Author Says Enough Already with Tikkun Olam, or Healing the World; That’s Not Judaism

Is Tikkun Olam ripping Judaism apart? I interviewed author Jonathan Neumann for Publishers Weekly.

The first interview I did as Publishers Weekly’s Senior Jewish Correspondent (I just invented that title. I freelance for PW on Jewish issues.) was with conservative author Jonathan Neumann. He argues that Tikkun Olam, or “repairing the world,” is a dangerous hijacking of what was once a minor liturgical metaphor and turning it into a call for liberal politics.

The author is English and he critiques American Jews’ perspective of Jewish values, including Tikkun Olam, which he says has redirected the Jewish community toward liberalism. He thinks this is a bad thing.

My own opinions on this were immaterial to the story. But here’s what I think about Tikkun Olam (which has definitely reached peak saturation in cultural Judaism). Judaism has stayed alive and relevant for millennia because of its ability to adapt with the times. Tikkun Olam was a little-known Talmudic metaphor before progressive Jews took it as a central tenet.

Tikkun Olam: Just a Minor Metaphor?

One generation’s minor liturgical metaphor can be another’s most-visible trappings of religious fervor. The Haredim base some of their dress and behavior on single Torah passages that could arguably even be metaphors not meant to be taken literally. So it is with Tikkun Olam.

I realize that this is probably an inadequate, largely semantic, defense of Tikkun Olam. I’m still working it through. It comes down to how every single Jewish thinker of every denomination has told me in multiple interviews over 35 years that “cultural Judaism” is not sustainable. Yet, still, it survives.

One generation’s minor liturgical metaphor can be another’s most-visible trappings of religious fervor. The Haredim base some of their dress and behavior on single Torah passages that could arguably even be metaphors not meant to be taken literally. So it is with Tikkun Olam.

Is Social Justice Judaism Sustainable?

There have been generations of Jews sustaining their Jewishness on social justice — if not specifically by that name, then in how they live their lives and careers they choose. So, is rabbinic Judaism  needed for Jewish values? When I was at JTA, I used to write stories about alleged lack of affiliation of US Jews. But what I found was a great amount of devotion to salad-bar Judaism. I never knew why this was always explained to me as a bad thing.

During my wilderness years, those 16 years between when I quit JTA and stopped writing about Judaism and when I picked it up again in 2016, I was still very grounded in Jewish thought even as I went through various crises. I’m not the only one. I’ll write more on this in future.

On a side note: For this story, I also interviewed Adam Bellow, editorial director St. Martin’s Press imprint All Points Books. Adam is the son of one of my literary heroes, Saul Bellow.

Here’s an excerpt and link to the story.

Author Asks, is Repairing the World Ripping Judaism Apart?

“I’m not trying to make a partisan argument. It’s more a question of [are] these politics, and particularly the more liberal, the more radical politics we see within the Tikkun Olam movement, justified by biblical and rabbinic texts in the way that is claimed? I would suggest that they’re not.”

Read my interview with Jonathan Neumann in Publishers Weekly.