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Can disagreements bring us closer?

Is there a way to disagree with someone and not hate them? When disagreements get heated, it’s important to remember that there are better ways to communicate.

Judaism celebrates diversity of opinion and disagreement, but how we disagree with one another matters. When disagreeing, we need to seek truth, not victory. It matters less about who is sharper or smarter, and more about who can see the bigger picture and acknowledge multiple sides of an issue. Our tradition teaches us to follow in the footsteps of Beit Hillel and engage in machloket l’shem shamayim (disagreement for the sake of Heaven). Beit Hillel was not interested in merely proving their existing views right; rather, they sought a complete understanding of the issue and perspectives different from their own. Good conflict resolution requires humility and the ability to honor different sides of an issue.

Disagreement for the sake of Heaven

Pirkei Avot (Ethics of Our Fathers) 5:17 states:

כָּל מַחֲלוֹקֶת שֶׁהִיא לְשֵׁם שָׁמַיִם, סוֹפָהּ לְהִתְקַיֵּם. וְשֶׁאֵינָהּ לְשֵׁם שָׁמַיִם, אֵין סוֹפָהּ לְהִתְקַיֵּם. אֵיזוֹ הִיא מַחֲלוֹקֶת שֶׁהִיא לְשֵׁם שָׁמַיִם, זוֹ מַחֲלוֹקֶת הִלֵּל וְשַׁמַּאי. וְשֶׁאֵינָהּ לְשֵׁם שָׁמַיִם, זוֹ מַחֲלוֹקֶת קֹרַח וְכָל עֲדָתוֹ:

Every disagreement (machloket) that is for the sake of Heaven (l’shem shamayim) is destined to endure, and one that is not for the sake of Heaven is destined not to endure. What is an example of a disagreement that is for the sake of Heaven? The disagreement between Hillel and Shammai. What is an example of a disagreement that is not for the sake of Heaven? The disagreement of Korach and his followers.

Beit Hillel: A model of disagreement

In this famous passage the Talmud (Eruvin 13b) explains why Jewish law follows the opinion of Beit Hillel rather than their opponents, Beit Shammai. Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai were two schools of thought during the Tannaitic period (10 – 220 C.E.) that disagreed on hundreds of cases of Jewish law and tradition.

א”ר אבא אמר שמואל שלש שנים נחלקו ב”ש וב”ה הללו אומרים הלכה כמותנו והללו אומרים הלכה כמותנו יצאה בת קול ואמרה אלו ואלו דברי אלקים חיים הן והלכה כב”ה וכי מאחר שאלו ואלו דברי אלקים חיים מפני מה זכו ב”ה לקבוע הלכה כמותן מפני שנוחין ועלובין היו ושונין דבריהן ודברי ב”ש ולא עוד אלא שמקדימין דברי ב”ש לדבריהן.

Rabbi Abba said that Shmuel said: For three years Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel disagreed. These said: The halakha is in accordance with our opinion, and these said: The halakha is in accordance with our opinion. Ultimately, a Divine Voice emerged and proclaimed: Both these and those are the words of the living God. However, the halakha is in accordance with the opinion of Beit Hillel.

Since both these and those are the words of the living God, why were Beit Hillel privileged to have the halakha established in accordance with their opinion? The reason is that they were agreeable and forbearing, they studied not only their own rulings but also those of Beit Shammai, and they taught the words of Beit Shammai before their own.

Argument for the sake of truth

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks offered the following takeaway on the story of Korach and his followers (in Bamidbar/Numbers 16):

What the entire episode shows is the destructive nature of 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… 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.

“Love truth and peace”

The Talmud (Yevamot 14b) states, 

לא נמנעו ב”ש מלישא נשים מבית הלל ולא ב”ה מבית שמאי ללמדך שחיבה וריעות נוהגים זה בזה לקיים מה שנאמר (זכריה ח, יט) האמת והשלום אהבו

Beit Shammai did not refrain from marrying women from Beit Hillel, nor did Beit Hillel [refrain from marrying women] from Beit Shammai. This serves to teach you that they practiced affection and camaraderie between them, to fulfill that which is stated: “Love truth and peace” (Zechariah 8:19).

How disagreements bring us closer

The Talmud (Kiddushin 30b) states,

מאי את אויבים בשער אמר רבי חייא בר אבא אפי’ האב ובנו הרב ותלמידו שעוסקין בתורה בשער אחד נעשים אויבים זה את זה ואינם זזים משם עד שנעשים אוהבים זה את זה שנאמר (במדבר כא, יד) את והב בסופה אל תקרי בסופה אלא בסופה

What is the meaning of the phrase “enemies in the gate” with regard to Torah study? Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba says: Even a father and his son, or a rabbi and his student, who are engaged in Torah together in one gate become enemies with each other due to the intensity of their studies. But they do not leave there until they love each other, as it is stated in the verse discussing the places the Jewish people engaged in battle in the wilderness: “Therefore it is said in the book of the wars of the Lord, Vahev in Suphah [beSufa], and the valleys of Arnon” (Numbers 21:14). The word “vahev” is interpreted as related to the word for love, ahava. Additionally, do not read this as “in Suphah [beSufa]”; rather, read it as “at its end [besofa],” i.e., at the conclusion of their dispute they are beloved to each other.

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