Home Perspectives Opinions Re: tikkun olam, is Reform Judaism far-sighted or Orthodoxy near-sighted?

Re: tikkun olam, is Reform Judaism far-sighted or Orthodoxy near-sighted?

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Johnathon Nguyen. FLICKR

Rabbi N. Daniel Korobkin

Beth Avraham Yoseph Congregation, Toronto

Rabbi Lisa Grushcow

Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom, Montreal


Rabbi Grushcow: Social action has always been a significant part of the Reform movement. In the Pittsburgh Platform of 1885, our ancestors wrote: “We deem it our duty to participate in the great task of modern times, to solve, on the basis of justice and righteousness, the problems presented by the contrasts and evils of the present organization of society.”

Recently, I joined a team of temple members volunteering with Habitat for Humanity. For us, the work of tikkun olam (repairing the world) is an essential part of our spirituality and identity as Jews. What is your perspective?

Rabbi Korobkin: It’s been suggested that Reform Judaism is far-sighted, in that it sees the problems of the greater society and of people outside the immediate community, but fails to address the issues in Jewry’s own backyard. It’s also been suggested that Orthodox Judaism is near-sighted, in that it focuses only on issues of Jewish interest and neglects its duty to the larger society.

‘People want to know their Jewish communities can be pivotal forces for making our world better’

This is an oversimplification, to be sure, but it outlines our different areas of focus. Recognizing that, traditionally, we’ve been more inwardly focused, our shul has made efforts to be more involved with the larger community and tikkun olam projects, such as feeding the homeless and getting more involved with civic leadership.

At a time when non-Orthodox day schools are imploding, however, I would present the question back to you. Tikkun olam is great, but it shouldn’t be the primary focus of Judaism, at the expense of ensuring Jewish literacy and continuity. Jewish education and ritual observance is an essential part of Orthodoxy’s spirituality and identity as Jews. What is your perspective?

Rabbi Grushcow: Just as your shul has made efforts to be involved with the work of tikkun olam, our shul is deeply involved in Jewish literacy and continuity. We have been since our very beginnings, as the education of our children and adults has always been central to our efforts.

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In more recent years, we have celebrated a large cohort of adult bnei mitzvah, grown our Torah school for children, expanded our tikkun leil Shavuot and added depth and breadth to our adult learning. For us, ritual observance is closely related to education, so we encourage each other not only to learn the what and how of Jewish rituals, but also the why – and sometimes the why not.

‘Tikkun olam is great, but it shouldn’t be the primary focus of Judaism, at the expense of ensuring Jewish literacy and continuity’

I don’t necessarily see non-Orthodox day schools imploding, but I do see new creativity and energy in Jewish supplementary schools like our own, which recognize that many parents may not want a day school education for a variety of reasons (cost, diversity, accessibility, etc.), but still care deeply about their children’s Jewish knowledge. We also know that Jewish experiences, like summer camp and travel, can be formative as well – not to mention active participation in synagogue life.

For many of our members, the emphasis on tikkun olam and Jewish values has been what has drawn them in. People want to know that their Jewish communities can be pivotal forces for making our world better, whether it is by welcoming Syrian refugee families or making sandwiches for the homeless. I don’t see it as an either/or.

Of course, tikkun olam is not the only focal point of Jewish literacy, continuity and spirituality – but we are not being true to our tradition if we omit it. It’s hard for me to see how including tikkun olam in our mandate undermines all the other things we want to transmit. Rather, it’s all about integration and living our values. I think of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marching in 1965 with other civil rights leaders in Selma, Ala., saying he felt like his feet were praying. That’s my Judaism.

Rabbi Korobkin: The image of Rabbi Heschel marching is indeed inspiring. But there are two ways to understand his words “My feet were praying.” One way is that the march took the place of prayer. The other is that the march was consistent with an entire life filled with mitzvot.

I’m confident that Rabbi Heschel, who was completely observant, donned his tfillin and davened in his hotel room before embarking on the march. I even imagine the tfillin strap imprints lingering on his left arm as he marched with  Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. That’s the kind of Jewish life to which we all can, and should, aspire.