Arguing for the Sake of Heaven

 

 This source sheet is adapted from Hillel and Panim.

Mishnah, Pirkei Avot 5:17

Translation Original
A debate for the sake of heaven will endure; but a debate not for the sake of heaven will not endure. [Translation by Hillel and Panim]
כל מחלוקת שהיא לשם שמים סופה להתקיים ושאינה לשם שמים אין סופה להתקיים

Suggested Discussion Questions to help the participants understand the text:

1. What kind of debate might be considered to be “for the sake of heaven?”


2. What can it mean for an argument to endure and be good? How can an argument that endures contribute to peace?


3. Under what circumstance is it helpful to have the various sides of a position continue to hold onto their positions?
 

Questions for further conversation:

 

1.How would you describe a “good” argument? What are the benefits of engaging in such an argument?

2. How do you engage in arguments? When do you give up and say, I have said enough?
 
3. How should you accept success or defeat in an argument?

This seems like a very odd Mishnah. However, it is worthwhile to point out to participants that most arguments in the Talmud and Mishnah are not resolved. The Talmud, despite common mis-perception, is less a book of laws than a catalogue of conversations about law. The Talmud takes pains to present the various views of competing opinions and to preserve them for posterity.
 
A similar practice is followed by the United States Supreme Court, which publishes both majority and minority opinions when the majority opinion is sufficient to know the ruling. The Talmud even says, in the midst of an argument between the school of Hillel and the school of Shammai—two premier contending legal schools of thought—that “Both these and those are the words of the words of the living God.” That is, there is merit and truth to both sides of the argument. The rabbis understand that a “debate for the sake of heaven” is one in which the position of each side contains some truth. If this is the case though, how can we make peace between them?

Retaining both sides of an argument, publicizing both of them even though one side lost, says to the defeated side: “You did not really lose. You were heard and your position is honored. Now, at this juncture in time and place, it was not the position followed. But who knows how things will be tomorrow. So we preserve your wisdom for future generations who will face similar decisions.” To preserve and honor the minority view indeed brings greater peace -both now and in the future—than ignoring, burying,and seemingly belittling the argument and hence the one who argued it.

You may choose to share one particularly insightful answer with participants: A medieval rabbinic commentator, the Sefat Emet, takes this Mishna one step further: Voicing one’s own opinion, even when it may be at odds with others,causes people to rethink what they believe is correct. As such, it may disturb peace. It is however a particularly effective means of achieving one’s potential…each of us was created for the purpose of accomplishing something distinctive and special…however, participants in such a dispute must always bear in mind that one’s individual contribution is only truly significant if it benefits the community. Sefat Emet commentary on Pirkei Avot 5:17