December 7, 2019

Why We Need a Bigger, Deeper Tikkun Olam

Photo by Diogo Salles/Getty Images

“Tikkun olam” is what Jews call the idea of the Jewish people making the world a better and more just place through good deeds and political engagement. It literally means to “repair the world,” with a special and implied emphasis on social justice. There is nothing inherently liberal or conservative about repairing our world. Both ideological camps and U.S. political parties lay claim to the most effective remedies.

Nevertheless, tikkun olam has become conflated with progressive politics. Jewish progressives revel in it while many conservatives shy away. Progressives assert the doctrine’s Jewishness while conservatives downplay it. The result is the two ideological camps have made Jewish social justice a purely liberal enterprise. It’s high time for a more inclusive, big-tent tikkun olam.

There is good reason to expand the Jewish social justice tent. A Jewish conservative voice for social justice would force conservative politics to take social issues more seriously, raise the level of our national discourse, and allow the tikkun olam community to live up to its own stated values of inclusivity.

Progressive Jews deserve credit for elevating tikkun olam as a central tenet of Jewish life. However, they often give off signals that Jewish social justice requires one to subscribe to their politics and ideology.

Once, I participated in a meeting with Jewish social justice activists where participants were asked what they envision for the future of their movement. One participant said, “I know we will be on our way when Elizabeth Warren becomes president.” Others nodded in agreement. There is nothing wrong, of course, with hoping for a more progressive president. Many do. But such an expression does not exactly lure in non-progressives. I doubt there are many Jewish social justice circles where a conservative with alternative views on making the world a better place would feel entirely welcome.

Another impediment to Jewish conservative involvement in social justice circles is the predominance of “woke” culture and an emphasis on a certain brand of racial justice. Again, there is much to commend in the Jewish social justice community’s focus on racial equality. For example, Jewish institutions everywhere and Jews of all ideological stripes should embrace the commitment to ensure Jews of color feel welcomed and heard in the Jewish community. I wince when I hear stories of African American Jews attending synagogue whose fellow Jews thought they were the “help.” For too long, American Judaism has been dominated by a white Ashkenazi ethos that alienates Jews from the Middle East and elsewhere. Our institutions should celebrate the diversity of American Jewry.

Progressive Jews deserve credit for elevating tikkun olam as a central tenet of Jewish life. 

Some Jewish social justice warriors go beyond the need to diversify, and view modern America as animated by white supremacy. In this perception, white supremacy is a political, economic and cultural system in which whites control power and resources, and notions of white superiority and dominance are widespread. For many mainstream and politically conservative Jews, such a perspective may come as a shock. In conservative understanding — however naïve — white supremacists are men wearing white hoods or marching around synagogues carrying tiki torches. Politically mainstream Jews may see the United States as flawed and tainted by a legacy of racism but not as a fundamentally white supremacist society. Many would be more than willing to enter a dialogue over racism in America but want to have the leeway to explore differences of opinion.

However, in many social justice circles, professing adherence to an oversimplified view of American racism often is the price of admission. Relaxing these boundaries would allow for more genuine wrestling of ideas and invite more Jews into the social justice tent.

Fortunately, there are shining examples of Jewish social justice leaders making space for ideological diversity. Rabbi David Stern, senior rabbi of the Reform Temple Emanu-El in Dallas, the largest synagogue in the southern U.S., has enlisted politically conservative Jews in his social justice community. His community leans more conservative than most, which requires a measure of political deftness. Whenever a contentious issue comes before the synagogue, such as whether to be a sanctuary congregation for undocumented immigrants, Stern engages conservative congregants in shaping the congregation’s response.

A Jewish conservative voice for social justice would force conservative politics to take social issues more seriously, raise the level of our national discourse, and allow the tikkun olam community to live up to its own stated values of inclusivity.

During a webcast, I asked Stern about broadening the tikkun olam tent. He stated that “as soon as we isolate it to a particular political agenda, we are not only making ourselves less effective, but we are not being who we are supposed to be as a community.” In other words, tikkun olam can’t live up to its billing until it becomes more inclusive.

Many conservatives have ceded the territory by treating the very notion of Jewish social justice with derision. Jonathan Neumann, author of the controversial 2018 book “To Heal the World?: How the Jewish Left Corrupts Judaism and Endangers Israel,” asserted in the New York Post in June 2018 that a “tiresome fixation on tikkun olam … has allowed Judaism to fall into disrepair,” going as far as claiming that “the truth is that tikkun olam and its leftist politics have no basis in Judaism.”

