When Social Justice Replaces Judaism

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by David P. Goldman

Review of To Heal the World?: How the Jewish Left Corrupts Judaism and Endangers Israel, by Jonathan Neumann (All Points/St. Martins, 2018, 288 pages)


What are the Jews good for? Six out of ten American Jews marry out (seven out of ten excluding the Orthodox), which suggests that even they don’t have an answer. Few children of intermarried couples retain a strong Jewish identity. As Jonathan Neumann documents in an important new book, To Heal the World? How the Jewish Left Corrupts Judaism and Endangers Israel, the Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist strains of Judaism have abandoned traditional Judaism in favor of social justice, or what they incorrectly call tikkun olam.

This hasn’t impeded the galloping decline of non-Orthodox Jewish numbers. On the contrary, it has accelerated it. You don’t have to be Jewish to be a Social Justice Warrior. Jacob Wolf, a life-long left-winger, dismissed tikkun olam as “a strange and misunderstood notion … under which our petty moral concerns and political panaceas can come in out of the rain.” Nonetheless the notion of “healing the world,” as the Jewish left mistranslates the expression, has become a shibboleth for liberal politics. President Barack Obama, who held his own Passover Seders in the White House from 2009 onwards, claimed that the concept had “enriched and guided” his life. Bill and Hillary Clinton didn’t hold White House Seders, but they made Michael Lerner, the publisher of Tikkun magazine, the “guru” of their White House.

Misreading the Bible

The tikkun-olamers, Neumann shows in painful detail, have cherry-picked the Bible to reinterpret the decisive events of Jewish history in their cause. The Book of Genesis thus becomes an environmentalist manifesto. The assertion that the presence of a few righteous people in Sodom and Gomorrah might be ground to spare the cities becomes an act of universalist compassion on behalf of all peoples. For Jill Jacobs, Abraham’s question about the doomed Cities of the Plain “embodies an obligation to protest injustice, even in situations in which victory seems impossible, and in which the potential victims are strangers.” Neumann notes that there weren’t any righteous people in Sodom and Gomorrah and that God went ahead and destroyed them after all. To Jacobs, God is a perpetrator of injustice who must be protested.

The Exodus turns into a revolutionary act of liberation, with Moses as a spiritual ancestor of Fidel Castro. Political theorist Michael Walzer, Conservative rabbi Elliot Dorff, the ubiquitous Michael Lerner, and other leftist Jews read a revolutionary message into the story. None of this has anything to do with the plain meaning of the text, let alone traditional Jewish readings of the text. What, one wonders, do they think about the extermination of the first-born of Egypt, including many small children? The French apostate Simon Weil abhorred the biblical God for this act of indiscriminate slaughter; a Catholic in all but name, she refused acceptance into the Church because it continued to worship the God who sent the angel of death into the homes of the Egyptians. The Jewish response to this terrible event is existential: men are commanded to redeem their firstborn children and to bind daily the biblical verse containing this commandment to their arms and place it between their eyes. The straightforward and faithful reading of the Exodus sees particularity. When God erupted into history to redeem a particular people, the descendants of Abraham and Sarah, he did so with terrible acts, and for that reason we and our progeny forever belong to him.

Exodus and the State of Israel

A universalist view of the Exodus leads more logically to repudiation of the God of the Bible. It also leads to repudiation of the State of Israel: so eager are the tikkun-olamers to embrace the abstract, universal human race that they denounce the State of Israel whenever its enemies compel it to take harsh measures in its self-defense. The American Reform movement, as Neumann notes, explicitly rejected a return to Zion in its 1885 Pittsburgh Platform, the movement’s founding declaration. Neumann’s condemnation of the progressive rabbis is well-founded, but the issue is more difficult than he allows. The Exodus is a revolutionary message, although surely not the universalizing one that Michael Lerner or Jill Jacobs imagine. The concept of revolutionary change itself was given to the world by the Jews. Commenting on the Passover Haggadah, Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik, the peerless intellectual leader of Modern Orthodoxy during the second half of the 20th century, observes that the revolutionary character of the Exodus is reinforced by the mention of the five rabbis in B’nei Brak discussing the Exodus through the whole of the first night of Pesach. Rav Soloveitchik cites a tradition that they spent the night planning the Bar Kochba uprising of C.E. 132:

There was a revolutionary message in Rabbi Akiva’s urging his people to revolt against the Romans. The concept of a slow historical process that was popular among the peoples who lived under the influence of Greek philosophy, the endless morphological evolution from matter into form, from a lower to a higher eidetic stage, carries weight and significance so far as time is lived through quantitatively. Then the forces of history move with an extremely slow pace; years, decades, and centuries are nothing but drops in the sea of eternity. … Under the aspect of the minyan ha-shanim, “quantitative years,” any rebellion is a priori doomed to a stillbirth. If a man leaves his fate to the principle of blind, mechanical causality and circumstantial determination, he can never attain salvation and redemption. Redemption is nonexistent for him as chaos and confusion are precluded from the realm of nature. The Jews have inherited from Abraham the alternative to minyan hashanim. The prophecy of the “generations” challenges man, not to live in time, but to mold it, to give to the indifferent chronos news aspects and new interpretation. Time is computed according to man’s own creativity and self-determination. A qualitative time experience enables a nation to span a distance of hundreds and thousands of years in but a few moments. In the seventy years from the destruction of the Temple to the Bar Kokhba upheaval, the Jewish people may have lived through an endless continuum of time, Rabbi Akiva concluded. “Ve-hy-ha Kez – and then will be your Redemption!”

Rav Soloveitchik, to be sure, addressed a generation of Orthodox Jews that to a great extent kept its distance from the Zionist movement. In his 1956 lecture for Yom Ha’atzmaut, “Kol Dodi Dofek,” he compared the Orthodox world to the beloved woman in the Song of Songs who cannot rouse herself from her bed when her beloved knocks. “What is the essence of the story of the Song of Songs,” he said, “if not the description of a paradoxical and tragic hesitation on the part of the love-intoxicated, anxiety stricken Lover, when the opportunity, couched in majestic awe, presented itself?”

The State of Israel was founded by socialists like David Ben Gurion with support from “Marxist Zionists” like the pro-Soviet Mapam Party. The leader of Israeli religious Zionism in the interwar period, Rav Avraham Kook, broke with the Orthodox majority in asserting that secular Zionists were doing God’s work. He wrote:

The merit of the Land even protects the wicked. Even a gentile maidservant in the land of Israel is promised a portion in the World to Come. … All the more so [regarding the secular Zionists, since] one may find in every Jew, even the most unworthy, precious gems of good deeds and positive traits. Certainly the land of Israel helps elevate and sanctify them. And if this is not evident in them, it will become so in their descendants.

These were prophetic words; the prevailing socialism of Israel’s founders has shriveled into a minority, and although Israel seems secular by Haredi standards, three-quarters of today’s Israelis keep kosher and two-thirds light Shabbat candles. By Western standards Israel is the most religious country in the industrial world. The secular Zionists scoffed at religion, but they had a keen awareness of the appointed hour.

I do not mean to equate the impassioned secular Zionists who risked everything to build the Jewish state with the smug moralizers of the Jewish Left, who have more affinity to hakuna matata than tikkun olam. Neumann is a right-winger like me, and I relish his excoriation of the Jewish left. But sometimes it behooves us not to be too political. If the founding of the State of Israel was a divinely ordained miracle—and I believe wholeheartedly that it was—Jewish leftists were God’s instrument in bringing it to pass. For that matter, the Jewish Left is not alone in hurting Israel with its political meddling. The Jewish Right did enormous if unintentional damage to Israel’s security by cheerleading the imposition of majority rule on Iraq. After toppling Saddam Hussein, America stood godfather to a sectarian Shi’ite government in Baghdad that allied with Iran, Israel’s worst enemy. It remains to be seen whether the blunders of the Jewish Right did more harm than the Jewish Left’s impudent but impotent attacks on the State of Israel, even if the Jewish Right claimed the authority of the Greek classics rather than repurposed Jewish texts.

The Influence of Jewish Ideas

So focused is Neumann on the faults of the tikkun olamers that he sometimes risks throwing the baby out with the bathwater. He notes for example that the term re-appears in the Kabbalah of Rabbi Isaac Luria (known as Ari; 1534-1572), but minimizes Ari’s importance for Jewish Orthodoxy. That is simply wrong: rationalist Lithuanian Judaism as expounded by R. Joseph Soloveitchik pivots on Ari’s central idea, of divine “self-contraction” or tzimtzum. I refer readers to my 2016 article on the Jewish idea of freedom in the journal Hakirah. That is the Jewish answer to the ancient Parmenides paradox of unity, differentiation and change. The importance of the issue cannot be understated: Ari developed the philosophical infrastructure for the rabbinic doctrine that God deliberately left Creation unfinished. As the Ramchal said, if Creation is already perfect, there can be no free will.

