Balancing Tikkun Olam and Self-Interest

I’m reluctant to draw lessons from the hurricane, even if the High Holidays are a time of stock taking, and even if Jewish tradition suggests that calamities are “heavenly alarms” meant to arouse repentance. If God is speaking to us through Katrina, he might want to brush up on His communication skills.

Besides, there is a fine line between taking personal and communal lessons from calamity, and exploiting a tragedy to score political and theological points.

That being said, the hurricane and its aftermath afford a moment to consider Jewish communal priorities, and especially a moment to ask where our commitments to our own communities end and where our responsibilities to a wider world begin.

In Ian McEwan’s riveting new novel, “Saturday” (Nan A. Talese) a London brain surgeon is pondering how human beings give themselves license to kill and eat other animals, even as evidence mounts that they too feel pain.

“The key to human success and domination is to be selective in your mercies,” the surgeon concludes.

I don’t know about the success and domination part, but if it weren’t for our abilities to be selective in our mercies, I think we’d all go mad. The panorama of human suffering that followed in the wake of Hurricane Katrina is almost too great to absorb.

We’ve all probably played out in our minds the dark fantasy of what we’d do if we had to start from scratch — no home, little money, plunked down in a far-off city. For most American Jews, the immigration era ended around 1925. For 12,000 New Orleans Jews, it began two weeks ago.

But there I go, being selective in my mercies. There’s no doubt that the human toll of the disaster fell most heavily on the poor, the black, the indigent elderly. The mostly middle-class Jews of the Gulf states fell back on friends and communities in Houston and Atlanta and Dallas, or made it to hotels where they could sit out the worst of the storm before returning to reclaim or rebuild their flooded homes.

To pity Chabad or the Jewish federations and synagogues seems almost indulgent when viewed this way, a real-life twist on the famous joke about the Jewish newspaper announcing the apocalypse: “World to end tomorrow; Jews to suffer the most.”

Tribalism does become obscene when carried to extremes. Take a recent decision by Israel’s Defense Ministry. After a Jewish gunman shot up a bus in the Galilee town of Shfaram, the Defense Ministry declared that the Israeli-Arab families of those killed were not considered terrorism victims under Israeli law. Why? Because their killer was Jewish.

Apparently, Israeli law defines terrorist acts as those carried out by “enemies of Israel.” That didn’t go down well with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who earlier had denounced the shootings in Shfaram as “a sinful act by a bloodthirsty terrorist.”

Sharon directed the Justice Ministry to amend the law so that the families could receive the same government aid accorded to victims of Palestinian violence. Call him a bleeding heart, but Sharon understands that to define terrorism as an attack by Arabs on Jews is to take tribalism to its extreme.

And yet, we need the tribal impulse if we are to cope with tragedies like Katrina, because it reduces a vast, impossible-to-grasp event to a human scale. As Primo Levi famously put it, a “single Anne Frank excites more emotion than the myriad who suffered as she did, but whose image has remained in the shadows. Perhaps it is necessary that it can be so. If we had to and were able to suffer the sufferings of everyone, we could not live.”

So we focus on the pain of those most like us, and trust that other communities of faith and feeling are doing the same for their own.

But if “we could not live” without a focus for our pain, we could not live with ourselves if we addressed only our own people’s suffering. So nearly all of the Jewish organizations accepting donations for hurricane relief — B’nai B’rith, United Jewish Communities, the Union for Reform Judaism, United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, American Jewish Committee, Mazon — are also pledging to aid non-Jewish victims of the deluge, even as they help restore synagogues and other Jewish institutions lost under the waters.

A cynic will say we do this out of self-interest — that if gentiles see us supporting them in their time of need, they’ll also support us in ours. And community relations is a time-honored Jewish practice. But self-interest doesn’t account for an equally strong tradition of Jewish universalism, a strain that transformed the highly esoteric kabalistic concept of tikkun olam (heal the world) into a synonym for global action.

That impulse — particularizing the universal, universalizing the particular — is another gift of the Jews to the wider world. From our place as a tiny minority, we understand well what it means to be at the mercy of tragedies natural and man made. In lean times, we turn inward, emphasizing our tribal concerns over those of others. In times of plenty, we allow ourselves to reach out.

In times like these, the key to human success is remembering that we are all created in God’s image, and compelled to do the good and right thing.

Andrew Silow-Carroll is the editor in chief of the New Jersey Jewish News.