The Rushkoff-Beery Debate

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The Ethics of Our Fathers famously defines an “argument for the sake of heaven” and an “argument not for the sake of heaven” by giving examples of both. The arguments between the ancient scholars Hillel and Shammai were for the sake of heaven; while the arguments of Korah and his cronies were not.

But what was the nature of these arguments? What made one “holy” and one not? My understanding of this has always been rooted in another question about this text: Hillel and Shammai were two opposing people/schools. So shouldn’t the Mishnah’s second example have also included two opposing sides — Korah and Moses? Korah and his cronies weren’t arguing. They were on the same side.

I’ve always understood this to mean that an argument for the sake of heaven is one in which the two sides recognize each other. Any argument in which two people honestly engage the other person, in their full humanity, is an argument for the sake of heaven. But when you start to fetishize your own position and, in the process, lose sight of the human being on the other end, your argument is not for the sake of heaven, and according to the Mishnah, it will not reach a constructive outcome.

For the past few days, Douglas Rushkoff and Ariel Beery have been conducting a debate in the comments section of this blog. Has it been an argument for the sake of heaven?

Ultimately, I think it has been, though most of it has detoured through places other than heaven. I encourage people to read through the thousands of words written. (And I thank both Douglas and Ariel for writing.) While you’ll find a fair share of petty squabbling, you’ll also find two people who care deeply about two very different visions of Judaism.

The first few posts are mostly jabs, but the real work begins here, where Beery rejects a humanistic universalism, opting for a “healthy particularism,” thus getting at the crux of this debate. Beery is a particularist; Rushkoff a universalist.

Perhaps most interestingly, Beery acknowledges that he privileges a certain Torah ethos over the later ethical preaching of the prophets:

Your emphasis on social justice seems to me–and correct me I’m wrong–more concerned with enacting the abstract calls of Amos amongst the nations than taking care of the family of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Seemingly inspired by Isaiah, you yearn for an age of universal Humanity–eternal social justice.

Now I’m not sure what the later prophets were smoking, but it sure got them to see crooked at times.

Everyone has the right to build their own theology/philosophy from their own sources, but rejecting a foundational branch of Jewish literature and thinking should be problematic for someone trying to get to essence of Judaism, which Beery seems to do later when he writes that the core of Judaism is: “the Jewish People, and the importance of a strongly knit community.”

Certainly there is precedence for this kind of thinking, but I do not think it is primary in Jewish history. For most of the last two millennia, I would say the core of Judaism was fulfillment of the commandments in the hopes of making it to the World to Come.

So for the sake of heaven (or, for heaven’s sake!), I would like to see Beery elaborate on how he justifies Peoplehood for the sake of Peoplehood (i.e. a strongly knit community) as the core of Judaism. And, perhaps more importantly, is this really the end game? Is the goal of Judaism to create the most perfect particular collective?

In response to Beery’s points, Rushkoff is happy to acknowledge that this is, indeed, the crux of the debate here: universalism vs. particularism.

There are those of us who are more comforted by Isaiah’s universalism than God’s promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacbo. And even if we start thinking about the latter, we focus on “light unto nations” and all that Jews-helping-the-others part.

Ultimately, I have more questions for Ariel than Douglas for two reasons: (1) I also lean toward the universalist approach — though I’d prefer to call it the messianic approach, i.e. the dream of redemption for all of humanity; I don’t really understand what’s good about community for the sake of community — without any higher mission (2) Douglas acknowledges the privileged place, from which he writes:

So, in the luxury of 21st Century America, I write books inviting intellectuals to consider Judaism as something other than a reason not to inter-marry, as something more than a real estate document, or as something more than the thing they believe they left.

In the end, though, I appreciate both writers, because they’re addressing the issue that I raised that started this whole debate: The dearth of ideas in the Jewish world; the amount of time we discuss demographics at the expense of mission and purpose. The Rushkoff-Beery debate could certainly have been more civil, but I think it has, ultimately, advanced the conversation. And I’m thankful for that.

(BTW: This post is by no means meant to be the final word. Everyone should feel free to continue to chime in.)

Posted on December 22, 2006

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7 thoughts on “The Rushkoff-Beery Debate


    I’m really glad this blog is hosting this conversation, which I think is an important one.

    I also lean toward the universalist approach — though I’d prefer to call it the messianic approach, i.e. the dream of redemption for all of humanity; I don’t really understand what’s good about community for the sake of community — without any higher mission

    That’s the clearest articulation I’ve seen of this point of view. Thanks for saying it so concisely.


