A devastating critique of the presumed theological basis of the Jewish social justice movementthe concept of healing the world.
What is tikkun olam? This obscure Hebrew phrase means literally “healing the world,” and according to Jonathan Neumann, it is the master concept that rests at the core of Jewish left wing activism and its agenda of transformative change. Believers in this notion claim that the Bible asks for more than piety and moral behavior; Jews must also endeavor to make the world a better place.
In a remarkably short time, this seemingly benign and wholesome notion has permeated Jewish teaching, preaching, scholarship and political engagement. There is no corner of modern Jewish life that has not been touched by it. This idea has led to overwhelming Jewish participation in the social justice movement, as such actions are believed to be biblically mandated.
There's only one problem: the Bible says no such thing.
In this lively theological polemic, Neumann shows how tikkun olam, an invention of the Jewish left, has diluted millennia of Jewish practice and belief into a vague feel-good religion of social justice. Neumann uses religious and political history to debunk this pernicious idea, and shows how the Bible was twisted by Jewish liberals to support a radical left-wing agenda.
In To Heal the World?, Neumann explains how the Jewish Renewal movement aligned itself with the New Left of the 1960s, and redirected the perspective of the Jewish community toward liberalism and social justice. He exposes the key figures responsible for this effort, shows that it lacks any real biblical basis, and outlines the debilitating effect it has had on Judaism itself.
|Publisher:||St. Martin's Press|
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A Torah of Social Justice
On the evening of Wednesday, July 11, 1883, two hundred people gathered for dinner at a resort restaurant in Cincinnati to honor the delegates to the eighth annual meeting of the Reform Jewish congregations, as well as the four young men ordained as rabbis that day in what was the first graduating class of the Hebrew Union College, the new seminary of Reform Judaism. On the menu that night were shellfish and other varieties of seafood, which are proscribed by Jewish dietary laws. In addition, cheeses and dairy ice cream were served following meat courses — also a traditionally prohibited combination. Some of the more conservative guests walked out in protest, and the meal became known as the "non-kosher banquet" in American Jewish lore. The leading Reform figure of the day, Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, refused to condemn the fare served that night — and it became clear to all that he accepted the abrogation of traditional observances. As the father of American Reform Judaism and accordingly one of the most influential rabbis in history, Wise is a principal protagonist in the story of the relationship of American Jews to social justice — and the non-kosher banquet was an important milestone in that relationship.
That story, though, starts back in Europe. Prior to the nineteenth century, European Jews had largely been confined to ghettos and excluded from public life. They clung to the faith of their fathers and the religious practices of their mothers, including strict observance of the kosher dietary laws, the Sabbath, and thrice-daily prayers recited in the direction of Jerusalem. Despised and persecuted by their gentile neighbors, these Jews' goal in life was simple: survival, in the hope that a better future awaited their progeny. Specifically, they prayed that that future would involve a restoration to the Land of Israel, from which the Jews had been exiled two millennia earlier, as part of a messianic redemption.
But then something major happened. In the late-eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the Jews in Western Europe were emancipated from the ghettos. In conjunction with the Enlightenment and rising nationalism on the continent, this new freedom offered Jews the opportunity to become fuller citizens in their host countries. Their responses over the following century varied. Traditionalist Jews either rejected modernity and retreated back into the ghettos or began to seek ways to sustain observance of Jewish law while living in gentile society. Other Jews preferred to assimilate or even convert, and many came also to join revolutionary socialist movements. Another group, particularly prevalent in Germany, did something else: it looked to remake Judaism in order to facilitate easier integration into local society.
Those in this latter category were faced with a double dilemma. First, now that Jews were apparently to suffer persecution no longer, their hitherto narrow focus on survival could be superseded by something nobler, but what? And, second, Jews were invited to become proper citizens, but at a price: they were required to abandon their collective Jewish identity and its nationalistic aspirations. You could not, it turned out, be a full child of Germany if you still identified with a distinct national community (the Jews) and prayed to return to its distant homeland (the Land of Israel). So if survival in the Diaspora in order to return to Zion could no longer be the dream, as it had been for centuries of Jewish exilic existence, what would replace it? These Jews' answer was to transform a global faith into a local patriotic religion: Berlin was the new Zion, Germany the new Promised Land, and the new role of the Jews — their new Torah, as it were — was to serve as a local model of the universalistic ethics of the great German philosopher Immanuel Kant. Thus Reform Judaism was born. And so was the Jews' interest in what would eventually become social justice.
This movement prized the ethical above all else: the rituals and beliefs of old had little place in this new Judaism. But although Reform was explicitly about changing Judaism and recasting it as a Kantian religion, in order to distinguish itself from secularism it still needed to root itself in the Hebrew Bible somehow — but do so in such a way that was fitting to its mission. Kant provided the ethical vision, but a generation later Julius Wellhausen delivered the exegetical rationale. Wellhausen was a Protestant theologian and academic who argued that the great contribution of ancient Israelite religion was the universal ethical message of its prophets. Judaism's law, particularism, and ritual — the very things to which the Jews had been clinging for two thousand years — confused, conflicted with, and even undermined that ethical message, and were therefore to be rejected. Kant had concurred, infamously writing that Judaism — by which he meant its laws and rituals — should be euthanized. Believing that Reform Judaism would bring about this outcome, the great philosopher lent the Reformers his support. The idea that universalistic ethics represents the true "essence" of Judaism remains a prevalent misconception to this day — one inspired by gentile scholars who thought very little of Judaism.
Over in America, thanks to Jewish immigrants from Germany and its environs, Reform Judaism gradually made inroads and eventually became the dominant denomination, a status it still retains. These immigrants introduced several innovations to Jewish practice, including shifting religious services from Saturdays to Sundays to coincide with the Christian Sabbath, relaxing the kosher dietary laws, and making greater use of English in prayers (partly because fewer and fewer of the laity understood Hebrew). The "Reverend Dr. Wise," as Isaac Mayer, a charismatic orator, became known to Jewish and non-Jewish audiences, was among the leaders of these Reformers. Born in Bohemia in 1819 as the eldest of thirteen children, he and his wife were spurred by local restrictions on Jews to move elsewhere and in 1846 he arrived in the United States. He introduced liturgical innovations to his synagogue to mirror the practices of American churches — choirs, an organ, replacement of bar mitzvahs with confirmation ceremonies, and mixed seating for men and women during prayers. The motivation of these American Reformers when they altered Jewish practice was, as with their German counterparts, in no small part to enable congregants to feel like full citizens of their countries. American Jews wanted to be perceived as less alien by their Christian neighbors, whose religious praxis they were aping. Given the past experience of the Jews, even following Emancipation in Europe or in the freedom of the New World, their fear of rejection by their neighbors was strong — and not unreasonable.
As in Germany, these Reformist communities made theological commitments that prompted and justified the practical changes. Two theological concepts they found especially troublesome were Jewish chosenness and the exile from the Land of Israel. Both distinguished the Jews as a people distinct from other Americans (and indeed all gentiles), and therefore couldn't be reconciled with their drive to eliminate differences between themselves and their compatriots. Consequently, to varying degrees, Wise and his fellow Reformers, including the more radical David Einhorn, disavowed the concept of the Jews as a chosen people; repudiated the hope in a messianic restoration of the Jews to the Land of Israel and of the Davidic kingdom there; rejected contemporary political Zionism (which called on the Jews to return to the Land of Israel); eliminated any talk of a resumption of animal sacrifices at a rebuilt Temple in Jerusalem; abandoned the second days of festivals (which had differentiated the Diaspora from the Land of Israel, where festivals are kept for only one day); and also, inspired by a voguish German practice, bestowed the appellation of "temple" on Reform synagogues, thereby scorning the notion that Jerusalem alone was the sacred site of God's House. Rather than promote and celebrate Jewish difference, the new messianic aim of the Jewish People was the union of all the children of God.
Following Wellhausen, the Reformers hailed the prophets of ancient Israel for articulating this eschatological hope. The prophets served a dual function — they were credited as having in effect established a new universal religion of ethics that was different from the Judaism of the Torah, but they also provided the Reformers with a claim to continuity with the Jewish past. As Einhorn paradoxically announced, "Our views have entirely changed. We stand upon the ground of prophetic Judaism which aims at the universal worship of God by righteousness." Notwithstanding this tension between new and old, at least one thing was clear: there was no longer any need for the Jews to look to return to the Land of Israel, because, it was now held, their exile was not a punishment. Rather, it heralded the commencement of their new mission: to teach this new universal religion to the gentiles in whose midst they lived. In time, the creed of this religion would be social justice.
The 1885 Pittsburgh Platform — a Reform credo that was christened by Wise as American Jews' "declaration of independence" — captured and succinctly expressed Reform's theological sentiments:
We consider ourselves no longer a nation, but a religious community, and therefore expect neither a return to Palestine, nor a sacrificial worship under the sons of Aaron, nor the restoration of any of the laws concerning the Jewish state.
There went ritual and the dream of Zion. The Jews were now merely a religious community. And the platform went on to elaborate what the new religion of this community was. The final of the platform's eight tenets was the declaration that "the spirit of the Mosaic legislation" is "to regulate the relations between rich and poor" and hence that
we deem it our duty to participate in the great task of modern times, to solve, on the basis of justice and righteousness, the problems presented by the contrasts and evils of the present organization of society.
The re-organization of society — which is a political objective — was the religious goal of this new faith. The term "social justice" with its current meaning was not yet in common usage, but the attitude it came to denote was evidently nascent in these early days of American Reform Judaism. The abandonment of Jewish ritual — exemplified by the non-kosher banquet — and repudiation of the historic Jewish attachment to Zion went hand in hand with the universalistic ethics that began to take the form of liberal and even socialistic politics. At first, this ideology was more a utopian hope than a guide to practical action. But in the early twentieth century mere faith began to give way to outright political agitation in the name of social justice.