Neumann and other conservative critics ignore that tikkun olam is deeply embedded in the Jewish tradition. Andres Spokoiny argued persuasively in an October 2018 blog post in The Times of Israel that “virtually all the prophets talk tirelessly about the need to create a just and ethical society; many of their words sound pretty much like a 21st-century tikkun olam manifesto.” Judaism does, indeed, care deeply about a just society. Who would want to be part of a spiritual and moral tradition that didn’t? Certainly not many young Jews, whom we desperately are trying to attract.

We all know Jewish conservatives with huge hearts and sharp minds who don’t fall in line with progressive social policy and discourse. They give money to charity. They volunteer at shelters on Christmas. They’d give the shirts off their backs to someone in need. However, they have very distinct ideas on how to make the world a better place. They push for market-based policies for poverty. They may argue that higher taxes hurt rather than help people. Some have simply become turned off by the tikkun olam brand and its association with leftist politics — which is too bad because we desperately need their voices in the mix.

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I remember well the late “bleeding-heart conservative” congressman and housing secretary Jack Kemp’s signature idea of Urban Enterprise Zones in the late 80s and early 90s, which were designed to drive businesses into poor areas and provide opportunity for minorities. We need to hear more from bleeding-heart conservatives like Kemp. But they seem to have gone into hibernation. What are market-based solutions to poverty, inequality, health care and climate change? Whether one buys into these policy ideas or not, they would enrich our political and communal discourse and refocus our politics on searching for real solutions.

Jewish neoconservatives of the 1990s and early 2000s infused conservatism with a “progressive” spirit, embracing a can-do attitude toward democratization and social mobility.

Jewish conservatives once played an outsized role in conservative politics. Jewish neoconservatives of the 1990s and early 2000s infused conservatism with a “progressive” spirit, embracing a can-do attitude toward democratization and social mobility. Whether you agreed with Paul Wolfowitz’s (deputy secretary of defense under George W. Bush) war in Iraq, he was motivated to make the world a better place by spreading freedom and democracy in autocratic lands. Jewish neocons were both skeptical of government-supported poverty reduction and insistent we not give up on effective, alternative solutions. The late neoconservative thinker Nathan Glazer stated in the 1998 documentary “Arguing the Word,” “I look at policies that are trying to improve welfare; I think you must keep on trying even if you have not had great success.” Reading Glazer’s body of work, one sees a tenacious Jewish, conservative social justice warrior looking in earnest for solutions that bring some measure of relief.

Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz, the godfathers of neoconservatism, believed the neoconservative movement had been so successful in influencing mainstream conservatives that they could give up the “neo” in neoconservative. Over time, neoconservatism lost its distinct Jewish quality. There is no way Kristol and Podhoretz could have anticipated the current political moment. A conservative Jewish concern for equity and social well-being, however defined, would be a welcome voice in U.S. politics today.

A conservative tikkun olam also would allow for more bipartisanship regarding issues on which conservatives and liberals might agree. Democratic Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York spoke eloquently at a criminal justice reform conference in Septembner about the critical role Republicans played in passing the First Step Act — legislation that shortens sentences for deserving prisoners and provides job training. 

Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa stated in December 2018, “Several decades ago, Congress passed well-intentioned laws imposing harsh mandatory sentences to stop the flow of drugs in our communities. I voted for those laws. But they’ve had some unintended consequences.” The more conservatives see themselves in the business of repairing the world, the more liberals and conservatives will discover where they intersect and can compromise.

The more conservatives see themselves in the business of repairing the world, the more liberals and conservatives will discover where they intersect and can compromise.

The need for such debate and collaboration is critical in the emerging social-economic order. As robots and artificial intelligence continue their inexorable march, doing work once done by humans, large swaths of people may eventually become unemployable.

What will Jewish conservatives have to offer to counter not just unthinkable income inequality but the mass political alienation that could threaten the market economy itself? Universal basic income is an idea many liberals and libertarians favor. It would provide all citizens with a given sum of money, regardless of their income, resources or employment status. The purpose of basic income is to prevent or reduce poverty and increase equality among citizens. Are Jewish conservatives ready to support a basic income or otherwise articulate a viable alternative to economic populism or socialism? As this new social and economic system takes shape, the danger of not expanding tikkun olam to include ideological conservatives may well become existential.

A big-tent tikkun olam would allow for deeper, more complex arguments between people who have different views on how to address social problems. It would elevate democratic discourse, not just social equity, which would make the world a better place. We’d have better solutions because diverse ideas would be publicly vetted. It would be fine — even healthy — if these two versions of tikkun olam battled it out in the public square over the best way to lift people out of poverty or solve the climate crisis.

Such a debate ought to be Jewish music to our ears. 

Let’s make 5780 the year conservative Jewish social justice warriors enter the tikkun olam tent and Jewish progressives roll out the welcome mat, with both sides learning from each other. This would be good not only for the Jews, it would be good for the world.


David Bernstein is the president and CEO of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.