    Hi Daniel,

    As you can imagine, I think that the Universalist approach is wrong-headed, and here is a short explanation why: the Universalist approach assumes that we, as certain human beings, know what is best for all of humanity, and that our messianic era is the messianic era that all humanity would be best suited living in.

    I disagree with that thought. While I agree that there are 7 major moral red-lines that coincide with the 7 Noahide commandments whose breaking demand us move to action to impose our morality on other communities, I in no way think that we as the Jews have the Correct Moral Vision that must be imposed in a messianic era on the rest of humanity.

    I’m just not an imperialist, that’s all.

    Which is why I’m with Shmuel: in Berachot 34b, Shmuel says that the messianic era is an era in which Israel will be free of the domination of other nations, i.e. will be free to live according to its own laws and its own morality without the imposition of other value systems. This limited messianism reflects a respect for different cultures and moral systems, understanding that we, as limited creatures, do not have all of the answers.

    Community, on the other hand, is the entire point. Community is both essentialist and instrumentalist–just like your family. Do you understand what is good about your family for the sake of your family? I’d say you do, even if your family has no higher mission.

    That is why, in our texts, the God of Israel is called God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and not Creator of the Universe.

    This simple naming sets us apart from our daughter faiths of Christianity and Islam (although Reform Judaism, wanting to be more like the Christians, seems to have forgotten this age-old distinction). Why is a familial relationship to God so important? Because it recognizes that human beings need to live within family-like structures with other human beings for a variety of reasons: security, prosperity but more than anything love and warmth. Love is a strange thing–it is predicated on a feeling of acceptance, for the most part, of one’s particularities. And when one feels that one’s particularities are not only accepted and tolerated by also supported and encouraged, one is much more willing to go out and do for others, and sacrifice for them if need be.

    Sacrifice is born of obligation, and sacrifice will always be needed in a world in which individuals tend to hoard and steal and generally look out for their own self-interest.

    The problem, instrumentally, with universalism, is that it does not provide the warmth of love that a healthy community can provide. Universalism is alienating. That is why, when you see purely universalistic movements (Christianity, Islam, Communism) you often see sub-communities develop where people seek out their identity. Problem is that because those communities sometimes conflict with the universalist ideology, there is a tendency for these systems to spawn violent imposition of one community’s vision of Justice on another even within the same uber-group bound by the same universal vision. Hence, the Christian wars, the Sunni-Shiite battles, the inter-Communist blood-letting, etc.

    As opposed to these universalist, imperializing ideologies, healthy particularism recognizes the sanctity of the communal boundaries, and accords each individual the right to self-determination within their own community. Will there be problems within communities? Sure. Are there problems within families? Of course. That’s how relationships are tested and reborn. And that’s also what strengthens the ties and pushes the community to re-definition.

    So, to sum up, one’s dreams of messianic redemption often become another’s nightmares of cultural imposition; recognizing and encouraging strong communities which provide a safety net for community members, and respect the right of others from outside the community to determine their own destiny within their own dream of their future, creates a world in which each of God’s children can live up to their unique potential.

  3. Pingback: Blogs of Zion » Taking the Universal/Particular Debate to a Whole New Level

  4. Daniel Septimus Post author

    Thanks for the thoughtful reply, Ariel. But I think none of us who believe that Judaism, ultimately, has a universal mission shares your definition of universalism. You write “the Universalist approach assumes that we, as certain human beings, know what is best for all of humanity, and that our messianic era is the messianic era that all humanity would be best suited living in.”

    I don’t agree. For me, searching out a Jewish universalism means searching out a cultural/religious system that *ultimately* is *concerned* with all of humanity, not just Jews.

    The *end* is universalist. The *means* may very well be particular. Is dreaming of a redeemed world in which life triumphs over death — to use Yitz Greenberg’s terms — in which humans live under conditions that affirm their dignity — really an imperialist impulse?

    As for Shmuel in Berakhot: traditionally, his opinion is understood as a rejection of supernatural messianism. i.e. his is the opinion that the messianic age will not include miracles like a wolf lying down with a lamb, literally.

    The most significant proponent of this approach was, of course, Maimonides who references Shmuel in Laws of Kings 12:2 in his description of the messianic era, immediately after rejecting a miraculous messianic era.

    But still, there is a universalist bent to Maimonides’ messianism. Though a main characteristic of the era is self-rule (which by the way, importantly includes a rebuilt Temple), it will be a time in which the Jewish God will be recognized throughout the world. In fact, Maimonides — who, again, is traditionally understood to be the heir of Shmuel’s naturalistic messianism — conceives of the messianic era as an age that combines self-rule, a redeemed world, and a self-evident religious truth.

