Review of ‘To Heal the World?’ by Jonathan Neumann
It’s no secret that many liberal Jews today view tikkun olam, the Hebrew phrase for “repairing the world,” as the essence of Judaism. In To Heal the World?, Jonathan Neumann begs to differ, emphatically. He views liberal Judaism’s love affair with tikkun olam as the story of “How the Jewish Left Corrupts Judaism and Endangers Israel.” In fact, he believes tikkun olam endangers Judaism itself. Anyone who considers such notions wildly over the top should make sure to read Neumann’s book—because one needn’t agree with everything he says to realize that his major concerns are disturbingly well-founded.
Neumann begins by explaining what he considers the modern liberal Jewish understanding of tikkun olam. It is taken, he says, not just as a general obligation to make the world a better place, but as a specific obligation to promote specific “universal” values and even specific policies—usually, the values and policies of progressive Democrats.
He then raises three major objections to this view. The first is that the only way to interpret Judaism as a universalist religion with values indistinguishable from those of secular progressives is by ignoring the vast majority of key Jewish texts, including the Bible and the Talmud, and millennia of Jewish tradition. After all, most of these texts deal with the history, laws, and culture of one specific nation—the Jews. The Bible’s history isn’t world history, nor are its laws (with a few exceptions) meant to govern any nation but the Jews. Judaism undeniably has universalist elements. But to ignore its particularist aspects is to ignore much of what makes it Judaism, which therefore corrupts our understanding of Judaism.
The second problem is that if Judaism has no purpose other than promoting the same values and policies touted by non-Jewish progressives, there’s no reason for Judaism to exist at all. Consequently, the tikkun olam version of Judaism really does threaten Judaism’s continued existence, and it’s no accident that the liberal Jewish movements that have embraced it are rapidly dwindling due to intermarriage and assimilation. After all, why should young American Jews remain Jewish when they can do everything they think Judaism requires of them even without being Jewish?
This also explains why, in Neumann’s view, tikkun olam Judaism endangers Israel. If there’s no reason for Judaism to exist, there’s certainly no reason for a Jewish state. Indeed, Israel is anathema to the tikkun olam worldview because it’s the embodiment of Jewish particularism—the view that Jews are a distinct nation and have their own history, culture, and laws rather than being merely promulgators of universal values. Thus it’s easy to understand why tikkun olam Jews increasingly abhor the Jewish state.
The third problem, according to Neumann, is that tikkun olam Judaism offers a warped interpretation even of the Jewish sources its advocates quote to support it. He analyzes several of these sources in depth, and some of his analyses are illuminating. The best chapter is his deconstruction of the view that the prophets rejected Judaism’s particularist ritual aspects in favor of its universalist ethical aspects. His argument is too complex for me to do it justice here, so I’ll cite a simpler example—the Joseph story.
Liberal Jews often treat the account of Joseph’s work for Pharoah as a model of successful government action. Yet in reality, as Neumann points out, it is also a warning about the dangers of excessive governmental power. True, Joseph uses this power to avert famine in Egypt. But in exchange, he first takes the Egyptians’ money, then their livestock, then their land, and finally their freedom: “Then Joseph said unto the people: ‘Behold, I have bought you this day and your land for Pharaoh’” (Genesis 47:23).
Moreover, Neumann is undeniably right that nothing in Jewish tradition dictates the specific policy prescriptions beloved of liberal Jews. For instance, Judaism certainly cares about helping the poor, but it offers no guidance on whether higher minimum wages are an effective way to do so. Thus when liberal Jews insist that any good Jew must back this prescription, that is indeed a corruption of Judaism.
Nevertheless, Neumann’s analyses suffer from one major flaw: In his distaste for tikkun olam Jews, he sometimes mirrors their error by downplaying parts of the Bible that could be construed as supporting their message. For instance, he’s right that if the universalist principle of equality embodied by Genesis 1:27, “God created man in his own image,” were really the essence of Judaism, as the rabbi Arthur Green argues, it’s hard to see the point of the rest of the Bible, with its story of one particular nation. Yet neither can one ignore the fact that God, or the Bible’s editor (take your pick), decided to begin his largely particularist narrative with this universalist idea, indicating that Judaism also has messages that go beyond this one particular nation.
Similarly, significant portions of both biblical law and the prophetic texts are concerned with proper interpersonal behavior. As Neumann correctly says, most of these dictums are specifically about how Jews in a Jewish commonwealth should treat their fellow Jews. But once you acknowledge, for instance, that Jews in a Jewish state have responsibilities toward the Jewish poor, it’s hardly far-fetched to extrapolate from this that Jews in America have responsibilities toward America’s poor.
In other words, tikkun olam Jews haven’t fabricated their social-justice theology “almost out of whole cloth,” as Neumann writes; many of their concerns do exist in Judaism. They just aren’t the whole of Judaism, by a long measure, nor do they actually mandate most of the specific values and policies liberal Jews have saddled them with.
Because Judaism does have universal as well as particularist aspects, any convincing account of it must address both. And Neumann actually has a good answer for how to do so. Unfortunately, he buries it in a few throwaway paragraphs at the end of his third chapter. As he correctly notes, God tried a world based solely on universalism twice, first with Adam and then with Noah. But after those two failures, God evidently concluded that human nature itself doesn’t work that way, and He therefore tried a third time by working through one particular nation—an effort to which the rest of the Bible is devoted. In other words, Judaism argues that universal problems can best be addressed through a very particularistic method: a particular nation in a particular state practicing its own particular laws.
And this is one final reason that the tikkun olam movement’s abandonment of particularism is antithetical to Judaism: It’s a return to a method that God Himself tried twice and couldn’t make work.
Neumann deserves credit for mounting an unapologetic challenge to a worldview that has gone unquestioned for far too long. I can only hope it inspires others to tackle this subject in a way more likely to persuade the people who most need to hear it.
Originally published in Commentary on August 15, 2018