. The sages use this as the paradigmatic case of an argument that is not "for the sake of heaven."
We all have a familiarity with the Creation story in Genesis. After each day's events, God passes judgment and pronounces, "Ki Tov — that it is good." But if you read and learn carefully, you will notice that on day two, God withholds this judgment. Why?
The Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni, circa 1500) explains: "And God separated between the upper waters and the lower waters." What was created on day two that held the tongue of God? The rabbis answer: It was the separation known as machaloket, which means "argument" or "contention."
For the Sake of Heaven
Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers, teaches: "What is an example of a machaloket that is for the sake of heaven? This is the argument between [the rabbinic sages] Hillel and Shammai. And what is an example of an argument that is not for the sake of heaven? This is the argument of Korach and his followers."
Notice how the latter formulation is different. With the former, we are provided with the names of the two interlocutors. With the latter, we don't find this style. To be nothing else if not consistent, the Mishnah should have stated, "The example of the argument that is not for the sake of heaven was between Korach and Moses." After all, it was against Moses' authority that Korach was rebelling.
Why this difference?
I think the answer is obvious. If one is willing to entertain the ideas, thoughts and opinions of the "other," as Hillel did with regard to Shammai and Shammai did with respect to Hillel, then that is a legitimate form of dissent and dialogue. And that's because its ultimate goal was to attain a deeper understanding and to promote the betterment of the community.
But if one is not willing to hear the words of the "other" — not even to pronounce the name of the "other," let alone to try to understand the other's perspective or position, as was the case with Korach — then this is an illegitimate and poisonous argument.
In the words of the social psychologists, Hillel and Shammai "dialogue," while Korach and his crew engage in rude and crude debate. (Would it be too much to suggest that this insight takes on relevance during this election year? These next few months will determine whether debate or dialogue will reign supreme in this land.)
When one allows another ray of reasoning to refract on the discussion, when one allows for others' thoughts and opinions to bring light to the discussion, then that discussion — even though still perhaps a disagreement — is now elevated to the status of a "Machaloket L'shem Shamayim, of an "argument and dialogue that is for the sake of Heaven."
Rabbi David Gutterman is the executive director of the Vaad: Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia.