Why Tikkun Olam Can’t Fix American Judaism
This past spring, Rabbi David Wolpe dared to banish politics from his pulpit. The denunciations in these pages of his principled stand again revealed American Jewry’s massive political bias. Headlines proclaimed: “What You Call Politics, We Call Torah” and “A ‘Politics Free’ Pulpit Is an Empty Pulpit.” The articles made it clear that there’s only one form of kosher Jewish “politics” in America: worshiping at the altar of tikkun olam.
How odd. Those who believe evangelical Christians — and Israeli politicians — corrupt democracy by not separating church and state, freely mesh synagogue and state. Those who mock settlers for treating the Bible like a modern real estate manual, proclaim God is a liberal Democrat.
Sinai Temple’s Wolpe bravely suggested that it’s arrogant to decide “the Torah points in only one political direction.” More practically, it’s counterproductive in a Jewish community that loves paying homage to “diversity” to then hate those who dare deviate from American liberal groupthink.
The American Jewish house is on fire. People are fleeing synagogues — in fact, any affiliation with organized Judaism — as if these institutions were aflame or toxic. The non-Orthodox are intermarrying at a pace that makes the naughty thrill and comedic misfires of the TV sitcom “Bridget Loves Bernie” look like a relic from the 1700s not the 1970s. Today, Bernie and Bernadette so don’t care about Judaism — or may have been so alienated by official Jewishdom — that political correctness commissars such as Michael Chabon use Reform graduation ceremonies to target intramarriage as the real problem — creating “a ghetto of two.”
“Intermarriage isn’t a problem, it’s an opportunity,” the new mantra preaches. But how can a community survive with no red lines: not regarding belief, not regarding belonging, not regarding intermarriage, not regarding Israel? By definition, communities need definition.
Dodging this intellectual, ideological, spiritual, psychic, and demographic emergency, most American Jews distract themselves with other missions. Before mobilizing for or against a candidate, a president, a Supreme Court nominee or a particular policy, shouldn’t rabbis mobilize for Judaism, for Shabbat, for Jewish rituals, for Jewish learning, for Jewish values, for peoplehood, for Israel and for an American-Jewish revival?
Wouldn’t that be brave — rather than following the political herd? Wouldn’t that be interesting — rather than phoning in yet another sermon lazily bashing most American Jews’ favorite piñata, the oh-so-easily-bashable Donald Trump? Wouldn’t that be novel — challenging the congregation with some unexpected, even unsettling, Jewish insights rather than whipping up everyone into yet another my-how-wonderful-we-are-and-how-inferior-those-boobs-who-disagree-with-us-are frenzy? Wouldn’t that help shape a Jewish future in America — rather than further Americanizing and dooming the Jewish present?
In his controversial new book, “To Heal the World?” young British writer Jonathan Neumann goes further, suggesting that American Jewry’s politicization isn’t a distraction but the danger. He’s reporting a hijacking. He fears the new cult of tikkun olam, essentially warmed-over Marxism masked by a Bukharian yarmulke and a rainbow tallit, lures Jews away from a rich, authentic Judaism. Cherry-picking convenient passages from the tradition, he charges, social justice warriors have defined modern American Judaism in such a way that is just far too convenient for fitting into the bicoastal elite circles they most revere. “Isn’t it just a little bit incredible,” Neumann asks, “for the teachings of the ancient faith of Judaism to happen to comprise without exception the agenda of the liberal wing of today’s Democratic party? It’s extraordinary just how few people have questioned how plausible this is.”
How can a community survive with no red lines: not regarding belief, not regarding belonging, not regarding intermarriage, not regarding Israel?
Neumann warns that Jews are embracing a version of liberalism that jeopardizes the community’s future — especially because its false cosmopolitanism risks cutting connections to the Jewish people and the state of Israel. Thus, his punchy, peppery subtitle: “How the Jewish Left Corrupts Judaism and Endangers Israel.”
The phrase tikkun olam appears toward the end of the Aleinu prayer — as you recite “al ken nekaveh” silently. In context, it reads, “letaken olam bemalchut shadai” — to perfect the world within God’s domain — or under God’s kingdom. Neumann notes that the phrase originally advanced “the cause of Jewish social justice” by calling to establish “a Kingdom of God on Earth.” Eventually, universalism replaced godliness as the standard, and liberal activism replaced Judaism as the vehicle. By the 1990s, this minor phrase became, according activist and venerable Reform Rabbi David Saperstein, “the most common organizing principle of Jewish identity.”
The tikkun olam overstretch, Neumann shows, reduces modern Judaism to an “E-Z listening” format, covering American liberalism — but hostile to Jewish continuity, communal solidarity or Israel’s particularity. Making the case for particularism, for tribe, for Jewish peoplehood, Neumann argues: “Without differentiation, any identity grouping, religious or otherwise — will become diluted and dissolve.”
“Tikkun olam-ers” are at once annoyingly fluid and exhaustingly doctrinaire. They jump ever so nimbly from passion to passion as the political agenda changes — always finding some fig leaf with a doctored pedigree to Judaize their latest political stance. In the 1960s, Rabbi Arthur Waskow transformed the haggadah into a civil rights primer. By the 1980s, the times demanded an all-“green” environmentalist text. Charging that Waskow appropriates “Jewish festivals to advance political causes,” Neumann, in his book, sarcastically asks God: “How malleable are Thy works?”
Alas, making the seder too hip cripples its purpose: “Everything, it seems, is worthy of discussion on the Seder night,” Neumann sighs, “except the actual Exodus and what is has traditionally meant to the Jewish people.”
These contortions reflect a deep American-Jewish insecurity, that what we really stand for, who we really are, would never bring former President Barack Obama to the seder table. It’s like making your first date a blockbuster movie, hoping Hollywood can generate the seductive charms you fear you lack.
Tikkun olam also has modernized, sanitized, liberalized and de-Judaized the Prophets. Defining them by their most liberal riffs, by their occasional proto-Marxist affirmations of doing good, uniting as one, and pursuing peace, offers what Neumann calls a “highly selective … misreading” of a complex, more resilient, message. This distortion misses most prophets’ crusade to improve Jewish ritual practice. And once again, it dilutes the stickiness, the traction, that Jewish particularism brilliantly provided for Jewish universalism.
Inevitably, reinforcing their politics with just the right biblical prop, recruiting God to their side, tikkun olam-ers make our religion easy but their politics brutal. “Our good faith is suspect when we demand so little of ourselves,” Neumann warns — but our politics become incendiary when we judge others so harshly. There’s no debating, bargaining or compromising when every issue becomes an existential clash between good and evil.
In many ways, it’s an old story with a new twist. Since emancipation, Jews have yearned to be accepted, adoring liberalism at is most universalistic. An old joke has three salesmen on a train. After playing cards, they start talking religion. One says, “I’m a Catholic.” The second says, “I’m a Protestant.” When the third says, “I’m a citizen of the world,” the first two chime in, “Oh, you’re Jewish.”
Since the 1930s, most American Jews have blurred their liberalism and Judaism — viewing their Democratic vote as the defining American-Jewish mitzvah — and marker. During the New Deal, Jews supposedly had three “velten” — Yiddish for worlds: “die Velt (this world); yene Velt (the world to come) and Roosevelt, a president who won as much as 90 percent of the Jewish vote. Four decades later, sociologist Milton Himmelfarb wryly observed that “Jews earn like Episcopalians and vote like Puerto Ricans.”
We need a knotty, messy, multidimensional, complex Judaism to guide us and challenge us in our often knotty, messy personal and public lives.
Although scholars have argued for decades about just what made so many American Jews liberal, all agree it runs deep. Some say it reflects the biblical Prophets’ ethics. Some say it continues the Russian Revolutionaries’ ideals. Others say it encourages the most welcoming Americans. Liberal Jews believe that being liberal is as fundamental to American-Jewish identity as an immigrant-done-good, rags-to-riches story, some brass candlesticks from the old country, and grandma’s chicken soup recipe. Former President George W. Bush’s press secretary Ari Fleischer recalled that when he “horrified” his parents by coming out as a college Republican, they told sympathetic neighbors in Westchester, N.Y.: “at least he’s not a drug addict.”
To merge Judaism and liberalism, modern American Jews have to overlook one highly inconvenient truth: The more pious Jews are, the more politically conservative they’re likely to be — in Israel and the United States. Moreover, Neumann laments, liberalism usually paves the way out of Judaism — not in.
Neumann focuses on the theological loop-de-loops that liberal rabbis execute to harmonize our 3,500-year-old tradition with the latest liberal political stance. He mocks what is a kind of “Mad Libs Judaism,” with liberals wrenching quirky biblical quotes or talmudic teachings out of context to stick it into precooked political rants. He makes readers realize that whereas, once, the Jewish masses drifted away from more conservative elites into an American identity, today the liberal elites are leading the charge into an Americanized — and bastardized — Judaism.
In truth, his history is a bit sketchy. Shortchanging the 1960s to root Jewish tikkun olam-ism in Protestant activists’ early 20th-century social gospel movement is like bypassing Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X to root the civil rights movement in Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois. There’s some truth there but it buries the lede.
Tikkun olam-ism is yet another intellectual, ideological and cultural offshoot of “the movement” that revolutionized American society — and thus one more baby boomer imposition bullying the rest of us. A comprehensive history of tikkun olam would analyze how liberal social-changers, not just conservative stay-the-coursers, politicized American religion in general. That fusion became so important to American-Jewish liberals, that many felt hurt when the movie “Selma” sidelined Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s role.
The story of Heschel — and of King — adds an important nuance. Judaism, far more than Christianity, is a community-oriented religion which encourages Jews to inject “Jewish values” — religion-based sensibilities — into the public square. Moreover, even the most secular Zionist builds on the Torah’s bridging between public and private life.
Neumann worries about lack of proportion and lack of Jewish content. I would distinguish between tikkun olam and the modern perversion of Tikkun Olam (in capital letters) with an annoyingly drawn –out, Americanized pronunciation of the second word. The lower-case tikkun olam is one of a series of Jewish values, visions and virtues.
Judaism wants Jews injecting some religious and moral principles into politics. Modern tikkun olam, by contrast, makes the pursuit of a particular form of social justice American Judaism’s overriding mission. It overreaches by being too comprehensive — and too present-oriented. Tikkun olam-ers have declared a politically correct war against Judaism’s central message that the best way to achieve universal ideas is through particular loyalties to your family, the Jewish community, the Jewish people, your nation and, today, the Jewish state. That false god of universalism Enlightened Jews first worshiped has metamorphized into today’s liberal Frankenstein. Most modern liberals don’t understand that the cosmopolitan rootlessness they worship leads to a moral rootlessness that is anti-Jewish, anti-Zionist — and ultimately amoral. The cult of modern tikkun olam thus threatens Am Olam, the eternal people.
Overemphasizing the marginal story of Abraham arguing with God to save Sodom and Gomorrah misreads Abraham’s lifelong mission to do good through his intense relationship with his God and his people. Even worse, misreading Genesis to pivot around “creation” turns Judaism into a universalist cult. “Is your starting point Revelation or creation,” Neumann asks. “Without the personal and commanding God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob there is no covenant, and without a covenant there is no Jewish people.” More sobering, the modern version of social justice-oriented universalism is hostile to Israel while leaving “the theology bereft of any cogent reason for Judaism to persist.
