Avenue to Oblivion

Review: 'To Heal the World? How the Jewish Left Corrupts Judaism and Endangers Israel' by Jonathan Neumann

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September 9, 2018

Jonathan Neumann has written a splendid book. The first-time author has produced a devastating broadside against Jewish radicals who have co-opted tikkun olam—a Hebrew phrase meaning "to heal (or repair) the world"—to claim a special Jewish religious obligation to engage in left-wing politics. "This theology is a contrived religious system," he writes, "a sort of New Age mysticism that distorts the biblical Creation story and Kabbalistic (Jewish mystical) motifs in order to portray the politics of social justice as an organic Jewish teaching."

Most astonishing is their success. Tikkun olam has conquered American Judaism. The community is "shaped by grants … dedicated to tikkun olam," Neumann notes. The Jewish Funders Network distributes $1 billion in grants each year and the Jewish Federations of North America over $2 billion. Both cite tikkun olam as the first of their core values. According to legions of its adherents, he writes, it's Judaism's most fundamental message—"the Torah teaches that the greatest service a Jew can do before God and for humanity is to heal the world—to pursue social justice."

The only trouble is it's not true. Tikkun olam isn't in the Bible, "and it appears overall comparatively rarely in the enormous Jewish canon," Neumann writes. "Most fatally, it has no legal status in traditional Judaism—which is a profoundly legalistic religion." Far from being central to Judaism, tikkun olam corrodes Judaism. Its universalism undermines Jewish peoplehood, gives sanction to anti-Zionism, and promotes assimilation out of Judaism altogether. In chapter after chapter, Neumann dissects the claims of tikkun olam's proponents.

Neumann shows that despite its prevalence (except among the Orthodox, and even they are not wholly immune), the idea that tikkun olam defines the Jewish mission is a new notion. He credits Michael Lerner with popularizing the term in the 1980s. A teaching assistant to Marxist Herbert Marcuse at Berkeley and a member of the radical left-wing Students for a Democratic Society, Lerner typifies a certain kind of secular radical Jew of his generation, "who eventually turns to Judaism to express his or her politics."

When tikkun olam does appear (briefly) in Jewish religious contexts it means something very different.  The primary source is the Aleynu prayer in the Jewish liturgy. Neumann devotes considerable discussion to this prayer, which, he argues, probably did not refer to tikkun olam at all. He notes that numerous historical versions refer to "letakhen" not "letaken"—a small change leading to a major difference. The former means "to establish the world under the Kingdom of God," which makes more sense than the latter's "to perfect the world under the Kingdom of God" as read today. Neumann notes the former also has biblical and liturgical precedents, making it more likely the correct version. He posits the text was probably corrupted over time from "establish" to "perfect"—not a stretch as the words are so similar.

Tikkun olam also appears a number of times in the Talmud (Jewish legal discussions) where it is used to refer to legal adjustments to protect—not transform—the existing system. It's also used in the kabbalah of Isaac Luria, who wasn't referring to the physical world at all, but a purely spiritual process. In sum, says Neumann, "It's odd that tikkun olam should have become the Jewish name for social justice, because it has no resemblance to social justice whatsoever."

For today's advocates, tikkun olam means reshaping the world according to current leftist political precepts. This requires making up a new radical theology "almost out of whole cloth to suit the needs of liberal Jewish activists," Neumann writes. The new religion, he remarks dryly, bears a striking resemblance to the liberal wing of the Democratic Party: "We're talking higher taxes, increased regulation of business, big labor, expanded entitlements, condemnation of any limitations on sexual expression, reduced military spending, greater reliance on international law and multilateral organizations, drastic overhauls to our economy and living standards in the name of ecology and so on."

