Tikkun Olam Is the Enslavement of Judaism to Liberal Politics
On the second night of Passover in April 2009, several White House staffers gathered in the Old Family Dining Room for Seder night, the Jewish ceremonial dinner that takes place on the first two evenings of the festival. It was not just the setting that made this night different from all other nights, but the host: President Barack Obama. Never before had a Seder taken place in the White House itself, and never in history had a sitting president attended, but from then on the Seder night was an annual fixture on the presidential calendar for both of Obama’s terms.
Of all the many Jewish occasions that could have been adopted by the new president, why the Seder? Partly, it was sentimental: Obama had joined an impromptu Seder night on the campaign trail the year before and pledged a repeat of the event “next year in the White House.” And partly, it was tactical. Upon coming into office his administration had quickly soured relations with Israel, and some positive headlines in the Jewish press might confound critics and reassure the wider Jewish community, which had voted overwhelmingly for Obama in the election.
But the Seder also had a much deeper appeal. Obama was no stranger to this ritual. He had attended a Seder every year for the previous decade and understood its significance in the liberal imagination. The themes he invoked when he opened the first presidential Seder — universalism and the struggle for liberation — are at the core of an ideology with which he was intimately familiar: tikkun olam.
In numerous speeches, the president declared how this Hebrew concept, which means “healing the world,” had “enriched and guided my life.” Now it would inspire his administration. From his nomination acceptance speech, which he described as “the moment our planet began to heal,” through the eight Passover Seders held during his tenure, this was the apotheosis of tikkun olam in America.
So what exactly is tikkun olam?
Essentially, tikkun olam is the Hebrew moniker for Jewish social justice, and the two terms are often used interchangeably. As Jane Kanarek, a leader of the Conservative movement, usefully puts it, tikkun olam “is used throughout the Jewish world to summarize the efforts of Jewish social justice movements.” Given the superlative popularity of tikkun olam in the American Jewish community, David Saperstein, who has spent his life advocating for tikkun olam in the nation’s capital on behalf of the Reform movement, is entirely justified in describing social justice as “serving as the most common organizing principle of Jewish identity.”
And what is social justice?
Social justice is a political philosophy that advocates the redistribution of income — and sometimes even wealth and other property — in order to achieve economic egalitarianism. It’s often synonymous with the terms “economic justice” or “distributive justice.” In more recent decades, social justice has also come to include an agenda of permissive social policies that leave lifestyle questions to the discretion of the individual and promote gender diversity; an approach to foreign and defense policy that emphasizes multilateral diplomacy over military strength; a preference for comprehensive alternatives to the use of fossil fuels and nuclear energy for the sake of the environment; and other attitudes and policies associated predominantly with today’s left-wing political parties.
This assessment should not be controversial. Your own experience ought to confirm it: just ask yourself what you think of when you hear the phrase “social justice” and which politicians you think are more likely to refer to it.
Over the past several years, campus radicals have tried to impose even more extreme conceptions of social justice on their universities through protests over safe spaces and microaggressions, and increasingly perceive social justice through the prison of intersectionality, which portrays society as the Manichean struggle for justice by powerless victims against oppressive power-holders.
The most important point to keep in mind is that social justice is a political ideology. It isn’t concerned with just action toward one’s fellow, which is achieved by a virtuous citizenry and upheld by courts of law. Nor is it focused on charity or volunteering at the grassroots level, which are occasionally referred to as “social action” or “direct service.”
While these localized efforts are sometimes subsumed within the category of social justice, ultimately social justice and its Jewish variant tikkun olam are about designing an economic and political system that guarantees certain economic and social outcomes. Social justice is about political change, therefore it inevitably takes the form of political activism. Jonah Dov Pesner, a leading campaigner in the Reform movement, regrets that “too often in Jewish communal life, we confuse service-oriented work at soup kitchens … with the work of redemptive social justice.” So be in no doubt: social justice isn’t about charity. It’s about politics.
The most populous American Jewish denominations, myriad independent Jewish organizations, and the leadership of American Jewry all espouse the politics of tikkun olam, and it has become embedded in all aspects of American Judaism, including education and worship at all ages.
The agenda of Jewish social justice is all-encompassing, and naturally the approach is uniformly leftist. We’re talking about higher taxes, increased regulation of business, big labor, expanded entitlements, condemnation of any limitations on sexual expression, reduced military spending, greater reliance on international law and multilateral organizations, drastic overhauls to our economy and living standards in the name of ecology, and so on. The tools needed to repair the world are all liberal ones. This isn’t charity. It’s leftist politics.
And it’s all carried out in the name of Judaism.
From Abraham to Amos, the Hebrew Bible instructs Jews in particular and mankind in general to repair our damaged planet, mend our broken economy, fix our unjust society, and perfect our world. Tikkun olam is a divine commandment. It is Judaism’s first principle and most fundamental message. The Torah teaches that the greatest service a Jew can do before God and for humanity is to heal the world — to pursue social justice.
Or so everyone thinks. Tikkun olam may have seduced American Jewry and flattered the right gentiles who make it to the White House, but the truth is that tikkun olam as it is understood today has no basis in Judaism. It was conceived by Jews who had rejected the faith of their fathers and midwifed by radicals who saw it as a pretext to appropriate Jewish texts and corrupt religious rituals — such as the Seder — in order to further political ends. Tikkun olam represents the enslavement of Judaism to liberal politics.
So complete has been the equation of Judaism with liberalism under the guise of tikkun olam that when, a few years back, a prominent politician was asked how he could be Jewish and yet also be conservative, he was flummoxed.
Notwithstanding the many defects of tikkun 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. But the Bible demands that Jews not simply pursue what appeals to their hearts and draws their eyes, but that they stay loyal to the covenant between their people and its God and obey His commandments (Deut. 15:39). And tikkun olam is no commandment.
Not only has tikkun olam enabled the misappropriation of Scripture, but its stridently universalistic aspirations undermine Jewish Peoplehood and in so doing give sanction to anti-Zionism and assimilation. This state of affairs is not sustainable. Tikkun olam is not the balm to heal the world but the disorder that afflicts American Judaism.
It’s time for Jews to stop doing tikkun olam.
Jonathan Neumann is the author of To Heal the World?: How the Jewish Left Corrupts Judaism and Endangers Israel (All Points Books) out now.