To Heal the World? | Book Review

Tikkun olamis Hebrew for “to heal the world.” It has become a popular catchphrase among leftwing American Jewish rabbis and social activists. According to them, it is an ancient teaching of Judaism, and therefore a religious foundation for their politics.

The only problem is that it isn’t. At least that’s what Jonathan Neumann concludes in To Heal the World. He argues that tikkun olamprovides a religious covering for a political ideology that has been arrived at via nonreligious means. And that political ideology is “social justice.”

Here’s how Neumann defines that political ideology:

“Social justice is a political philosophy that advocates the redistribution of income—and sometimes even wealth and other property—in order to achieve economic egalitarianism…. In more recent decades, social justice has also come to include an agenda of permissive social policies that leave lifestyle questions to the discretion of the individual and promote gender diversity; an approach to foreign and defense policy that emphasizes multilateral diplomacy over military strength; a preference for comprehensive alternatives to the use of fossil fuels and nuclear energy for the sake of the environment; and other attitudes and policies associated predominantly with today’s left-wing political parties…. Over the past several years, campus radicals have tried to impose even more extreme conceptions of social justice on their universities through protests over safe spaces and microaggressions, and increasingly perceive social justice through the prism of intersectionality, which portrays society as the Manichean struggle for justice by powerless victims against oppressive power-holders.”

Neumann rightly thinks this definition is noncontroversial: “your own experience ought to confirm it: just ask yourself what you think of when you hear the phrase ‘social justice,’ and which politicians you think are more likely to refer to it.”

To Heal the Worlddoesn’t offer a comprehensive critique of social-justice policies, although Neumann clearly sails on the starboard side of the political ship. Instead, the book deconstructs the notion that tikkun-olam-as-social-justice bears any necessary relationship to Judaism. Indeed, it argues that the social justice scheme promulgated by the Jewish left “corrupts Judaism and endangers Israel,” in the lapidary words of the subtitle.

Here’s how Neumann’s argument unfolds: After defining the problem in the book’s Introduction, chapters 1 and 2 describe, respectively, the emergence of the Jewish Left out of Reform Judaism and the increasing use of tikkun olamto describe its agenda. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, European Jews began to experience increasing freedom from the legal restraints and social prejudices that had hitherto been placed on their communities by Christian states. In consequence, some of them began to shed the particularistic rituals of traditional Judaism and emphasize Judaism’s universalistic ethics, which looked surprisingly Kantian. In postwar America, this commitment to universalistic ethics came to be expressed as tikkun olam. The takeaway from Neumann’s historical narrative is twofold: First, Reform Judaism’s relationship to traditional Judaism was critical from the beginning. It sought at its inception to distance itself from Judaism as it had been practiced historically. Second, its universalizing mode rendered Jewish particularism highly problematic, including its longings for Zion.

In the early to mid-twentieth century, Reform Judaism rethought both these points, and sought to root its thinking in Tanakh (the Hebrew acronym for what Christians call the Old Testament), as well as to give qualified support to the nascent Jewish state. Chapters 3 through 7 examine the progressive Jewish use of the biblical narratives of creation, Abraham, Joseph, Exodus, and the prophets to underwrite their political ideology. In each case, Neumann shows that the tikkun olam/social justice readings of the relevant passages are problematic, both because they are bad textual readings (“eisegesis” rather than “exegesis”) and because they bear so little relationship to traditional Jewish interpretation. Whatever else they are, Neumann contends, they are problematic as Jewishreadings of the text.

Indeed, chapter 8 argues that the Jewish Left’s use of tikkun olamitself is problematic. The phrase is taken from the Aleynu, a prayer offered in Judaism’s three daily services. Tikkun olamdoesn’t appear in the Bible, its use in the Talmud and Midrash is rare and suggests something far less totalizing than social justice, and its appearance in the Kabbalah takes the concept in a different direction than where the Jewish Left goes with it. Recognizing these deficiencies, some progressive Jews have stopped using tikkun olamas an organizing concept altogether. The first paragraph of chapter 9 summarizes Neumann’s case against the Jewish Left to this point: “What the Bible says and what the Jewish social justice movement thinks it says diverge…. And tikkun olam itself has never meant what American Jews now understand the term to mean.”

That tension between social justice and traditional Judaism is the subject of chapter 10, “Social Justice vs. Israel.” Historically, Judaism is a particularistic religion, a “Chosen People” with a “Promised Land.” Given the Jewish Left’s historical roots in Reform Judaism, and given Reform Judaism’s tendency to universalism rather than particularism, it was almost inevitable that there would be a clash between the demands of “social justice” and the hopes for a renewed Jewish nation in Israel. After the Holocaust, that tension was tamped down for a time, but one doesn’t have to look too hard today to find leftwing Jewish critics of the entire Zionist project.

Indeed, the assumptions of tikkun olam/social justice Judaism problematizes the very existence of a Jewish identity, as chapter 11 makes clear. If the essence of Judaism is universalistic ethics, then why be Jewish at all? Judaism as such—its history, traditions, rituals, etc.—provide nothing more than illustrations of moral themes that can be derived from sources other than the Bible. And if the State of Israel itself constitutes an existential social-justice problem, why be a Jew at all?

For Neumann, tikkun olamundermines Jewish Peoplehood and forecasts the redundancy of the Jews: “Social justice has no need for Jews: by its logic, they need not concern themselves with perpetuating their people, need not limit themselves to Jewish partners, and need not raise their children to be Jewish. They need only work to repair the world—a pursuit that eventually involves their very dissolution into the rest of humanity.”

In chapter 12, Neumann suggests an alternative: “Jews 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.” This is particularism for the sake of universalism, and it finds precedent deep in the Bible and Jewish tradition: “through your [i.e., Abraham’s] offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me” (Genesis 22:18).

As a Gentile and a Christian, I’m not sure what to make of Neumann’s final proposal. What fascinates me about To Heal the Worldis the parallel that leftwing Judaism and tikkun olamhas with liberal Protestantism and the “Social Gospel.” Neumann makes this parallel explicit, arguing that Reform Judaism drew a part of its inspiration from the Social Gospel movement. If so, that raises the question in my mind whether the relationship between the Social Gospel and traditional Christianity is as biblically and theologically problematic as the relationship between tikkun olamand traditional Judaism.

But that’s a question for another day and another book.

Book Reviewed
Jonathan Neumann, To Heal the World: How the Jewish Left Corrupts Judaism and Endangers Israel(New York: All Points Books, 2018).

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