The Parsha of Korach describes a mutiny against Moshe and his authority, an authority bestowed upon him by God. It has led our rabbis to comment that this conflict exemplifies an argument “not for the sake of heaven.” Such an argument, we are told, is one whose issues do not endure. Because they do not endure, like Korach and his followers, those arguments are swallowed up by the earth. They disappear, having never had any credibility in the first place. In contrast to such arguments, the Talmud makes it clear that the halachic debates between Hillel and Shammai were in the name of heaven and therefore enduring.
As we consider these different sorts of arguments, we can’t help but think about this distinction-between arguments that endure and those that are lost in time-might be a useful one by which to consider other questions. For example, think, back to the Lincoln/Douglas debates and the issue of slavery. With the benefit of a century and a half of hindsight, we can now see very clearly that that argument was not for the sake of heaven. Its issues have not endured. Every civilized person acknowledges that slavery is immoral and unjust. Perhaps even incomprehensible. Like Korach, those ascribing to the opposite view have been consigned to the earth’s depths. In fact, there was probably even evidence for this perspective back in the mid-19th century or even before. The founders of this country, rather than defend slavery, worried about the impact of so radical a change on the young country’s formation. Our Constitution never even mentions ‘slavery,’ perhaps an indication pf the moral embarrassment we hope our forefathers felt about the practice. Likewise, 19th century defenders worried about the economic losses the South would suffer if slavery were to be abolished. Such indirection, again we hope, may suggest discomfort with such a vile practice.
Similarly, no one challenges the right of women or people of color to vote, However long and divisive those struggles were, we look back and wonder how anyone could have defended the opposite view. Not for the sake of heaven.
Where, then, is a Machloket L’Shaym HaShamayim, an argument for the sake of heaven? I’m sure we cal all come up with different examples-and as Conservative Jews, we are likely to have different examples than our Reform or Orthodox counterparts. But some occur to me: What characterizes the next life? Why is there evil in the world? How do we understand the nature of the soul? We may never-at least until the Mashiach comes-have the true answers to these questions, but the debates themselves will never be swallowed up by the earth because reasonable people can entertain differing points of view on these subjects. These are indeed Godly discussions and perhaps, regardless of our views on these issues, we can all learn something from them and even from those with whom we disagree.