Pushing Back Against The War On Tikkun Olam


In a 270-page manifesto published last month by All Points Books, Jonathan Neumann, a Tikvah Fellow at Commentary magazine, declares war on tikkun olam.

A graduate of Cambridge University and the London School of Economics, the politically and religiously conservative author finds fault with the ethos that tikkun olam, Hebrew for “repair of the world,” in recent decades has served as a — if not the — central tenet of the non-Orthodox community. His slant is right there in the title: “To Heal the World? How the Jewish Left Corrupts and Endangers Israel.”

Tikkun olam, Neumann asserts, has nothing to do with Judaism; not, at least, with his view of biblically-based Judaism.

It is, Neumann writes, “the Hebrew moniker for Jewish social justice … a political philosophy that advocates the redistribution of income — and sometimes even wealth and other property — in order to achieve economic egalitarianism.” It has, he adds, “also come to include an agenda of permissive social policies that leave lifestyle questions to the discretion of the individual and promote gender diversity.”

For Neumann, “The first priority of the Jews in exile must be concern with the security, welfare, and ultimately the survival of the Jewish community,” he writes.

Neumann names names — including Ruth Messinger of American Jewish World Service, Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and Rabbi Arthur Waskow of the Shalom Center — and is withering in his criticism, claiming that those he cites are bad for Jews and bad for wider society. He repeats the old line that Reform Judaism is “the Democratic Party platform with holidays.”

If his book was meant to prompt a national discussion on the virtues of tikkun olam, it has not done that yet. But it has led to some sharp pushback from the Jewish left, with commentators questioning Neumann’s scholarship and conclusions.

In a lengthy article in Tablet, Shaul Magid, professor of religious studies at Indiana University, writes that Neumann “does not appear to have the requisite historical tools or sufficient knowledge of Judaism to make his case … the real claim Neumann is making here is that the social-activist Jews he despises are arguing that their liberal universalistic interpretations are the only legitimate ones. This would be damning, except for the fact that most of those criticized in the book simply do not make that claim.”

“Neumann clearly has not read the work of those he attacks,” Rabbi Jill Jacobs, executive director of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, said in an email interview with The Jewish Week. She is one of Neumann’s primary targets.

“If he had [read those works], he would know that my first book includes a historical and textual survey of the development of tikkun olam from the Mishna through Lurianic Kabbalah, and that my work — and that of others he criticizes — is deeply based in rabbinic text and in centuries of halachic deliberation on issues including criminal justice and poverty, not in a few biblical verses as he cynically asserts.”

Neumann’s book, Rabbi Aryeh Cohen, a professor of rabbinic literature at American Jewish University, told The Jewish Week, “is a wonderful example of the adage that it is easy to write about a subject that you know nothing about, yet it is hard to write about the subject with any credibility.”

Rabbi Michael Lerner, founder of the Tikkun journal and arguably the doyen of the tikkun olam movement in this country, declined to comment here on Neumann’s book, but in an unpublished op-ed essay on a recent article by Neumann in the New York Post, rejected Neumann’s take on tikkun olam.

“I’m proud that 70 percent of Jews voted Democratic in 2016,” Rabbi Lerner wrote, “but a real tikkun olam will require a deeper transformation than any political party currently stands for.”