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I have long had a pet peeve about the vulgar misuse and distortion of the Jewish concept of Tikkun Olam (repair of the world) by assimilationist Jewish liberals in the United States and elsewhere.
Elements of American Jewry have fallen captive to what can only be described as Tikkun Olam Paganism. Tikkun Olam Pagans are people who misrepresent Judaism as nothing more and nothing less than the pursuit of the liberal social action political agenda, all in the name of a suitably misrepresented Tikkun Olam.
Tikkun Olam is the banner waved by the countless “social action” committees at synagogues across America and in other liberal Jewish circles in support of liberal-leftist causes, including some that are harmful to Jews and some that are just plain wacky.
The Tikkun Olam Pagans’ pseudo-religion consists of the following reductionist “theological” foundations:
1. Judaism in its entirety is essentially the advocacy and promotion of social justice.
2. Tikkun Olam means pursuit of peace, environmentalism and economic equality.
3. Justice, peace and equality are synonymous with this week’s PC liberal-leftist political fads.
Ipso facto, all of Judaism is reduced to the pursuit of being a nice liberal. Now, as it turns out, each one of the propositions listed above is totally false.
This Judaism-as-Liberalism form of reductionism is extremely common in the Reform synagogue (especially its misnamed Religious Action Center) and is universal in the Reconstructionist movement. It is popular among many Conservative Jews and even has its Orthodox advocates.
A search for the term Tikkun Olam on the Internet will show you how near-universal is the equating of this concept with liberal “social activism.” Even the far-left anti-Israel magazine Tikkun, published by “Rabbi” Michael Lerner, has misnamed itself after the concept. Indeed Tikkun magazine has even advocated the use of illegal psychedelic drugs by Jews and demanded that Jews understand Osama bin Laden’s “pain, ” all in the name of Tikkun Olam.
The equation of Tikkun Olam with liberal political activism is so commonplace that it is recited as ethical basis by many of the same liberal “social activists” who cannot recite the Shema prayer correctly, who practice no Jewish ritual, and have no idea of what any other concepts are in Judaism. For a nice laugh, ask some of these people to explain even one basic Jewish concept other than Tikkun Olam.
But a clarification is in order. Tikkun Olam does indeed play an important role in Jewish theology and ethics, but its meaning is nothing like that understood by the Tikkun Olam Pagans. Tikkun Olam, the “correcting” of the universe, has little if anything to do with things like social inequality, environmental cleanliness, and distribution of wealth and jobs. Rather, it refers to the Messianic era when G-d’s laws will replace human laws, when G-d himself will be the acknowledged earthly ruler, when all forms of idolatry will cease and all will turn their hearts to the One G-d.
In other words, Tikkun Olam is a theological notion and not a trendy socioeconomic or political one. Tikkun Olam is mentioned in a major place in the Aleinu prayer that closes all prayer sessions, but again it is conjunction with the wish to see idolatry and paganism erased from the earth. There is no mention of “social justice” or environmentalist issues, no gun control proposals and no AIDS marches. This will no doubt come as a rude surprise to Jewish assimilationist liberals.
It is all the more ironic that Tikkun Olam is dredged up as underpinning for some forms of “activism” that are themselves little more than idolatry, such as the worshiping of trees, whales and nature in the name of “Eco-Judaism” by some radical Jewish environmentalists.
Even if one believed a certain amount of “social justice” could be squeezed under the Tikkun Olam theological umbrella, this would hardly justify the hijacking of the concept as artillery support for the liberal-leftist political agenda. At most, Tikkun Olam can only be conscripted as support for liberal social activism if one believes that this activism really promotes social justice. If it does promote social justice, then the incantations regarding Tikkun Olam are superfluous — the “causes” are justified on their own merits.
But does anyone today seriously believe that liberals and leftists only promote causes that are “socially just” and moral? Suppressing school choice and supporting Palestinian terrorism, affirmative action apartheid, and many other liberal causes promotes injustice and immoral outcomes.
The real issue is whether or not liberal political fads promote justice and peace and morality. And the only way to settle that question is to debate these “causes” analytically and on their own merits: Tikkun Olam has nothing to do with it.
Analytic debate of course would require some training and study of social science, policy analysis, cost-benefits accounting, and history, and liberal poseurs are far too lazy for all that, preferring effortless ethical posturing and recreational compassion. They are much too busy patting themselves on their ethical backs.
To emphasize these points, let us state what is not covered under the heading of Tikkun Olam:
1. There is nothing in the Torah concept of Tikkun Olam that can justify government programs that take people’s private wealth and property away from them to help the poor. There is of course a Jewish religious precept requiring charity for the poor — at least 10% of one’s income in two years out of seven, but never to exceed 20% of one’s wealth even if one is feeling ultra-compassionate. This charity, however, is privatized welfare and generosity, never state-run confiscation of property in the name of doing good. There seems to be rabbinic disagreement over whether government taxes that take away more than 10% of one’s income, especially to finance the welfare state, exempt one even from this 10% tithe. The only other biblically-mandated income redistribution involves supporting the Levites.
2. There is nothing in Tikkun Olam that can be considered to be a judgment holding that income and wealth disparities are evil in and of themselves. Wealthy people are expected to give charity to help the poor; the poor are expected to give charity to the poorer. No one is expected to give charity to those too lazy to work or who are poor because they are drunks or addicts.
3. There is nothing in Tikkun Olam that can be regarded as a condemnation of materialist desires and pursuits. Quite to the contrary, Judaism is not embarrassed at all about asking G-d to make us rich, such as in the Havdala prayers where we ask for lots of silver.
4. There is nothing in Tikkun Olam that could be remotely regarded as justifying affirmative action programs that discriminate against Jews. There is nothing that can justify pursuing ethnic “equality” through quotas, through lowered standards and preferences, and certainly not through programs that give other ethnic groups preferences ahead of Jews.
5. There is nothing in Tikkun Olam that can be regarded as sanctioning homosexual relations. Indeed, the Torah makes these a capital offense.
6. There is nothing in Tikkun Olam that can be regarded as supporting the public school monopoly or single-payer health care system. People who want such things should have the intellectual honesty to come out and debate these on their own merits (if they have any), not by hijacking the concept of Tikkun Olam.
7. There is not even the tiniest inkling of a rationalization in Tikkun Olam for granting Palestinians or anyone else territorial rights within the Land of Israel.
8. There is no basis in Tikkun Olam for refraining from retaliating militarily against those who attack Jews.
9. There is no basis in Tikkun Olam for claiming that animals have “rights.”
10. There is no basis in Tikkun Olam for refusing to acknowledge that human environmental goals must be traded off against other social and private goals.
11. There is no basis in Tikkun Olam for abortion on demand.
12. There is no basis in Tikkun Olam for opposing capital punishment for convicted murderers. To the contrary, the Torah explicitly endorses capital punishment for murderers.
A first giant step toward real Tikkun Olam would be the renunciation and discrediting of Tikkun Olam Paganism.
About the Author: Steven Plaut is a professor at the University of Haifa. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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