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: