Being a ‘Good Person’ Is Not the Be All and End All
There has always been an inclination among Jews to present contemporary political views as being in line with Judaism and Jewish teachings. Perhaps the most notorious example of this phenomenon was a sermon delivered by Rabbi Morris Jacob Raphall to his congregation at New York’s B’nai Jeshurun in December 1860.
The sermon was a response to outgoing President James Buchanan’s last-minute attempt to avoid the breakup of the union by calling for a national day of “Humiliation, Fasting and Prayer.” Rabbi Raphall’s sermon was provocatively titled “The [Bible’s] View on Slavery.” In his speech, Raphall proposed that the Torah and ancient Jewish law said that “slaveholding [is] not only recognized and sanctioned as an integral part of the social structure…[but] the property in slaves [is] placed under the same protection as any other species of lawful property.”
Clearly, Raphall was caught up in the fear of a nation desperately trying to avoid a civil war, which led him to present the case that the Bible approved of slavery, and that slavery was not inherently evil. Even in 1860, this was regarded as a highly controversial view. Today we look back at what Rabbi Raphall said aghast, and wonder how he could have got it so wrong.
The answer is quite simple. Rabbi Raphall was not presenting his audience with pure theology, but was trying to provide a biblical justification for his political views, and to influence worldly events. After all, if abolitionists — many of whom were devoutly religious — revered and respected the Hebrew scriptures, then surely they would accept his message.
I have seen this all too often over the years — clever ideologues cherry-picking laws and concepts from the Torah and Talmud, and using them to claim biblical support for their own views.
Let us take “tikkun olam” as an example of this phenomenon.
“Tikkun olam” has, in recent years, become the buzz phrase of American Jewish progressives. “Let us take care of the poor and downtrodden,” proponents say, “whether they are in our backyard or anywhere around the world — for that is what the Torah wants us to do.” To the advocates of “tikkun olam,” this Hebrew phrase has come to mean “healing the world.” But if you read the actual text, you’ll see that the phrase means ensuring that the execution of law does not result in a disintegration of society. And in Jewish mystical texts, the phrase connotes a reconciliation between the spiritual and material worlds.
Furthermore, while charity and kindness to others are certainly core Jewish values, they are just a few of many hundreds of mitzvot that are of equal importance — and many of those others are far more unique, by which I mean more “Jewish.”
Before you rush for your Hebrew scriptures to prove me wrong, let me share with you the central text of “tikkun olam,” and show you how it has been misconstrued. The verse can be found in this week’s Torah portion (Lev. 19:18): “You should love your neighbor as you do yourself.”
The implication from the verse is clear. The Torah expects more than brotherly love and a sympathetic concern for others. It expects us to prioritize the needs of others no differently than we would our own. Moreover, in the Jerusalem Talmud, the great Rabbi Akiva tells us that “tikkun olam” is a “great principle in the Torah.” Surely Rabbi Akiva’s statement indisputably proves that “tikkun olam” is of far greater significance than any other mitzvah — except that he’s not saying that at all.
So what exactly is Rabbi Akiva saying? He undoubtedly wants us to pay as much attention to the small principles in the Torah as we do to the great ones, so why does he refer to this particular directive as a great principle? Could it be that he is suggesting it is somehow more important?
In reality, Rabbi Akiva is aiming his statement at precisely those people who believe that taking care of others and being a “good” person is more important than anything else. The Western world has been engulfed by this notion — as if it is the only thing that matters. Ritual obligations, belief in God, concern for honoring the past or respecting your heritage, can all be discarded and dismissed as long as someone is a good person.
Rabbi Akiva — who had himself been very disparaging of rabbis and Jewish tradition in his youth — informs us that this view is utterly warped and misguided. Loving your neighbor is only ever meaningful and great if it exists in the context of a commitment to every other Torah obligation.