Baltimore Diary: An instrumentalist case for Tikkun Olam

November 13, 2012

After a couple of weeks of mostly political coverage, I'm once again surrounded by Jewish professionals and activists at the Baltimore General Assembly of the North American Jewish Federations. On Tuesday, I will be speaking in two panels – one on Israelis abroad and one about Jewish education. I will later travel to Los Angeles to join a panel on Israel-Diaspora relations that promises to be lively and thought-provoking.

But I'm in Baltimore now, so let me share with you some quick thoughts I have had following a couple of panels I've attended.

1. Jewish zeitgeist

There is something frustrating about this year's GA – or maybe it's just me. I'm not quite sure what the big issue on people's minds here is. There are years in which such an issue is evident – Iran, economic crisis, Jewish continuity, homeland security. But there are also many vague years, when there's no “issue”, just issues.

Some attendees of this year's GA told me that having no issue is really good. It gives different people the opportunity to struggle with different concerns without feeling guilty about not being worried about the “real” issue. They might be right, and besides, as the Baltimore rabbi whose synagogue I attended Friday night said: In this week's parsha, our forefather Abraham has to worry about the exact same issues we worry about today – the land (Israel) and the next generation (continuity).


2. Tikkun Olam

I'm not yet sure if Tikkun Olam is a concept I truly understand. If helping the poor is TO, and if fighting against discrimination against minorities is TO – then I'm all for it. But TO today is used in a markedly Jewish context that often smacks of an attempt to be fashionable, or of an attempt to wrap simple liberalism in Jewish garb, or of an attempt to attribute Jewish meaning to activities that have little to do with Judaism.

On Monday, though, I went to hear to dear friends and smart thinkers speaking about TO – Micha Goodman and Gidi Grinstein. I will share with you two things they said that I find valuable for those interested in moving the TO discussion forward.

Grinstein talked about the significance of the state platform for the promotion of the TO agenda. This is an important message, because it runs contrary to the tendency of some observers to view TO as alternative to the centrality of Zionism. What Gidi was essentially explaining is that the particularistic project of the national Jewish expression is also the best vehicle through which to get things done. In other words: TO should not compete with Zionism, it should be a component of Zionism.

Micha Goodman spoke in very practical terms about the need for Jews to help “other groups”. Since he is generally a passionate speaker, I'm not sure if all the people in the room followed his cool, almost instrumentalist approach to TO. In fact, such instrumentalism was also evident in Grinstein's comments about the possible contribution of TO both to the economy and other causes. 

What Goodman said is this: groups can only be defined as separate from other groups. For Jews to get closer to one another, to feel like a group, they need the “other”. In earlier times, the other was at best the unwelcoming – and at worst the anti-Semitic – world of non-Jews. But in today's world – in a world that is hospitable to Jews (that is, in Israel and North America where most Jews live) – we, Jews, need to create a new “other” against which we can define ourselves. Thus, Goodman's idea is really simple: TO is a way of forming this new “other”. We, Jews, are the group that is helping another group, or groups. And by way of assembling to help others, we are becoming a group.


3. Next year in Jerusalem

2013 is truly the decisive year, Ambassador Stuart Eizenstat said regarding Iran's nuclear program. The “truly” is probably a necessary addition, as this will not be the first year described as the year of decision, or the decisive year. By the next GA, Eizenstat said, we will know how the issue of Iran was resolved. I'm not sure if the ambassador knows this, but next year's GA is supposed to take place in Jerusalem. 

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