Significantly, it was also in this era, during the rise of the Reform movement, that the lay leadership of American Jewry began to organize. A coterie of wealthy German Jewish families made critical contributions to the communal infrastructure and to the new establishments of Reform Judaism. Reform molded their attitudes and influenced the direction of the secular organizations they founded and led. These included the American Jewish Committee, which was the dominant voice of American Jewry for many years and is still influential today. And they also included the New York Times, whose owner, Adolph Ochs, was married to one of Wise's daughters. The ideology of Reform penetrated institutions that affected American society far beyond the boundaries of the Jewish community.
THE SOCIAL GOSPEL
Although Reform Judaism began to affect wider society, events outside the Jewish community still continued to shape the movement, as they had done back in Germany. Indeed the whole point of Reform was to mimic trends in its surrounding society — particularly in the Christian community — in order to appear less different. The principal influence drawing Reform Judaism away from mere utopian hope toward practical political action was the Social Gospel, a religious tradition that catapulted social justice to the forefront of American public discourse.
Social justice had been a religious ideology from its inception in the mid-nineteenth century. But back then it was a classically liberal notion (which today we would consider conservative). It took the form of a call by Catholic Italian nationalists for individual religious liberty and the protection of a strong religious civic society from the growing power of the state. Gradually, social justice became more focused on protections for the poor — an alternative to socialism. But by the turn of the nineteenth century and the rise of the Social Gospel, the politics of social justice had become almost indistinguishable from socialism, even as its expression remained religious.
The Social Gospel was a liberal Protestant movement that highlighted the religious underpinnings of Progressivism, which was at the height of its power in the first couple of decades of the twentieth century. Led by ministers and academics such as Walter Rauschenbusch, Washington Gladden, George Herron, and Richard Ely, the Social Gospel taught that the politics of Progressivism was "applied Christianity" (in Gladden's words). That is to say, the Social Gospel held that a certain political ideology was mandated by the Christian Bible, and good Christians would "apply" this teaching to society through politics. The Social Gospel was deeply statist, advocating what was called "coercive philanthropy" — the idea that many charitable services should be provided by the state.
But whereas regular socialism was antireligious, the Social Gospel took a different view. For Ely, the state wasn't just an important economic tool but was actually "religious in its essence." The state was the critical instrument by which religious eschatological (end-of-days) ambitions could be realized. "God works through the state in carrying out His purposes more universally than through any other institution," Ely wrote. Indeed, he went so far as to teach that "if anything on earth is divine, it is the state." Another leading Social Gospeller, Samuel Zane Batten, also spoke of the "divine meaning of the state." Several leaders of the movement, including Herron and Ely, were so confident in the power of the state that they were openly socialist.
As with regular socialism, the statism of the Social Gospel represented a fundamental break from the contemporary organization of the economy. The Social Gospellers themselves embraced the revolutionary implications of their program — which they also understood and described in religious terms. Gladden said that the Social Gospel called for nothing short of a "new Reformation" in pursuit of the Kingdom of God. Rauschenbusch explained that such a kingdom would "contain the revolutionary force of Christianity." Why is it that the state was so holy for them and needed to be strengthened in such a far-reaching way? The Social Gospel was inspired by the this-worldly eschatology of Postmillennialism. This theory held that Christ could only return to rule in the end of days after a millennium of heavenly rule on earth. This period — an epoch of social justice — had to be achieved and sustained by man. But to achieve this social justice, a radically different approach to public affairs was required. Only the state was powerful enough to deliver such a godly revolution — hence the state possessed the aura of the divine. Taking their cue from the Lord's Prayer ("Your kingdom come, Your will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven"), the Social Gospellers called for God's Kingdom to be established by man on earth.
The Social Gospel had an indelible effect on Reform Judaism, rousing it from its utopian dreams to practical action. Indeed, Reform was so inspired by liberal Christianity that it eventually surpassed the gentiles in its zeal for social justice. And it wasn't just Reform that took its cue from the Social Gospel. So did another denomination — Reconstructionist Judaism — founded by the influential theologian Mordecai Kaplan.
Kaplan was born in Lithuania in 1881 to an Orthodox family. He immigrated to America as a child, and graduated from City College of New York. He emerged not from Reform Judaism but from Orthodoxy and Conservative Judaism. Reconstructionism was, like Conservative Judaism, something of a middle way between Orthodoxy and Reform. But like Reform, Reconstructionism rejected the idea of a chosen Jewish People and emphasized social justice. For Kaplan, Judaism was a civilization whose laws and rituals could be reconstructed to serve contemporary needs. Having grown up during the height of the Social Gospel, Kaplan understood those needs to include combatting economic inequality, political corruption, a failing education system, and the persistence of war. Kaplan understood religion as as calling for us to "reconstruct the social order" and reconstruct Judaism in order to end these injustices.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "To Heal the World?"
Copyright © 2018 Jonathan Neumann.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Table of Contents
1. A Torah of Social Justice
2. Repair the World
3. In the Beginning
4. Abraham and the Meaning of Judaism
5. Joseph and the State
6. Exodus and the Revolution
7. The Prophetic Legacy
8. Tikkun Olam
9. How Not to Read the Bible
10. Social Justice vs. Israel
11. Should Judaism Survive?
12. The Way Forward