Stealing Judaism

Review: Richard H. Schwartz, 'Who Stole My Religion?: Revitalizing Judaism and Applying Jewish Values to Help Heal Our Imperiled Planet'

November 12, 2016

In Who Stole My Religion? Richard H. Schwartz accuses his fellow Orthodox Jews of stealing Judaism—even as he attempts to hijack it for his own environmentalist creed.

A man who fell in love with progressive politics first and Orthodox Judaism second, Schwartz married the two in his mind and is now frustrated that the shidduch—or love match—won't take hold in the larger community. The roughly 10 percent of Jews who are Orthodox are stubbornly conservative. Schwartz laments that, while an overwhelming 78 percent of all Jews went for Barack Obama in 2008, an almost identical percentage of Orthodox Jews voted for John McCain. Given that Schwartz praises Judaism for its heritage of non-conformity (starting with Abraham), he might have celebrated the Orthodox for going their own way. But no, Schwartz seeks 100 percent Jewish support for the current pieties of the left wing of the Democratic Party.

Although Schwartz admits that "Judaism does not recommend any one type of economic system," that doesn’t stop him from essentially arguing that it does—socialism. He quotes the famous passage where the Prophet Samuel warns the Israelites against a king who will "take your daughters as perfumers and bakers; he will seize your choice fields, vineyards, and olive groves and give them to his courtiers." Schwartz asks the reader to substitute "international corporations" for "kings." CEOs are the "corporate kings," he says. But why not substitute "government" for "king"? Surely, that’s nearer to the original meaning of the text. After all, a CEO can’t conscript you, tax you, or claim eminent domain over your property. These are the types of powers to which Samuel refers.

But the issue that transcends all others for Schwartz is climate change. In apocalyptic fervor, he is right up there with Al Gore and Bill McKibben: Climate change is "the most urgent, immediate problem facing the world today," with virtually all climate scientists agreeing that "climate change poses an existential threat to life as we know it—and that humans are the cause and the potential solution." Schwartz invokes Talmudic and Biblical teachings on how mankind should care for the Earth to support his contention that Jews must take a leading role in fighting climate change.

While his citations may cast Judaism in an admirable light, they have nothing to do with climate change, an issue that is far from settled. Schwartz states over and over that 97 percent of climate scientists agree that climate change "poses a major threat to humanity." But that statistic has been thoroughly debunked. Expert opinion about the severity of climate change is far less uniform than it is typically portrayed.

Schwartz does not for a moment entertain the possibility that the global warming apocalypse (like all apocalyptic forecasts before it) may not materialize and, if it doesn't, that his drastic efforts to fight it by making everyone a vegan and substituting expensive renewable energy for oil and gas would undercut his other political goals—above all, improving the lot of the poor worldwide.

To enlist Jews in the global warming crusade and other progressive causes, Schwartz enlists the concept of tikkun olam (literally "world repair"). Since the 1950s, this Hebrew phrase has been seized on by Jews who want to make radical ideas more palatable to other Jews.

Tikkun olam is an idea that first surfaced in the second century A.D. It appears in the Talmud in reference to thorny problems, mostly of a legal nature, that have no apparent solution. If the sages somehow found a solution to those problems, it would be considered tikkun olam (the world repaired). If there is no practicable solution, on the other hand, there would be nothing to do but teiku, let it stand, and await the coming of the Messiah. Tikkun olam—in the phrase letaken olam b’malchut shaddai—also appears in the Aleinu prayer, which is part of every Jewish service. It refers to the hope that one day God will destroy false idols and the entire world will be perfected under His Kingdom. So tikkun olam does mean repairing the world, but not in the sense it is used today—as an obligation to go out and transform the world via radical politics. So overused has this idea become that even Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf, who in 1973 helped found the extremist group Breira (to which Schwartz unsurprisingly belonged), complained that "this strange and half-understood notion becomes a huge umbrella under which our petty moral concerns and political panaceas can come in out of the rain."

Schwartz is equally selective in his invocation of Jewish sources when it comes to solving the Arab-Israel conflict. He supports the two-state solution on the ground that the Torah values "human life, justice and peace," and chastises Israel for not doing enough to achieve it. The reader will not learn from Schwartz that the Torah also places importance on wiping out one's enemies, as in Deuteronomy 20:16: "In the towns of the latter peoples, however, which the Lord your God is giving you as a heritage, you shall not let a soul remain alive."

Moreover, it doesn’t occur to Schwartz that some Jews who oppose land-for-peace deals may do so precisely because they value human life. These Jews observe that relinquished territory has turned into terror-tory, or terrorist staging areas for further attacks on Israel. It is particularly grating that Schwartz uses the fact that Hamas and Hezbollah have stockpiled missiles aimed at Israel as an argument for why Israel must urgently seek peace with those groups. It was his policy of retreat from territory (in this case southern Lebanon and Gaza) that led to the threat from those stockpiles.

Schwartz's writing is so banal it is often painful to read. For example: "We can continue on the present path, based on greed, nationalism, domination, hatred and bigotry, with increasingly worsening economic, ecological, and social conditions, as well as continued instability, terrorism, and war, or we can strive for a more generous, tolerant, just, peaceful, humane, and environmentally sustainable world."

Indeed, the writing and argumentation is so bad that this book will embarrass even those who agree with it.

Published under: Book reviews