    He writes in Kings 12:5: “In that time there will be neither famine nor war, neither envy nor competition, for good things will flow in abundance and all the delight will be as freely available as dust. The occupation of the entire world will be solely to know God.”

    I’m not bringing this as proof of what the messianic age is, but rather as a problem with citing Shmuel as a source for a particularistic messianic era. I know of no Jewish sources that uses Shmuel in this way. YOU can use it that way. I believe we have the right to re-appropriate texts and readings, but it would be a deviation from its traditional understanding and should be viewed that way.

    More importantly, you write: “Why is a familial relationship to God so important? Because it recognizes that human beings need to live within family-like structures with other human beings for a variety of reasons: security, prosperity but more than anything love and warmth.”

    So for you, also, family/community is not an end in itself. The end is “security, prosperity…love and warmth.” It’s not community for the sake of community. It’s community for the sake of these higher values. And I agree with that. And I think that all of humanity should experience “security, prosperity…love and warmth.” That we, as Jews, should encourage those values for everyone. That’s what makes me, ultimately, a universalist.

    Now, I might agree that the best way to get there is through particular means. I might agree that when we take care of those closer to us, we’re more likely to take care of others as well. But that still means that goal, the *end* is universal care.


    I think I understand your reasons, Daniel, and I agree with many of your points, but can’t seem to shake the notion that you are underestimating the power of the universal aspiration–and its inherent imperialism.

    You write that while you might agree that the means should be particularistic, the end is ultimately universal–that is, that our ultimate concern should be for the whole of humanity. But here is my own concern: when one is concerned for the whole of humanity, one implicitly believes that one knows best what is for the best of humanity. That is, you may think that it is self-evident that all of humanity would like to live in your perfect world, but to many peoples your perfect world could be the epitome of evil.

    Humility, therefore, is needed. Rambam didn’t necessarily continue Shmuel’s tradition so much as he developed his own universalist theory on Shmuel’s precedent: Rambam believed, as Artistotle did, that Reason was universal, and that all of humanity could come to see the Truth inherent in that reason. Revelation, to Rambam, was the core of God’s knowledge, whereas the rest of the rules and structures of Judaism were derived in good reason from that core–thereby creating a doubly-good universalist system.

    Yet Reason, as we see from the failure of the enlightenment permeating our news today, is not universal. Social Psychologists have found that two people can look at exactly the same set of data and reason two contradictory conclusions. As such, Rambam’s universalism fails just the same: it assumes that all human beings possess the same moral red-lines, or, at the least, the same fundamental way of seeing the world.

    My reading of Shmuel is different than Rambam’s, and different than the rabbinic model in general. This is what I was getting at with Rushkoff before personal accusations grew to a fever pitch (which I regret): one should not assume that rabbinic Judaism is the be-all-and-end-all of Judaism throughout the ages. Doing so is simply ignorant. Rabbinic Judaism developed at the turn of the Common Era–and yet our history stretches far before, and will extend far after, Rabbinic Judaism, which was a system that was developed to maintain a justification for Jewish Peoplehood in an age of exile. When the Judeans were settling the Elephantine Island in the 6th century BCE, or when the Hasmoneans were capturing the Iudean north and making everyone there Jewish, they did not ask a Rabbi. Sovereignty, for them, bore its own set of understandings of Jewish identity. Moreover, when Solomon built the Temple, when King Josiah centralized worship, and when Ezra and Nehemia remade the Jewish community in the image of their preferred text of the Torah, the Rabbis did not exist, nor did their tradition exist.

    Judaism, therefore, is is bigger than the Rabbinic tradition. Judaism is a dynamic system of thought that is brought to bear by Jews to define the boundaries of the Jewish community. Judaism is the fence built to protect the core, the core which makes covenant, the community of people who bind themselves together through ties of obligation to their fellows in the understanding that common values and traditions allow for self-realization better than artificial unions of peoples with disparate values and history.

    Judaism is the realization that one cannot decide for the rest of humanity what is good for them, a revolt against the imperialist universal theologies and ideologies of the time, and is humble enough to recognize that the good of our own community should be the first priority. We can make alliances with other cultures and civilizations, and when we see gross injustice–that is, the gross desecration of the 7 Noahide commandments as derived by the Rabbis–we as a community may be called upon to act, since we as a community have decided that there are some things that we cannot bear witness to without looking this way and that and realizing that there is no Ish. But to place the ultimate welfare of the rest of the world as our end goal is foolish, arrogant and disrespectful to those other peoples who have the right to differ from us in their belief in the ideal. Healthy particularism, therefore, should be our end–and universalism no more than a product of our internal cohesion, an extension of our obligation to one another.