Advocates are undeterred by the fact that the Bible doesn't mention tikkun olam. They interpret a variety of biblical stories as calling for it. The Exodus story is especially favored as a guide for political revolution and has inspired a veritable cottage industry of "alternative" haggadahs by tikkun olam enthusiasts. These haggadahs illustrate the grave dangers to Judaism of conflating it with tikkun olam. What these haggadahs do in their determination to universalize the story (starting with radical leftist Arthur Waskow's 1969 Freedom Seder) is to expunge everything particular to the Jews. "Their covenant with God is replaced with ethical and political platitudes. And their deep connection to the Land of Israel is interpreted out of existence," Neumann says.

Indeed, the Land of Israel, so central to Judaism, becomes an unwelcome particularistic burden for those seeking to heal the world. Some social justice groups, for fear of alienating average Jews, simply downplay the State of Israel while others attack it head on. A few seek to have it both ways. The New Israel Fund pretends to support Israel (to avoid turning away major donors) while funding groups—it hopes below the radar—that promote boycotts of Israel and the Arab "right of return," i.e., the demographic end of the Jewish state.

Neumann inadvertently throws light on the otherwise puzzling sharply negative reaction of mainstream American Jewish leaders to Israel's Nation-State Law, which the Knesset passed subsequent to the writing of this book. After all, Israel was created to be a state for the Jews. The Nation-State Law simply reaffirmed it. But the law flies in the face of tikkun olam, which, Neumann writes, "cannot be narrowly geared for the Jews—because that would be a betrayal of the universalism of social justice, which represents the best of Jewish values."

In the end tikkun olam has no more use for Judaism than it does for Israel. Neumann observes: "Indeed, the very existence of Jews as a distinct people ultimately conflicts with Jewish social justice's universalistic aspirations. If the role of the Jews is to help repair the world, that role will end once the world is repaired, and in a repaired world there will be no Jews." Neumann finds this the most profound divergence of Jewish social justice from traditional Judaism. "It is simply not plausible," he writes, "that a major teaching of Judaism could be the belief in its own abnegation, yet this is precisely the implication of tikkun olam, which undermines Jewish Peoplehood and forecasts the redundancy of the Jews."

Ironically, tikkun olam's universalism doesn't apply to other minorities. Neumann notes: "The Jewish people alone must become obsolete. (These Jewish liberals would not dare to tender such an offensive assessment to other minority communities; it is a sign of their pathology that they do so to their own.)"

One minor cavil. The author talks of former members of the radical anti-Israel Breira of the 1970s and their younger acolytes going on to create and fill Jewish social justice groups. He fails to mention how some took over leadership of mainstream organizations. The most striking example is John Ruskay, a founding member of Breira and one of its two paid staff members. Ruskay had previously been a member of the steering committee of CONAME (Committee on New Alternatives in the Middle East) whose chief activity was sponsoring lectures at U.S campuses and churches by speakers hostile to Israel, including those advocating its dissolution. Ruskay went on to become education director of the 92nd Street Y, vice chancellor of Jewish Theological Seminary, and executive vice president and CEO of UJA Federation.

Throughout the book, Neumann shows a gift for unraveling his opponents' arguments. He also shows class, putting their claims in the best light. (Unlike them, he does not rely on highly selective quotes.) The reviewer at Publishers Weekly is wrong when he claims that Neumann "resorts to ad hominem attacks to make his points." While Neumann can't resist the occasional zinger, his arguments are wholly based on careful reading of his adversaries' writings. In this, he shows himself to be a polemicist of the highest caliber.

Neumann concludes with a fine exposition of what traditional Judaism has to say about the Jewish obligation to the wider world—ending with a warning to American Jews. They can continue to follow the pied-pipers of tikkun olam into assimilation and oblivion, or they can "reimagine the possibility that their ancient heritage has something unique to say—something greater than a mere echo of the political and cultural fads of our time. … It means opening oneself to the practices and beliefs of one's forebears and to the proposition that their wisdom should be learned, their contributions celebrated, their sacrifices mourned, and their dedication emulated." It means choosing to pass down that wisdom from this generation to the next.

Published under: Book reviews