Thought for the Week: Arguing for the Sake of Heaven

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 24 February 2016

One of the most entertaining shows on Radio 4 is “The Museum of Curiosity”, a panel show in which three guests are interviewed about their work and are invited to donate an object or idea, normally from their area of expertise, to an imaginary museum.  Like many listeners, I’ve occasionally wondered, if I had the chance, what would I bring from my field as a gift to the museum?  What would I donate to represent Judaism in the Museum of Curiosity?

The best answer is, I think, a jolly good argument.  Or rather, the idea that an argument, rather than always being a source of discomfort, or being seen as a sign of failure, can actually be a positive thing.  On Shabbat morning, our Bar Mitzvah will speak about the Jewish tradition of arguing with God, which we see prominently in this week’s Torah portion.  In the Mishnah we find a different idea, that of a “machloket l’shem shamayim” – a “disagreement for the sake of heaven”; the idea that a dispute, if held in the right spirit, for the right reasons, can be a sacred act.

Underlying this idea is a recognition of two things: Firstly, that debate can help us to refine our understanding of the world.  Jewish study is something that is done in dialogue, because, as the Book of Proverbs states, “Iron sharpens iron”.  Secondly, Judaism recognises that questions worth arguing about are rarely simple.  There is often truth in both sides.  It is possible, as the Talmud states, that “these and these are the words of the living God”.  It is possible for both sides in an argument to be right.

The modern Jewish community is, perhaps, not the best exemplar of the ideals of constructive argument, but it is prominently there in our tradition.  It is an important idea for us all to learn, irrespective of our background.  We have just entered another period of political debate, with a four month countdown to the most binary, most black and white of all political decisions: “In or Out?”  We can only hope that the arguments can be made “for the sake of heaven”; that the debate can be held in a way that is constructive, refined and refining; that all involved can recognise that both sides can contain an element of truth.