The Rushkoff-Beery Debate

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.)


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