Should you ever be allowed to enter my office again, once all this Covid-19 insanity is over, or if you look over my shoulder during a zoom call, you will see a poster hanging up beside me. It is a poster of Logical Fallacies. These are flaws in reasoning that are deployed to try to strengthen a weak argument. We’re probably most familiar with the idea of a ‘straw man’ argument; setting up an idea to knock it down, even though it bore almost no resemblance to what was actually being discussed, but there are many others as well: ‘appeals to emotion’, ‘no true scotsman’, ‘the slippery slope’, ‘false cause’, and so many more. I got the poster back in 2016 (I have one at home as well) and I find it a useful teaching tool for b’nai mitzvah students. It’s also useful for myself so that, when I’m making an argument or in a dispute, I don’t become so focused on winning that I lose sight of the learning.
Because logical fallacies are essentially strategies for winning an argument, which implies that the purpose of an argument is to win. That is, one side emerges victorious, having scored the most points, and the other slinks home in defeat. It doesn’t matter, if that’s the case, whether the arguments are dishonest, or hurtful, or miss the point entirely. All that matters is winning, as if we are members of the Cobra Kai dojo in “Karate Kid”; take no prisoners, show no mercy.
But the very nature of Logical Fallacies underscores the real purpose of a debate. The purpose is not to have some kind of cheap intellectual exercise, to show off one’s expertise or cleverness. Rather, the point to arrive at the truth. That doesn’t mean the conversation won’t be challenging for both participants, perhaps deeply challenging. But the goal is not to win; the goal is to come forward with intellectual curiosity and honesty, and to be willing to ‘lose’ a point to gain greater and deeper understanding. Trying to reach the truth means trying to understand the experience of the Other, to stretch ourselves past our own limitations of perspective, and to better understand our obligations to one another and the world. This kind of disagreement is at the heart of what it means to be Jewish. We joke that Jews like to argue, but those arguments are not for their own sake. They are the heart of Talmud study, the idea of makhlokeht. That real study of our sacred tradition requires two people to study across from one another and push and challenge each other—not to score points, but to arrive at a better understanding of how we fulfill our sacred obligations, our mitzvot. No matter how challenging the conversation, the two parties have to be able to come away respecting and caring for one another. This is known in our tradition as a makhlokeht l’shem shamayim, a disagreement in the name of Heaven.
Which leads to our text. Korach, Moses and Aaron’s cousin, challenge Moses’ authority, but their challenge is based on Logical Fallacies. They accuse Moses and Aaron of aggrandizing power, of lording it over the Israelites. In doing so, they tap into a vein of disgruntlement among the leadership of Israel. We read, “Vayikach Korach”, “Korach Took”. What did he take? The text doesn’t say, so RASHI fills in the gaps using the Midrash: he takes himself. That is, he separates himself from the community. He doesn’t raise his objections out of a place of learning and curiosity, or even out of a deeply held belief. He removes himself in such a way that learning, and understanding is not possible; he wants to win this argument, to win power, and he’s willing to be intellectually dishonest in order to do so.
Needless to say, there are a lot of Korach’s in our world right now, people who want to win the argument, because ‘losing’ the argument means recognizing that some parts of our world view or our actions are doing more harm than good, and that’s a deeply uncomfortable feeling. The person who offers so kindly to play ‘devil’s advocate’ is not interested in deeply understanding your perspective; he just wants to win, because otherwise he might have to confront the reality of his actions. And so we see over and over again people—perhaps even us ourselves—relying on logical fallacies to avoid the self-reflection and education that emerges from real makhlokeht. And, we should be clear, the temptation is always there for us to become Korach ourselves, to fall so in love with our own ideas and perspective, to believe that our experience of the world is the only one that is correct, that we deny ourselves the possibility of growth and maturity. We deny ourselves the holiness of learning. I’ve shared before one of my favorite stories, shared with me by Rabbi Michael Marmur: that in every encounter there are two angels, the Angel of Winning and the Angel of Learning. Only one can prevail in any conversation. I would add today that, if we commit to the Angel of Winning, it is not just to our own detriment; it is to the detriment of all. That pushing to win the argument on points is more than just an intellectual exercise; it can prove to be harmful. Certainly, it was for Korach and his band. Our task, then, is to make sure that when we engage with others, it is always for the sake of heaven, our hearts open to learning, even if it means we might lose. For in losing, so often, we find growth. May it be so. Amen.