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Op-Ed: On the 'Tikkun Olam' Fetish

Jews are nowhere commanded to "repair the world." in Judaism it is the job of Jews to repair the Jews - a not inconsiderable task - not to repair the world.
Published: Sunday, December 22, 2013 6:03 AM



A Jew is free to favor or oppose Obamacare, shale oil extraction, and Quantitative Easing for any reason he or she sees fit.
"The central mitzvah or commandment for our era is the mitzvah of Tikkun Olam.   It is the defining mission of Jews to strive for the repair of the world by making society more just, fair, egalitarian, and sensitive. Judaism demands that we repair the world by striving for social justice.  It is the mission of Jews in the Divine Plan for the universe to repair the world by repairing man, by improving and advancing mankind."

The above paragraph is a fair representation of what has become the defining raison d'etre of Judaism as conveyed by non-Orthodox liberal Jewish organizations and synagogues in America.  It is not a direct citation from any of them, but is an accurate paraphrase of what has become the canon of non-Orthodox Jewish liberalism in our time. 

It is the "modernized" and contemporary "reinterpretation" of "Jewish ethics" as defined and inculcated by much of the Reform and Conservative movements.  It is also the "theology" of Jewish radical leftist groups operating at the fringes of the Jewish community, including the "Renewal/ALEPH" movement, the "Eco-Judaism" groups, the "Tikkun community" of people and groups that are satellites to the magazine by that same name published by tikkun-activist Michael Lerner, and what remains of the "Reconstructionists."  Lerner, it should be added, discovers "repair of the world" even in LSD consumption.

What are we to make of "Tikkun Olam" proclamations?

The most important thing that must be understood about the Tikkun Olam catechism in the United States is that each and every sentence in the above proclamation is false.

First of all, there is no such thing as a mitzvah or commandment of "Tikkun Olam."   Jews are nowhere commanded to "repair the world."  In all the authoritative or traditional compilations of the commandments of Judaism, none list "Tikkun Olam".  The expression itself does not appear anywhere in the Torah or in the entire Bible. 

Those assimilationist liberals who insist that the entire "ethics of the Prophets" can be reduced to the pursuit of "Tikkun Olam" have to explain why none of the Books of the Prophets use the term.  "Tikkun Olam" is used sporadically in the Talmud, but as a technical term for resolution of certain judicial problems that arise before rabbinic courts. 

The only place the expression appears in Jewish prayer is in the "Aleinu" and there it clearly has nothing at all to do with social justice.  In the "Aleinu," Tikkun Olam is explicitly explained in the prayer text itself as the quest to eliminate pagan superstition and to see God's rule of the universe implemented. It is a theological concept, not a social, political or environmental one. 

In Judaism, the world does not get repaired by redistribution of income and wealth nor by cutting carbon emissions, but by humans subordinating themselves to God's will.  

Secondly, "Tikkun Olam" does not mean that Jews are obligated to strive to make the earth a more just, clean, fair and equal place.  Nowhere in Judaism are Jews commanded to restructure or re-engineer the societies of nations.  Jews have a certain obligation to participate in the Jewish community and to assist other Jews, especially Jews living in hardship, including through charity.  Even within the Jewish community, there is no religious imperative or justification for coerced schemes of income or wealth redistribution, aside from payments to the Levites and priests.  And while there is no prohibition against Jews using their resources to assist the downtrodden among the non-Jewish nations, there is also no Judaic imperative to do so.

The Torah and the Prophets do speak out about the plight of Jewish widows, orphans, and converts, but in every single case where the matter is brought up, the concern is for protecting the rights of these weaker groups in the courts, assuring they do not face judicial discrimination.  There is no official obligation to transfer resources to these disadvantaged groups except for the "tithe for the poor" collected out of agricultural produce in two years out of seven.  (If you do the math, it averages out to about 3% of farm resources per year.) 

