Tikkun Olam’s Problems

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by R. Gil Student

When I first began reading Jonathan Neumann’s To Heal The World? How the Jewish Left Corrupts Judaism and Endangers Israel, I enthusiastically endorsed it on Facebook. To my surprise, that post was excerpted as a PR blurb for the book. Since then, many thoughtful reviewers have written about the book, forcing me to rethink my original praise. Despite all this, I maintain my original enthusiasm for the book and feel a need to explain why. Neumann follows mainstream history and theology, although those who do not like his message may call him ignorant and uninformed. There are only two ways you can paint this book as uninformed: 1) You quibble and turn minor arguments into major failings (eg a brief, toss-away mention of Jewish history that is Eurocentric) or 2) you believe that contemporaries can read whatever they want into Judaism and object to his rejection of that.

This last point is significant and goes to the heart of his critique. There are those who claim that rabbinic methodology allows for near-infinite malleability, that the creativity of rabbinic thought invites us to create likewise. To them, there is real meaning in what we read into the texts. The fact of rabbinic debate (often artificially magnified or even manufactured by imaginative academics) means that anything goes. This is the chaos of liberal Jewish theology. It may be based in Jewish texts but it is not based on Jewish texts.

Put differently, the bulk of Tikkun Olam scholarship amounts to careless homiletics. There is room for sermonizing and sloganeering in Judaism but not in a way that undermines its central messages. As Neumann points out, “Tzedek tzedek tirdof, Justice, justice you shall pursue” (Deut. 16:20) refers to the pursuit of a proper court verdict. Neumann leaves it at that but he should have gone further. Many homileticists and aphorizers use this biblical phrase to teach important life lessons. For example, the Chasidic master, Reb Simcha Bunim of Peshischa, taught that our pursuit of justice must be just itself. However, such homiletic usages reflect not the text itself but the speaker’s ideas. 1)See Rav Ya’akov Kamenetsky, Emes Le-Ya’akov Al Ha-Torah, Gen. 34:13 n. 20 While based in a Jewish text, they are only Jewish messages if they emerge otherwise from Judaism. The text serves as a communication medium, as form not content. Neumann shows that Tikkun Olam scholarship consists mainly of homiletics, often heretical and consistently emerging from secular sources. It is progressive ideology with a sprinkling of cherry-picked biblical and rabbinic texts read with a heavy dose of preconceived notions.

Throughout history, when Jewish theologians have imported external thought, they have done it with care and without contradicting traditional ideas. They used the theology to connect the dots, not to create new dots. In contrast, as Neumann notes, “there is no indication that any Jewish social justice assumptions have been substantively revised in the light of traditional sources.” Rabbinic texts are window dressing; Tikkun Olam is a slogan to render foreign ideas kosher. I don’t mean to imply that no hard work goes into Tikkun Olam Torah. I am sure that some people agonize over it. But that hard work comes from attempting to reconcile ancient texts with contemporary views, rather than letting the texts speak themselves. It takes great effort and sometimes ingenuity to make timeless wisdom conform to today’s trends.

Neumann’s main argument boils down to: 1) the texts quoted do not support the progressive views purportedly derived from them and 2) those views are taken from outside Judaism. I still could quibble with Neumann on certain points but I don’t think that is a fair review of a popular (as opposed to academic) work. In general, this book is fantastic; the research is strong, as seen in the endnotes; the thesis is clear and correct; and the writing is compelling. This book reveals the contortions of progressive Jewish scholars who try to force a religion of laws and values into a politics of lawlessness and non-judgmentalism. Who would have imagined preaching sexual acceptance in the name of a religion that prescribes execution for sexual sins? The intellectual gymnastics are hard to conceive yet commonplace in the anything-goes world of Tikkun Olam.

Do not make a mistake — Neumann is not advocating conservative politics. He isn’t advocating any politics at all. We try in vain to derive specific policies from general Jewish attitudes; the applications are too complex for anything more than directional guidance. Neumann’s book is not about politics but rather a social commentary about the weaponization of religion in service of radical progressive politics. The same book can be (and probably has been) written about 1980’s Settler religious-politics in Israel. Politicizing religion cheapens religion and falsely sanctifies politics. Both are dangerous, as Neumann expertly shows.

In other words, read this book.


Endnotes   [ + ]

1.See Rav Ya’akov Kamenetsky, Emes Le-Ya’akov Al Ha-Torah, Gen. 34:13 n. 20

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link of New Jersey, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student serves on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and as Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He also serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazine and the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

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