December 14, 2018

In Praise of Tikkun Olam

It’s almost Tisha b’Av, and along comes Jonathan Neumann’s “To Heal the World?: How the Jewish Left Corrupts Judaism and Endangers Israel.” He makes plain and clear his intent to discredit the American-Jewish focus on social justice, as well as our community’s vocal leaders of the pursuit of justice. 

Mincing no words, Neumann writes, “Since their own faith tradition does not actually commend their politics, these liberal activists have fabricated some fakakta theology of universalism that erodes Jewish fraternity and distances its adherents from Israel, and whose logic culminates in the eradication of the Jewish People and its religion.” Never mind the distinctly progressive character of Jewish institutions in the United States and Israel over the past 100 years, including those who fought for and established the State of Israel: Neumann’s literary contribution is a scathing attack on virtually all of today’s Jewish justice leaders, from Ruth Messinger (who is portrayed as simply wanting to placate anti-Semites by caring more about non-Jews than Jews) and Rabbi Michael Lerner (whose opposition to the “Joshua Tradition” is derided as a rejection of Judaism), to my dear colleagues Rabbis Aryeh Cohen (who Neumann alleges is picking and choosing his Judaism) and Shmuly Yanklowitz (who along with his organization, Uri L’Tzedek, Neumann derides as concerned more with child labor than with undocumented immigrants). 

“Evidently, civil illegality is applicable only when it fits the social justice agenda,” Neumann adds. Scholar Arthur Green, Rabbis Arthur Waskow, Jill Jacobs, Jonah Pesner — Neumann’s work is an encyclopedic collection of virtually every progressive leader — most of them rabbis — portrayed as enemies of the Jewish future. How apropos to read this during this season of communal introspection, the rabbis reminding us that the Temple was destroyed because of sinat chinam, often translated as “gratuitous hatred.” Neumann’s attack against Jewish social justice activists, far beyond polite political disagreement, tempts our community to re-enact the not-so-civil battle that led to the churban, the destruction.

Neumann posits an answer to a nearly unasked question: Is “tikkun olam,” translated poetically as “healing the world,” a foundational stone for Jewish thought and philosophy? Are Jews theologically duty-bound to engage in secular policy change and restructuring the world to protect the most vulnerable? Some say yes, others say no, and even as Neumann surveys the diverse perspectives among progressive rabbis, he mercilessly answers this relatively irrelevant question by pointing to the concept’s largely 20th century reconstruction out of biblical, liturgical, talmudic, midrashic, and mystical concepts.

Instead of questioning the authenticity of Tikkun Olam as a Jewish value, we might ask Neumann why he chooses to attack the most life-sustaining, engaging, inspiring aspect of our unique religious tradition.

His chapter on “The Prophetic Legacy” muddies these voices of conscience, which for centuries served as counterweights to abuse of power by numerous kings and the wealthy. He uses his neocon ally Norman Podhoretz’s term “liberological” to reject the progressive approach to prophecy and instead recasts them as primarily concerned with his own concerns, namely the centrality of ritual and the ills of a lawless society. While not incorrect that they did have such concerns, Neumann denies the fullness of their concerns. Indeed, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “[The Prophets’] breathless impatience with injustice may strike us as hysteria. … To the prophets even a minor injustice assumes cosmic proportions. … It seems incongruous and absurd that because of some minor acts of injustice inflicted on the insignificant, powerless poor, the glorious city of Jerusalem should be destroyed and the whole nation go to exile. Did not the prophet magnify the guilt?” 

Neumann even dismisses the notion of the seven Noahide Laws, which our tradition suggests are laws for all of society, asserting that they have unclear relevance. Again, they don’t fit his narrative of a Jewish law code devoted centrally and solely with the future of the Jewish people.

Instead of questioning the authenticity of tikkun olam as a Jewish value, we might ask Neumann, neither rabbi nor Jewish scholar, why he chooses to attack the most life-sustaining, engaging and inspiring aspect of our unique religious tradition, namely our longstanding commitment to protect the most vulnerable members of society? Why does he eliminate the Prophets’ overwhelming concern for the downtrodden, the poor and marginalized, the outcasts of society, selectively reading their biblical books, when Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, Joel and so many others condemned the political and wealth-induced corruption of their days? Why does this contributor to Commentary seem to cast classic conservative talking points into a book presumptively about Jewish thought?

The Jewish God, who our liturgy teaches “supports the fallen, heals the sick, frees the captive and keeps faith for those who sleep in the dust” is almost nonexistent to Neumann, and he ignores the notion that we are to emulate divine justice pursuits in this world, imitatio Dei, despite the overwhelming textual undergirding that “Justice, justice, shall you pursue.”

Neumann asserts that social justice is nothing more than an artificial construct within Jewish circles, arguing that it was intended to promote a particular political agenda. He defines “social justice” as nothing more than “leftist politics.” Ignorance may be bliss, but Neumann’s alternative facts are death for our people’s voice as a “light unto the nations” (Isaiah 42) another notion he ignores. It is hard to understand why the author mentions Heschel only once, despite his centrality to the modern Jewish social justice leaders that he denigrates. And why does Neumann completely ignore 20th-century philosopher Emmanuel Levinas’ contributions altogether? His partial, eisegetical interpretation of sources crafted in presumably his own vision of Judaism creates a half-baked narrative that seems every bit as political as Neumann’s choice to cast aspersions on our people’s leadership role in 20th-century justice work, which has surely served as one of the greatest Jewish contributions to Western history, culture and spirituality.

Let’s be clear: No other religious or ethnic community has more consistently centered its voting beyond self-interest than the Jews, in a post-Holocaust world when anti-Semitism could have led us to a withdrawal from the rest of the world, and it has served us well: Progressives — socialists and communists — led the charge and fought to create the Jewish state. We have experienced a meteoric rise out of the ashes of Auschwitz and even out of Charles Lindbergh and Henry Ford’s anti-Semitic America. Ours is a worldly religion built upon thousands of years of prophecy committed to liberation and self-reflection, from Nathan’s successful rebuke of King David to Yeshayahu Leibowitz’s rejection of the Israel Prize because of his opposition to Israeli military activities with Palestinians; from the Prophet Amos’ sermon that eviscerates the state-sanctioned pilfering in the Northern Kingdom (Midrash teaches this sermon results in his beheading) to the continuous strength of the Jewish social justice movement with all its many voices.

Jews are self-reflective and even self-critical. Not only the great secular Jews who are largely responsible for building the State of Israel, but also our Torah scholar-rabbis, the talmudic critics of sinat chinam and the false piety that punctuated the culture during the days of the Second Temple. The sinat chinam that we bemoan during Tisha b’Av was legally sanctioned hatred within Jewish legal parameters, but nevertheless a pure toxicity that poisoned the Jewish people and forced us into 2,000 years of exile. 

A talmudic story for Tisha b’Av tells of two competing young cohanim (priests) running up the ramp leading to the altar in the ancient Temple, in a zeal to be the one celebrated for cleaning the ashes from the altar, one literally stabbing the other in the back to prevent him from taking the glory from him — a murder in the name of religion — the harsh example of deadly religiosity echoes in our hearts to this day as precisely the danger of Torah without the heart. Sadly, this is what Neumann’s book suggests is authentic Judaism, a historical amnesia that would return us to the pre-exilic, power-centered, self-obsessed piety that the great talmudic theologians insist destroyed the Temple.

“However noble the motive of American Jews,” Neumann relates at the end of his work, “their pursuit of tikkun olam is a betrayal of the traditional faith of their people.” Perhaps instead of casting American Jewry as treasonous, as Neumann implies here, we might instead celebrate our community’s contributions to the full gamut of our nation’s political and intellectual history, enabled by our undying commitment to building a better world for all, including our own tribe. Tikkun olam, which is literally “fixing the world,” is just one tool within a very large Jewish toolbox for expressing our commitment to others in our love for the Other, the transcendent God who has commanded us to establish fair weights and measures, to accompany the Prophets in their insistence that vulnerable communities be protected from the ravages of greed, to pursue justice with justice, and to seek peace.

This Tisha b’Av, Jonathan Neumann has reminded me through his unsuccessful attempt to discredit the giants of Jewish justice work, built upon omission of huge swaths of textual bases for “doing justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God” (Micah 6:8) why the sinat chinam we bemoan is worth rejecting, and reassert my commitment to join the millions of Jews worldwide who have demonstrated over and over again that our compassion-centered religion makes us, indeed, an “Or L’goyim,” a light unto the nations as the Prophet Isaiah imagines. And as a result, the Jewish people will be strong. I might even write a letter to demand that the now-orphaned immigrant children be reunited with their families. God calls upon us to do just that.


Rabbi Jonathan D. Klein is the executive director of Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice, a multifaith advocacy organization based in Los Angeles and Orange counties, and director of Faith Action for Animals. He can be reached at jklein@cluejustice.org.