Neumann’s timely book unleashes a powerful intellectual fusillade in what must become the great fight of our lives. The American-Jewish future, along with American Jews’ relationship to our tradition, our people and our homeland, Israel, is at risk. If American Jews continue wrenching Jewish values from the context in which they grew and which proved so useful for passing on ideals, they will succeed in so liberalizing Judaism that their kids or grandkids will merely be Jew-ish — Americans with a slight Jewish twist to them — or not Jewish at all.
If, however, we can restore the balance, we have a shot.
Beware the soft totalitarianism of the modern tikkun olam know-it-alls, even while cherishing social justice seekers’ lyrical idealism. We need a knotty, messy, multidimensional, complex Judaism to guide us and challenge us in our often knotty, messy personal and public lives.
Inevitably, our harsh, all-or-nothing political culture will caricature Neumann as conservative, anti-liberal, against tikkun olam — code-words for “evil” among the closed-minded-who-profess-open-mindedness. But his conclusion salutes the constructive idealism of those “who have been sold the fiction that tikkun olam is Judaism’s primary teaching.” He knows, however, that “noble intentions alone do not a holy people make.”
Neumann challenges American Jews to choose: reject this “self-righteous,” my-way-or-the-highway movement “that is prostituting Jewish civilization for petty partisan profit,” or watch American Jewry continue stumbling toward more “estrangement from the Jewish People … distance from Israel” and “assimilation.” Instead, Jews must “reimagine the possibilities that their ancient heritage has something unique to say” by seeking a good life and a better world through identity, through their peoplehood, through this ancient heritage and community.”
In 1988, American-Jewish liberal Leonard Fein — in full modern tikkun olam-ist mode, said, “Politics is our religion; our preferred denomination is liberalism.” I prefer Fein in his more subtle, Zionist, tikkun olam mode. In a marvelous passage I absolutely had to include in my new anthology “The Zionist Ideas,” he wrote, at the height of Israel’s 1982 Lebanon War, when so many fretted about Israel’s soul: “There are two kinds of Zionists in the world: most of us are both. We want to be normal, we want to be special: we want to be a light unto the nations, we want to be a nation like all the others. … I vastly prefer a people that chooses to risk a collective nervous breakdown, as we do, by endorsing both visions, both versions …”
American Jews already learned this lesson. In the 1880s, the Reform movement, worshiping that false god of liberal universalism, renounced peoplehood, and denounced attempts to found a Jewish state. It took genocidal nationalism at its worst — the Holocaust — and liberal nationalism at its best — Israel’s founding — to cure the Reform movement of those delusions. Starting in the late 1930s, then spurred by Israel’s founding in 1948 and Israel’s victory in 1967, Reform Jews helped shape American Jewry’s “great consensus,” pro-American and pro-Israel, pro-liberal universalism through Jewish peoplehood particularism. The balancing act was occasionally complex — and we occasionally flirted with Feinian nervous breakdowns. But the balancing act itself exhilarated, inspired and empowered.
Bravo to Jonathan Neumann for calling us out for losing our balance. And good luck to the rest of us as we try restoring that glorious seesawing between looking inward and searching outward, between David the shepherd killing wolves to save his sheep and the Prophet Isaiah’s imagining lions lying down with lambs, between defending ourselves and fixing the world, between peoplehood and personhood, between accepting what is and about dreaming about what can be, between “belonging to” and being “free from.”
Judaism has flourished in that precarious intersection, trying to stand while fiddling on the roof, trying to fight while brandishing guns and our moral code. We’ve outlasted waves of enemies. We’ve survived occasional nervous breakdowns. We’ve now raised a generation that responds to Israel experiences enthusiastically precisely because they offer vigorous, layered, deeply Jewish alternatives to the American-politics-impersonating-Judaism they’re spoon-fed in too many synagogues. And thanks to the vigorous debate we need about our laziest assumptions and haziest visions, deep in my heart, I do believe that we shall overcome modern tikkun olam-ism some day.
Gil Troy, a distinguished scholar of North American History at McGill University in Canada, is the author of “The Zionist Ideas: Visions for the Jewish Homeland — Then, Now, Tomorrow.”