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Examining the right’s disdain for tikun olam

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To Heal the World? How the Jewish Left Corrupts Judaism and Endangers Israel by Jonathan Neumann (New York: All Points Books)

No word curves the spines of right-wing Jews today quite like “tikun olam.”

Often translated as “repairing the world,” tikun olam has become a pejorative within right-wing circles that’s synonymous with left-wing social justice activism. The fraying of Jewish communal ties between left and right is epitomized by tikun olam’s evolution as a political football in recent years. For the right, the concept represents a bastardized and culturally appropriated term employed to further a progressive political agenda; for the left, it represents a religious imperative to support the oppressed.

Jonathan Neumann’s 2018 book, To Heal the World? How the Jewish Left Corrupts Judaism and Endangers Israel, approaches the debate from a right-wing perspective. “This book sets out to slaughter the sacred cow of tikun olam, at whose udder too many unlearned Jews have suckled. But notwithstanding the many defects of tikun olam – for which the leaders of the Jewish social justice movement that promotes it are to be blamed – the many ordinary American Jews who want to heal the world are ultimately simply doing what feels in their hearts and seems in their eyes to be right,” Neumann writes.

The majority of To Heal the World? is a religious rebuke of the left’s interpretation of tikun olam. From a recasting of the story of Joseph as a tale of capitalist wealth concentration, to the exodus from Egypt’s as an allusion to modern-day liberation theology, the book’s central argument is that North American Reform and Conservative leaders have misinterpreted many religious teachings.

However, the religious disputes Neumann chronicles between the left and the right can be underwhelming at times. Shaul Magdid, a professor of Jewish studies at Dartmouth College, who himself is the target of Neumann’s ire, expresses similar misgivings about Neumann’s emphasis on religious interpretation as the spearhead for bashing those who see tikun olam as a central Jewish calling. “Neumann’s claim that the social-justice Jews’ preferred rendering of scripture always yields a liberal conclusion is true, of course. In fact, that is their point, they are liberal Jews! Zionists do exactly the same thing, as do ultra-Orthodox anti-Zionists, Hasidic Jews or modern Orthodox Jews,” writes Magdid.

To Heal the World? is most valuable as a means of understanding how left-wing Jews are increasingly becoming a source of consternation among those on the right. Neumann extensively cites Israeli author Daniel Gordis, who has chronicled anti-Zionist sentiments within Reform and Conservative rabbinical institutions. Among the most egregious examples Gordis cites include: Jewish rabbinical students calling for the commemoration of Israeli independence on Tisha b’Av (a religious holiday of deep mourning); an American rabbi of a major synagogue refusing to shake an IDF soldier’s hand; and a rabbinical student intentionally celebrating his birthday in a Ramallah bar plastered with PLO posters advocating for the death of Jews.

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Neumann quotes leading figures of the Reform and Conservative movements – such as Aryeh Cohen, Jay Michaelson and Michael Lerner – professing their departure from Zionism. Neumann’s thesis that “social justice has an Israel problem” is very compelling.

Neumann provides readers with a helpful sketch outlining the trajectory of American Jewish activism in the aftermath of the Holocaust and tikun olam’s popularization within the national lexicon (former U.S. president Barak Obama infamously invoked it at a 2015 Passover seder).

“The Jewish ideal is in some sense a political one: not the perfection of the individual souls, but tikun olam – repairing of the world. We are bound to commit ourselves to creating a more just, more whole world,” an excerpt of the Third Jewish Catalog (a bestselling series on DIY Judaism released in the 1970s and ’80s) reads. Neumann points to such publications alongside New Jewish Agenda, Jewish Renewal, Tikkun magazine and Jewish Voice for Peace as the chief advocates and practitioners of a weaponized-tikun olam coalescing around feminism, social housing, access to education, environmentalism, immigration, nuclear energy and the labour movement.

The book would have been made more accessible and more resonant to a mass readership had Neumann’s arguments centred less on religious disputes and focused more on a sociological review of why a progressively inspired tikun olam has become entrenched within the Reform and Conservative movements. Further reflection on the history of these movements’ support for Zionism throughout the 20th century – from disavowal, to support in the post-Holocaust era, seemingly receding once again today – could have offered readers an interesting historical case study on the dynamics that drive these communities. Equally, the growing generational detachment from Judaism and Israel witnessed across North America could have offered another fruitful avenue of exploration.

To Heal the World? speaks to an increasingly popular right-wing sentiment that the left’s loyalty to trendy political ideas now seems to trump the deep tribal bonds of Jewish history. Now, more than ever, a better understanding of the Reform and Conservative movements is needed within the Orthodox community. The unravelling of the Jewish mosaic in the Diaspora remains an urgent communal priority. Yet little organizational heft has been dedicated to addressing this growing rift.

While I deeply sympathize with the alarming trends Neumann identifies, I am equally torn by the unhelpfulness of some of his rhetoric, which will only serve to turn off many readers, rather than working toward communal healing and restitching the North American Jewish quilt that is so desperately required.