06/11/2013 11:57 am ET Updated Aug 11, 2013

War: What Is It Good for? Not for the Sake of Heaven

Wave after wave assaulted the beach, a cascade of human beings amid lead and fire. The toll was at the same time unimaginable and fully anticipated. By the end of the long day, the beachheads were established and the Allied Forces had achieved their decisive breakthrough against the German defenses at Normandy. D-Day was a success.

Twenty three years later minus a day, under very different circumstances, the Israeli Air Force surprised the Egyptians and managed to take out a good number of their planes before they could fully launch the attack that would become the Six Day War. In the end Israel was able to survive the onslaught of Syria, Jordan and Egypt and defend the Jewish state.

War, what is it good for? Our tradition values peace above all things, and yet, were it not for the willingness to take arms and fight in 1944, there would have been no way to thwart the Nazis and most likely no Israel to defend in 1967. How can we understand those moments in which there is no room for second thoughts or doubt and yet maintain a respect for the importance of dissent and different perspectives?

The Ethics of Our Ancestors, Pirkei Avot, states that a disagreement for the sake of Heaven will be enduring. Usually we understand this to be a testimony to the importance of multiple opinions and the need to present our own perspective with respect for another's different understanding of truth. The classic example given for "a controversy for the sake of Heaven" is the disputes between the two Sages Hillel and Shammai who led different schools of thought and clashed constantly on everything from ritual to philosophy. In the end, a voice came from Heaven and declared that each side represented the words of the "Living G*d" but the law should follow Hillel.

However, what can we make of those struggles that far from lending themselves to respect, require no quarter for the opposite side?

The illustration our tradition gives of such a dispute is taken from the story we read last week in the Torah -- the story of Korach's rebellion. Korach challenges the leadership of Moses and, claiming to speak on behalf of the people, attempts to assume the mantle of leadership. In this case, the Torah makes clear there are no two ways about it. Moses prevails and G*d crushes the rebellion. There is no room for this dissenting voice.

Why? How do we see this rejection of Korach without it also making a statement about the limit of truth?

We should not fool ourselves into thinking that the difference is just over how we treat each other and the means by which we fight. For all the ways in which Hillel and Shammai modeled waging controversy for the sake of Heaven, their followers are also described as coming to blows, and there are countless examples of even high-minded disputes leading to violence.

Instead, Hillel vs. Shammai and Korach vs. Moses are different sides of the same coin. Only the disputes in which there is room for both sides to be right can be defined as for the sake of heaven and, according to Pirkei Avot, only those endure. However, the fights we wage against evil are not for the sake of heaven, but for the sake of earth, not for G*d, but for humanity. Not about what is true, but about what is just.

What endures in those struggles is not the fight, but the consequences of the victory. What remains is the complicated tasks of maintaining our memory of war, our vigilance against injustice, and our openness to the diversity of perspectives it takes to make peace.