Two Types of Disagreements

July 1, 2022

The infamous saying goes, “Two Jews, three opinions.” Of which there is an adaptation that claims, “One Jew, two opinions!” In fact, we are reminded of this extreme position in the famous joke of the lone man on the deserted island:

A shipwrecked Jew was finally rescued after years of solitude on a deserted island. During the years alone the Jew managed to build himself a place of shelter and TWO synagogues.

“The bewildered rescuers asked him, “Why do you need two places of worship?”

The Jew retorted, “This is how I built my community; one synagogue is where I pray, and the other is where I would never go.”

It is not a surprise that while reading the Torah we all too often come across biblical characters in disagreement. This is because the Torah was not intended to present a history of a utopian society, where human beings lived perfectly righteous lifestyles where no one disagreed with one another. Davka (“Specifically”) the Torah highlights our human imperfections and how living in the “real world” is not easy, but rather complicated and challenging.

Unsurprisingly, because we are simply desensitized to it, yet surprisingly if we consider the context, the Torah contains stories of Abraham, Moses, and others, arguing with Gd directly. How dare these mortal beings question Gd’s decision, plan, or purpose… and still live to see another day.

In Pirke Avot (The Ethics of our Fathers) 5:17 we are introduced to the notion that there are two types of disagreements, those that are for the “sake of Heaven” and those that are “not for the sake of Heaven.” Rabbi Jonathan Sacks z”l explains it thusly,

“…an argument for the sake of Heaven is one in pursuit of truth. An argument not for the sake of Heaven is one in pursuit of victory. The difference … is that when what is at stake is truth, then, if I win, I win. But if I lose, I also win, because to be defeated by the truth is the one defeat that is also a victory. I discover, I learn, I grow. But when what is at stake is victory, then if I lose, I lose; but if I win, I also lose, because, in diminishing my opponents I have diminished myself.”

Pirke Avot goes on to give examples of each of these types of disagreements. Our famous opposing Talmudic rabbis, Hillel and Shammai, are role models for disagreement for the sake of Heaven. However, the example “not for the sake of Heaven” comes from this week’s Torah portion, Korach, who attempts to take down Moses’ leadership with a mutiny that is directly confronted by Gd, and in Rabbi Sacks description, “in the most dramatic way possible: the ground opened up and swallowed the rebels.”

Today, however, the challenge is that we are living during a very disagreeable time in the world’s history. Every day we see arguments in the pursuit of victory taking place on the local, national, and international stages. It is these arguments “not for the sake of Heaven” that bring about unnecessary pain, suffering, and terrible bloodshed. All too frequently we are highlighting our inability to disagree for the sake of Heaven, for the sake of truth.

Disagreeing is human, even disagreeing internally, like the deserted sole survivor on the island, is innate. However, this week, when we find ourselves confronted with one of those moments of opposition, may we have the courage to reflect and ask ourselves if this is in pursuit of victory or truth. Because when we challenge ourselves to be better, we find ourselves…


Shabbat shalom,