How American Jews Came to Believe That Tikkun Olam Was at the Core of Their Tradition

A new book shows the harm that ensues when religion morphs into social-justice activism.

Macmillan.

Macmillan.

Observation
Aug. 1 2018
About the author

Michael Weingrad is professor of Jewish studies at Portland State University and a frequent contributor to Mosaic and the Jewish Review of Books. 


In April 2015, even as his administration was putting the finishing touches on its now infamously failed nuclear deal with Iran, President Barack Obama recorded a Passover greeting to American Jews in which he promised that “together we can continue the hard but awesome work of tikkun olam.”

This was hardly the president’s first invocation of the Hebrew phrase as a shorthand definition of the Jewish people’s “awesome” task on earth. In repeating it, he was only reflecting back to his audience what many Jews themselves, despite the relative marginality of the term as a theological concept since its coinage two millennia ago, have come to believe is not merely compatible with but at the very core of their tradition.

Tikkun olam is often translated as “repairing [or healing] the world.” For American Jews it refers more particularly to a Judaism based on, or indistinguishable from, social-justice activism and left-liberal politics. Found nowhere in the Bible, the phrase appears in rabbinic and kabbalistic literature as a rather technical term with meanings having little or nothing to do with partisan politics, let alone with the “world.” And yet, as Jonathan Neumann writes in his new book, To Heal the World?: How the Jewish Left Corrupts Judaism and Endangers Israel, tikkun olam is

one of the few Hebrew terms recognizable to the vast swaths of assimilated American Jews. And outside of the Jewish community it is American Judaism’s most widely known teaching. . . . One simply cannot begin to understand American Judaism today without understanding tikkun olam.

Neumann attempts to provide such understanding. After two chapters dealing with the history of the relationship between Judaism and modern social-justice movements—a subject to which we’ll return—he moves on to consider particular readings of the Bible that Jewish social-justice activists, theologians, and community leaders employ as prooftexts in support of their progressive politics.

The favored biblical readings include: the creation story in Genesis, Abraham’s election as the father of Judaism, Joseph’s role as a government functionary, the Exodus and Passover narratives, and the tension between ritual and ethical obligation in the Israelite prophets. By juxtaposing these readings with fuller helpings of the texts they allegedly lean on, Neumann shows how frequently their interpreters rely on extremely selective and tendentious methods of exegesis, purporting to find talking points where the biblical text says nothing of the sort or even something quite contrary.

Thus, Sandra Fox and Martin Seltman, advocates of single-payer healthcare, claim that certain biblical verses (for instance, Leviticus 19:16: “You shall not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor”) establish a system like Obamacare as the “Jewish position” on the issue. For her part, Rabbi Jill Jacobs finds warrant for centralized government control of healthcare and much more in the success achieved by the biblical Joseph in running Pharaoh’s food-rationing program. “His example offers a lesson in using political authority to protect the lives of all members of society,” writes Jacobs, apparently forgetting that the ultimate result of the policy was to enslave the desperate population to Egypt’s despotic ruler—with ominous implications for the Jewish future in that country, as chronicled in Exodus and noted by Neumann. Then there is Daniel Sieradski, an activist member of the “Antifa” movement, who appeals to the prophet Isaiah’s warning about the moral limits of fasting. “A real fast—a fast of Isaiah—is one in which you fast from your capitalist lifestyle,” Sieradski expounds, in order to rally Jews to the banner of Occupy Wall Street despite that movement’s frequent manifestations of violent lawlessness and anti-Semitism.

Of course, Judaism itself boasts a long and venerable tradition of inventive scriptural exegesis. But many if not all of Neumann’s examples are, like these, clearly identifiable as narrow agit-prop rather than thoughtful applications of scripture to contemporary problems.

And that is not all. Ultimately, as Neumann demonstrates in his final chapters, these biblical readings justify a political agenda that is actively hostile toward Israel and to Jews themselves. The identification of Judaism’s religious commandments with left-wing policy positions is bad enough; even worse is its twin: the denigration of Jewish particularity, now replaced by the doctrine that true morality begins only where connections of kinship and peoplehood end. From this combined vantage point, opposition to single-payer healthcare can be seen as a violation of the core precepts of Judaism, but attacking the “particularistic” Jewish state becomes a noble Jewish goal.