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks asked the Catholic writer Paul Johnson, author of a popular history of the Jews, what impressed him the most about the Jewish people. Johnson mentioned the balance between individual and collective responsibility. Even more unique to the Jews, I think, is the balance between the majestic and the covenantal, in Rav Joseph Soloveitchik’s terms: the balance between the creative gesture and loyalty to tradition. Judaism is the most traditional of religions, with three and a half thousand years of continuity. The Jewish present is as rooted as deeply in the past as in the future; it relives the revelation at Sinai and embeds the World to Come in the minutiae of everyday life. But at certain moments it is also the most revolutionary of religions, assigning to mortals the task of completing a Creation that God deliberately left unfinished so that humankind might become a co-creator. No concept has motivated human accomplishment more powerfully than the Jewish concept of creativity. Without God, man ceases to be a co-creator, and becomes instead a Dr. Frankenstein. As Rav Soloveitchik wrote in Halakhic Man:

This concept of the obligatory nature of the creative gesture, of self-creation as an ethical norm [is] an exalted value, which Judaism introduced into the world…However, the fate of Maimonides’ idea of creation was similar to the fate of ibn Gabirol’s doctrine of the will , as it passed, via Duns Scotus, to Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. Both these ideas, which were pure and holy at their inception, were profaned and corrupted in modern culture. The will was transformed by Schopenhauer into a “blind” will, while for Nietzsche it was embodied in the “superman.” Similarly, the longing for creation was perverted into the desire for brutal and murderous domination. Such views have brought chaos and disaster to our world, which is drowning in its blood.

The perversion of the Jewish concept of creativity into an arbitrary expression of the human will “brought chaos and disaster to our world,” as Rav Soloveitchik said. Tradition is the restraint and filter that anchors and limits the exercise of creativity. The Jewish Left’s version of tikkun olam reduces a robust religious tradition into contemporary progressive talking points, to human will with a mild Yiddish accent.

Contrary to the claims of tikkun-olamers, Jews have no obligation to fix the problems of the Gentile world, as Neumann quotes the distinguished Orthodox scholar Jacob J. Schachter: “The fact is that such an obligation is absent from the vast majority of Jewish primary sources from the post-biblical to the pre-modern period. The authoritative texts of the Jewish tradition…are almost silent on the obligation.” Neumann mistakenly reads Rabbi Schachter’s comment through the prism of a decidedly non-Jewish moral philosophy, namely that of the 18th-century British politician Edmund Burke: “There is an idea with a long pedigree in moral thought that holds that concentric circles of love and obligation are the basis of a healthy society. The innermost circle is you, yourself. … Then you love those who are extensions of yourself [spouse, children parents]. Then comes your community, and your nation, and eventually all of humanity and the natural world.”

Tribal affinity groups as such do not produce nations. Where tribal society persists we observe fracture rather than unity, as in Papua New Guinea, where nearly a thousand languages each are spoken by an average of a few thousand people. Families and tribes ultimately are fragile. The nation is the bearer of immortality. In human history the human hope for eternity has a specific embodiment, namely Israel, the eternal nation. The modern nation state has a biblical foundation.  As Adrian Hastings showed in his 1996 classic The Construction of Nationhood, the European monarchies of the modern age looked to the Davidic Kingdom as their precedent. The 17th-century English Protestants who envisioned what ultimately became the American republic drew the idea of individual sovereignty and covenant from the Hebrew Bible, as Eric Nelson wrote in The Hebrew Republic. Even at a distance of thousands of years, the example of ancient Israel became the definitive inspiration of the West.

Western history cannot be understood without the revolutionary-creative aspect of Judaism. The modern nation-states arose out of the ruin of the Roman Empire on the strength of the biblical idea of kingship. Nearly a thousand years later the American Republic arose out of the crisis of the European nations on the strength of the biblical concept of covenant. If the Hebrew Bible inspired the West, all more so is the living State of Israel an inspiration to the nations today. It is our uniqueness, our particularity that makes Israel (in Franz Rosenzweig’s words) “the exemplar and paragon of a nation.” To reduce Judaism to a social justice program eliminates our uniqueness and vitiates the reason to be Jewish in the first place.

About David P Goldman

David P. Goldman is Deputy Editor of Asia Times and a Washington Fellow of the Claremont Institute. He is a former senior editor at First Things magazine, and a regular contributor to Hakirah, where he published a series of studies of the hashkafa of Rav Joseph Soloveitchik. He is the author of several books, including How Civilizations Die (2011) and You Will Be Assimilated: China's Plan to Sino-Form the World (2020). He is also a regular contributor to Tablet Magazine, where he serves as classical music critic.

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