    (Daniel, I want to thank you for this conversation, and I hope it will continue in the future. Unfortunately, or fortunately, I will be heading to Israel tomorrow morning and fear I will not be able to engage fully in the debate–so I hope others will jump in and share their knowledge.)

  6. Daniel Septimus Post author

    Your issue with universalism seems to be that it can’t possibly account for the diverse concerns of humanity. That is: it will, inevitably, lead to the imposition of one group’s values on another. But wouldn’t this be true *within* the Jewish community, as well?

    Why do you have a difficulty with imposing my messianic/universalistic vision (which by the way, would include a healthy dose of pluralism) on non-Jews, but don’t have difficulty imposing your vision of Judaism on all other Jews?

    You understand Judaism to be dedicated to the perpetuation of Jewish community, but this notion is one that many — if not most — Jews would disagree with you on. Let’s just look at the extremes. Most Haredim would probably tell you that the purpose of Judaism is avodat Hashem, worship of God, with it’s complementary ideas of commandedness and reward/punishment (i.e. the World to Come). Whereas the religious/social left might say that the purpose of Judaism is social justice.

    So why isn’t it “imperialistic” of you to impose your view of what Jewish particularism should be? Especially since you’ve admitted in the last few posts that you have certain non-normative views on Judaism (i.e. your reading of Shmuel in Berakhot; your inclination not to privilege Rabbinic Judaism, even though it has been the normative mode for 2000 years).

    You have the right to cultivate your own vision of what Judaism is and should be, of course. I have no problem with that. But you’re concerned about the paternalism of a universal approach, and I’m not seeing how your particularism is fundamentally less paternalistic.

  7. Superfobby

    I guess this is a good place to chime in, although I was previously going to write something on the page that included the Rushkoff/Beery debate itself.

    I also regret the ad hominem sniping that took place there. Should I declare here, before saying anything, that I am a caucasian male upper-middle-class american jew who has the luxury of graduate study? Am I disqualified yet? Maybe I can count on my actual opinions to marginalize me, following which I can claim persecuted status, and thereby automatically win the argument. And winning will get me… er…. something.

    Anyway, the substantive parts of the debate were quite interesting. Since I don’t have all the time I’d like right now to comment, as I am still writing a stupid paper that was due at the end of the last stupid semester, I’ll keep my comments as brief as I can, and off the top of my head:

    1) I am not so sure that “universalism/particularism” is not a false dichotomy. That is, I am not sure that they are mutually exclusive options. In fact, I am fairly confident that they are not, and that the whole discussion really centers more on what Rushkoff called the ‘what is to be done’ debate (even though he said he had nothing to offer on that score, which I think was wrong – he does, in fact, have much to offer on that score).

    I am extremely sympathetic, perhaps even completely aligned, with Ariel’s worries about cultural imperialism. However, I have to point out that this is an extremely post-modern and radical worry for someone who simultaneously embraces what he takes to be a traditional form of Judaism. Ariel should know that the traditional epistemologies of monotheisms DO declare imperialist glories for their own Truths – or don’t you pray the Aleinu? The key thing here is to recognize that the ancient ways of understanding the meaning of the revelation at Sinai, and the prohibition against avoda zara, were not the same as the medieval ways, and again not the same as the modern ways. This is why I am also sympathetic to Rushkoff’s project in general, although I have to note that…

    2) The entire debate has been circumscribed by an attempt to discuss “Judaism” as an entity, almost taking it out of history. With the exception of Rushkoff’s reference to Egyptian/Babylonian/Canaanite gods, and the references of both parties to the history of Jewish persecution by their “host” societies, scant attention has been paid to the ways in which Jewish thought develops in tandem with and opposition to the thought of the societies in which it lives. This means that everything we think of as “traditional Judaism” is always bound up with the “outside” — whether that outside is ancient Mesopotamian religion, Hellenism, Christian theology, Islam, or the modern secular West. There is NO WAY to “disentangle” the “true” or “pure” Judaism from these influences, and it would be a mistake to try. The best ways to argue Jewishly, then, in my view, are to argue from either a) texts that have a history of being interpreted by Jews for community guidance, and b) a position within the Jewish community, which one claims as one’s own, and in whose welfare one takes an interest. Whether or not one then follows up that position by claiming an interest in the welfare of all humanity is a crucial issue, but I don’t think it defines one’s argument as Jewish or not.

    I hope this little ramble is of some use to someone. I wrote it rather hastily.

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