 

The morphing of American Judaism into progressive politics is certainly a real phenomenon, and the unchecked impulses of radical universalism certainly wreak harm on Jews. Yet, as I read Neumann’s book, I found myself asking whether his extended critiques of biblical readings constitute an adequate response to the dangers he rightly sees. Given that many of his subjects themselves admit that they bring their political commitments to their scriptural readings, shouldn’t those commitments, rather than the biblical pegs they arbitrarily hang from, form the real object of analysis and critique? Besides, if the readings are as tendentious and sloppy as Neumann shows them to be, how did tikkun-olam Judaism conquer the American Jewish scene so quickly and so thoroughly?

As precursors to contemporary tikkun-olam Judaism, Neumann does discuss the history of the Reform movement and its response to changing political and social conditions in 19th-century Europe and the United States, as well as the social-gospel movement that transformed (some would say, gutted) mainline Protestant Christianity in the 20th century. But one longs for a more detailed and comprehensive history of this admittedly very large subject.

Ultimately, such a study would have to rest on a critical accounting that reaches back to the turn-of-the-20th-century East European Jewish immigrants and (especially) their progeny, a task only partially addressed in such celebrated works as Irving Howe’s The World of Our Fathers (1976) and more recent studies like Eli Lederhendler’s American Jewry: A New History (2017). Moving closer to the present, it would have to bring in the larger institutional and socio-economic culture inhabited by much of contemporary American Jewry, documenting the influence of various national and local organizations, funding networks, advisory boards, and activist groups that have helped move radical politics from the American periphery to the American mainstream and from labor-movement activism to the post-Obama Democratic party, the politicized university, the pulpits of many churches, and the newsrooms and editorial pages of much of the media. On the specifically Jewish scene, Neumann does identify various activists and ideologues, but mainly in order to establish the significance of their Bible readings, not to analyze the specific ways in which they have reshaped American Jewish life.

A fuller historical analysis would also identify various theological and psychological factors at work, some of them, alas, of long pedigree. In different theological circumstances, with more limited options for escaping the Jewish condition, one could imagine proto-tikkun-olam Jews seeking an outlet in Christianity, or in various forms of Jewish messianism. On the psychological front, it’s striking how some figures on today’s Jewish left respond with something like an allergic reaction to any suffering inflicted by Israel on its most determinedly aggressive and violent enemies. One thinks for example of Peter Beinart’s insistence, during the 2014 Gaza war, that American synagogues recite the names of Palestinians killed in the conflict. This unilateral occupation of Palestinian moral territory seems less an ethical position than a narcissistic working-out of a psychic unease that Beinart and many of his fellow Jews lack the skills to process.

 

American tikkun-olam Judaism represents, finally, a double educational failure. Despite the erudition of its best spokesmen, the movement’s easy path to enshrinement as the Jewish truth has depended on the widespread ignorance among millions of other Jews of the most basic texts and ideas of their religious tradition—hence the joke told of the American Jewish tourist who innocently asks an Israeli how to say “tikkun olam” in Hebrew.

If this kind of parochialism and laziness might be countered by serious immersion in the true sources of Jewish tradition, it might be equally well served by recourse to classical sources in American thought. A more informed acquaintance with the Federalist Papers or Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America would yield, among other benefits, a clearer understanding of how Judaism does and does not fit into standard political categories and in what way it engages, refines, complicates, and transcends the political altogether. Unfortunately, in the world of the world-healers, there appears to be little or no interest in pursuing such an education.

To Heal the World? is a useful and worthy contribution, and Jonathan Neumann is owed a debt of gratitude for this forthright, spirited, and well-argued book. It is no derogation of his achievement to say that it makes one long for a study that, in the same spirit, would take on the full scale and complexity of his subject.

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More about: Religion & Holidays, Tikkun Olam