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Have we reached peak tikun olam?

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The seemingly benign phrase “tikun olam” has become another casualty of the deepening chasm between the left and the right.

Many liberal Jews cling to the maxim they believe is a central Jewish directive to repair, heal or perfect the world – whether it’s working to accept refugees, feed the homeless, gather used clothes or any activity that furthers social justice (another mantra that’s come in for a lambasting). Yet, many conservatives have excoriated the term tikun olam as a corruption of true Jewish values and little more than fuzzy, warmed-over progressivism.

“These critics accuse the left of taking an obscure mystical term, changing its meaning and crowning it as the ruling principle of Jewish experience,” observed Andrés Spokoiny, head of the U.S. Jewish Funders Network, in a recent article.

The credo is used by myriad of Jewish charitable organizations. Mazon Canada, which raises awareness of poverty and hunger, is driven by tikun olam, the group states on its website. Ve’ahavta, the now-defunct Act to End Violence Against Women, Jewish food banks and synagogues have all cited the notion in their work in the larger community. Even Prime Minister Justin Trudeau uttered the words in his recent apology for Canada’s refusal to admit the MS St. Louis in 1939.

Meanwhile, conservative pundits have not pulled punches, saying that tikun olam isn’t a Jewish idea at all, but merely liberal politics masquerading as Jewish values.

“We cannot, and are not, instructed to save the world, or even to repair it,” Hasidic Rabbi Yitzak Korff of Boston wrote a few years ago. “Judaism teaches no such thing.” Rather, Jews are instructed to conduct themselves properly, to observe the mitzvot and commandments (“which are not good deeds, but rather commandments – required imperatives”), and in that way, “contribute to society and civilization both by example and through practice and action.”

The “repair rhetoric,” Rabbi Korff scoffed, “has become an obsession, a catch-all credo. Everything today is tikun olam. Enough with the tikun olam.”

Paula Zivot and her daughter, Lily Samuel, volunteering for Ve’ahavta’s Mobile Jewish Response to Homelessness outreach van, providing supplies and companionship to people who live on the streets of Toronto or are in precarious housing situations. (Ve’ahavta photo)

The late Prof. Steven Plaut of Haifa University blasted the notion as a “pseudo-religion” and “social action fetishism.” And in his 2010 book, Faith Finding Meaning: A Theology of Judaism, Rabbi Byron Sherwin claimed that the real meaning of tikun olam is “for the proper order of the Jewish community.”

“It’s a long way from that definition to ‘build a better world,’ ” he noted archly.

The debate was sharpened with the appearance earlier this year of the book, To Heal the World? How the Jewish Left Corrupts Judaism and Endangers Israel, in which author Jonathan Neumann noted the rapid growth of the invocation of tikun olam since the 1960s, which has led to “overwhelming” Jewish participation in social justice movements, with adherents believing that their actions to be biblically mandated.

There’s only one problem, Neumann claimed: the Bible says no such thing. Tikun olam, he argued, is an “invention” of the Jewish left that “has diluted millennia of Jewish practice and belief into a vague, feel-good religion of social justice.”

(In a lengthy rebuttal published in the online magazine Tablet, Rabbi Shaul Magid, an American scholar, called Neumann’s broadsides against tikun olam “an ideological bromide against Jewish liberalism under the guise of a serious critique of social activism.” Neumann’s use of “traditional” Judaism is “largely a placeholder that doesn’t really mean anything other than the opposite of whatever social-justice Jews are doing,” Rabbi Magid retorted.)

In any event, Neumann’s book triggered a lively debate recently in these pages.

READ: RE: TIKKUN OLAM, IS REFORM JUDAISM FAR-SIGHTED OR ORTHODOXY NEAR-SIGHTED?

Should tikun olam be the private purview of one political camp? “Of course not,” argued Rabbi Lisa Grushcow of Montreal’s Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom synagogue. Does it replace other aspects of Jewish life, she wondered? “I have never heard anyone argue it should, and some leaders in the Jewish social justice world also live observant Jewish lives,” she wrote. “So many Jews have reconnected with their Judaism through the call for social justice – what possible benefit is there to deriding them?”

