Tikkun Olam Is Not Judaism

In a new book written by Jonathan Neumann called “To Heal the World?” he discusses the concept of “Tikkun Olam” and how it has been turned into the primary value of Judaism.  For many American Jews tikkun olam is the only part of Judaism they believe in.  Neumann rejects this view of social activism as the primary value of Judaism because he believes that Judaism teaches something else entirely.  The emphasis on tikkun olam is not only wrong, but harmful for Judaism and the Jewish people.  Why does his book attack a value that has become the rallying cry for many Jews in America?

One of the chapters of his book is titled, “A Torah of Social Justice”  and the author states that Judaism has been hijacked for political purposes.  He believes that tikkun olam (being used as synonymous with social justice) is political in nature while Judaism is not political.  Direct social work, such as working at a soup kitchen or helping a stranger, is taught by Judaism and not disputed.  We are told to be charitable to the poor and to judge others favorably. This kind of social work is very helpful in our society, but “social justice” is not the same as direct social work. Social justice is political.

Citing the early Reform movement in America and the 1885 Pittsburgh Platform he quotes directly from the document that states “We deem it our duty to participate in the great task of modern times, to solve, on the basis of justice and righteousness, the problems presented by the contrasts and evils of the present organization of society.” The re-organization of society is a political movement, not a religious one.  This dramatic change from being a religion to becoming a political social movement was the origin of many Jewish organizations that still exist today.  As of 2018 tikkun olam for most American Jews has become the primary value of Jewish life and is cited numerous times as the principal goal of any Jew.

Neumann also chronicles how this new reinterpretation of Judaism is only an echo of a movement from Christianity called “social gospel.”  Liberal churches had been moving this direction for over one hundred years and liberal synagogues are beginning to march to the same tune.  It was in the 1960’s that Arthur Waskow wrote “The Freedom Seder” that incorporated political labor slogans and references to the Civil Rights movement as part of his new Haggadah.  Waskow went on to help found the Jewish Renewal movement and has been instrumental in changing the meaning of Jewish holidays to advance political causes.  Tikkun olam and its emphasis on politics is the result of this ‘revolution’ in thinking about Judaism.

The book makes a very strong argument that tikkun olam has been inflated as a Jewish value and given an almost exclusively political meaning.  It may not even translate into  what many political rabbis believe it means in Hebrew if interpreted in context.  Neumann argues for a more traditional view of Judaism that is not political but a response to God’s commandments by the Jewish people.  Between tradition and political activism may be the truth – the middle path.

Judaism has always evolved, but if turned into politics it becomes simply another “social gospel” or political party platform.  Judaism is more than the pettiness and division of politics and also greater than a religious authoritarianism.  The truth is somewhere in between.

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