The idea that it is somehow the religious duty of Jews to "repair mankind" is not only unfounded  it is a manifestation of the ignorance of assimilationist Jewish liberals.  The simple fact of the matter is that in actual Judaism, it is none of the business of Jews to fix or repair humanity.  More generally, in Judaism it is the job of Jews to repair the Jews - a not inconsiderable task - not to repair the world. 

Non-Jews are not in need of being "repaired" by Jews, at least as long as they observe the seven "Noahide Commandments," the rules of living that Jews interpret to be conferred upon all humans, all descendents of Noah, by God.  Beyond that, what the gentiles do and how they do it is none of the business of Jews, and Jews simply have no religious standing to interfere. 

It is certainly not the job of Jews to instruct non-Jews about matters such as income and wealth distribution, abortion, environmentalism, health care provision, or discrimination.  Only in matters of cruelty that negate the Noahide Laws are Jews commanded to interfere. 

Indeed, the very notion that Jews are so ethically superior that they are entitled to instruct non-Jews in ethics is completely foreign to Judaism.  The self-image of Jews in the Torah is that of a group of people awash in their own moral failures and foibles, from the Golden Calf to the paganism of the era of the kings of Judah and Israel.  The moral imperative of the Torah is for the Jews to improve and reevaluate their own behavior, not to pretend to have the moral superiority to preach to the entire non-Jewish world. 

"Man" may very well be in need of redemption and improvement and repair, but it is not the business or job of the Jews to carry these things out.   And it would be hubris to think that Jews are morally equipped to do so.  Jews have more than their hands full in attempting to repair Jews.

Jews are, in general, not obligated to oppose or reform unjust laws of the nations, at least as long as those laws do not require Jews to abandon their religion.   It is the religious moral imperative of Jews to obey the law of the land and that is all.  In democracies in which Jews may vote and express ideological positions, there is no Torah-based objection to their doing so. 

At the same time, there are generally no Torah-based ideological positions when it comes to those same policy questions.   A Jew is free to favor or oppose Obamacare, shale oil extraction, and Quantitative Easing for any reason he or she sees fit.  It would be a sacrilege and disrespectful to drag the Torah into the debate as the basis for a Jew's opinion. The Torah has more important matters on its theological plate.

It is just as wong to attempt to recruit the Torah and "Tikkun Olam" as artillery support for ideological positions regarding other fashionable questions of the day.   Probably one of the most common misuses of "Tikkun Olam" by liberals involves environmentalist trendiness.  But the only real environmentalist statement by the Torah is that God will never allow planetary destruction to take place, and that every time one sees a rainbow in the sky one should remember that the doomsday warnings by the radical environmentalists about man destroying the planet are negated by the Torah.  

As for the insistence by the "Eco-Judaism" groups that vegetarianism is the highest form of "Tikkun Olam," the true position of the Torah on the subject needs to be mentioned.  The Torah completely prohibits vegetarianism at least once a year, on the evening of Passover, and while it does not prohibit it for other holidays, eating meat on those holidays is strongly recommended.  However, Rabbi Kook sees vegetarianism as a positive development in the world.

As for the recruitment of "Tikkun Olam" as the moral basis for other trendy political positions, one of the clearest ethical positions in all of Judaism is its strong opposition to homosexual relations.

The Torah does not exactly say that inequality in the world is a good thing, but it also does not say that it is a bad thing.  Humans are free to try to do something about it if they so please, just like they are free to end slavery (which the Torah and Talmud limit to humane parameters, but never mandate be ended).  

No one is religiously commanded to drive an SUV or to use disposable diapers, but neither is there any Jewish basis for opposing such things.  One is free to oppose them all on the grounds of their own merits and demerits. But one should at least have the intellectual honesty to do so without misrepresenting Judaism by making "Tikkun Olam" the basis for one's political position. 

The bottom line is that, at the hands of Jewish liberals, "Tikkun Olam" has become a nonsense mantra representing nothing more than the replacement of actual Judaism with a pseudo-theology consisting entirely of the pursuit of liberal political fads.