She recalled the oft-quoted words of Hillel: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”

From the other side, Rabbi Daniel Korobkin of Beth Avraham of Yoseph of Toronto Congregation posited that the argument used by many who espouse tikun olam is that “we should move away from Jewish tribalism and embrace the universal love of all mankind.” But, he cautioned, Judaism without a unique set of rules and a national identity ceases to be Judaism.

There aren’t many Jewish organizations that have taken tikun olam to heart as deeply as Toronto-based Ve’ahavta, which has sent medical teams overseas and offered a variety of programs for the city’s homeless, including handing out food on frigid nights. Few of its clients have been Jewish, but most of its volunteers are.

When Ve’ahavta was launched, “a clear and powerful phrase was required to encourage our people to participate in our mission of Jewish humanitarianism,” recalled the organization’s founder, Avrum Rosensweig.

Tikun olam was the one because “it has its basis in Judaism, loosely in our writings, in our hearts and on the streets … where our fellow citizens might sleep on benches and under the stars on cold winter nights.”

For Ve’ahavta, the phrase worked. “It took our community into the realm of true chesed (loving kindness) and humanitarian work,” Rosensweig said. “It was sort of the aftermath of ‘Never Again.’ ”

But is it contrived? Are there better Torah-based words or phrases that the group could have used? “Maybe,” Rosensweig replied. “But our resources were better spent on the work itself, rather than constant debating of the genuine nature of this phrase. Time was of the essence, the work was needed to be done immediately and tikun olam – the phrase – seemed to be highly effective for most denominations.”

It could be time for a change now, he allowed, “but it worked then.”

While the notion of tikun olam is most closely identified with liberal Judaism, all branches of Jewish life have always used Jewish values and ideas to support and inspire their particular movement’s goals, Rabbi Robert Morais of Temple Israel, a Reform congregation in Ottawa, told The CJN.

Since its inception, the Reform movement has been at the forefront of social justice causes, he observed. “Over a generation ago, (Reform) struggled to understand this commitment from a Jewish perspective,” he said. The movement found its Jewish voice in the concepts of the Jewish “mystical traditions” of tikun olam – healing the world.

“We have extended the traditional ideas of tikun olam to inspire our members to do whatever they can to make our world a better, safer, more equitable place,” Rabbi Morais said.

Rabbi Baruch Frydman-Kohl of Toronto’s Conservative Beth Tzedec Congregation said he dislikes the popularization of the term tikun olam. While Judaism does have a strong commitment to social concerns that extends into the larger world, the more accurate historic and classical terms for those concerns are “chesed” and “mishpat” (justice), he said.

Judaism’s “passionate” commitment to acts of kindness and deeds of justice starts “within our covenantal community and extends into the larger world,” Rabbi Frydman-Kohl said. He finds politically conservative criticism of Jewish social concern to be “inappropriate.”

The Bible gets to the nub right away. In Genesis, Rabbi Frydman-Kohl pointed out, God tells Abraham that he was chosen to “direct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Eternal by doing what is right and just.”

Spokoiny also said that tikun olam isn’t a new concept. It first appears in the Mishnah, the section of the Talmud that contains rabbinical commentaries and the oral law, referring to social policy that provides extra protection for the disadvantaged. Hardly a marginal idea or liberal trope, “it’s been central to Judaism for millennia,” he asserted.

For Montreal professor and activist Norma Joseph, the popular notion of tikun olam as saving the world is a 20th-century concept that arose from environmental activism, zero population growth and other modern social movements.

It was a way for many Jews to fit into the contemporary world – for them to say, as Joseph put it, “we’re legit like other religions are legit because we have this sense of saving the world.”

The problem, as she sees it, is that for many Jews, tikun olam represents the totality of their Jewishness.

While observant Jews do use the term, “it has taken over the way many Jews feel about their Judaism,” Joseph said. For Jews who eschew ritual and observance, “that’s all there is to their Judaism – tikun olam. (For them), it has replaced Judaism. That’s the problem.”

But as Spoikony noted, whether they’re tikun olam haters, do-gooders or reductionists, at least the tension reflects the best of the Jewish tradition.