What Does Tikkun Olam Mean? Debating Interpretation; Authority; Misappropriation (and Chazon Ish)

Jonathan Neumann wrote a polemical book in which he vehemently critiques liberal Judaism’s social justice agenda. Not being satisfied with merely attacking the ideas he dislikes, he also berates the prominent proponents of those ideas. Many of the people he bashes are my acquaintances and some of them are also very dear friends. It is hard not to feel hurt on behalf of them, people who have dedicated their lives to act Godly and bring divine grace to all of humanity.

He is particularly irked by the social justice community’s use of the Rabbinic and kabbalistic idiom, Tikkun Olam. He claims that liberal Jewry is wrong in using that trope as evidence of traditional Judaism’s imprimatur of their universalist social action agenda. Neumann also believes that the contemporary social action ethos is devoid of any theological content. This upsets him immensely. He argues emphatically that, in the context in which the Tikkun Olam concept appears, it connotes the exact opposite of what liberal Judaism promotes. Tikkun Olam in traditional halakhic and kabbalistic parlance endorses a highly particularistic ethos, which is also blatantly mystical and explicitly theological; it is social action with a theological core. We make the world a better place for utilitarian mystical purposes, in order to infuse the world with a robust divine presence, not because we are a universalist community. The purpose of Tikkun Olam then is theological, not sociological.

My friend Dr. Shaul Magid wrote a comprehensive critique of the book, pointing out mistakes, misreadings and also a misunderstanding of core precepts in contemporary religious discourse. (My own brief review of the book, published in the Forward, can be found here. )

While I absolutely agree with Dr. Magid’s thorough refutation of Neumann, I do take strong exception to his defense of the liberal camp’s use of Tikkun Olam as a concept which champions an a-religious universalism.

Dr. Magid and I debated this aspect of his otherwise on-point review. What are the parameters of interpretation: are some interpretations of traditional texts more legitimate than others? Is universalist social action a value the Rabbis cared about, or where they particularists?

Here is our conversation:

1) Dr. Shaul Magid’s Defense of Liberal Judasim’s Use of the Tikkun Olam Trope to Promote a Non-theological Universalist Agenda

In some way the centerpiece of Neumann’s critique is what he determines is the misconstrual of the term Tikkun Olam (fixing the world) that has become the leitmotif of social-justice Jews. Let us say for the sake of argument that he is correct, that the term in liturgical and later kabbalistic usage does not refer to the Jewish responsibility to fix the world. That social-justice Jews are in large part articulating a Jewish social gospel that originated in early 20th century Protestantism. Is this new? Not at all. It would be hard for example to find a representative text in the Hebrew Bible that embodies our conventional notion of monotheism. Where can we find anything in the tradition resembling Zionism, a collective move to return to the ancestral land before the messiah and without a Temple? Yes, the term tikkun as it used in kabbalistic literature bears little resemblance to what it meant in the Bible or the rabbis. The word devekut in the Hebrew Bible and rabbinic texts hardly means what it has come to mean in Hasidism. And Rav Kook’s use of the term teshuva (repentance) as a marker for cosmic return is hardly aligned with the biblical and prophetic use of the term. In short, tikkun olam is simply a sign, the adaptation of a Hebrew term to embrace a liberal Jewish ideology. The fact that the term did not mean that in the aleinu prayer or even in kabbalistic literature is in some way obvious but also banal. Neumann can disagree with the liberal principles embodied under the banner of the contemporary usage of tikkun olam but rendering it illegitimate by showing it deviates from the term’s original meaning is no critique at all.”

2) My critique of Dr. Magid

Yedidi ha’yakar,

Thank you for an insightful and thought provoking review. I do however take strong exception to your critique of Neumann’s “centerpiece” argument. Your claim is, if you can excuse the bluntness, disingenuous. Neumann in this case is right, liberal Judaism’s use of the Tikkun Olam trope is misleading and incorrect. It never means what they claim it means. I am surprised that you are not willing to concede that point.

More importantly, your defense of how the trope is employed is inaccurate. It is not used by the champions of liberal Judaism as a mere “sign” but as a way to anchor contemporary progressive values in Judaism’s textual tradition. The claim is that progressive goals operate on a continuum with Rabbinic values, that we continue what they have begun. That is incorrect. Chazal did not share progressive Jewry’s universalism. They might make a nod to it here and there, but it was not a significant variable in their overall sense of Judaism’s charge.

I also think that a proper critique of Neumann would have to spend more time fleshing out your eilu ve’eilu claim-that throughout history competing views based their claims on the tradition, because of its multivalence. That is true, but that doesn’t mean that Jewish texts are a free-for-all, where כל הרוצה לבוא ליטול את השם יבוא ויטול. There is a method to this Jurisprudential madness, whereby some exegetical claims are more legitimate than others. I do not think that we have yet figured out the criteria for exegetical legitimacy but it exists, waiting to be articulated. To pretend that there are absolutely no rules, is, therefore, unfair to the tradition, and in the wrong hands could have dangerous consequences.

3) Dr. Magid’s Retort to My Critique

I want to respond to a few comments you made in your initial post. In terms of what Tikkun Olam means in the progressive social justice community, I refer you to Aryeh Cohen‘s essay in Tikkun which I think acknowledges your point and then moves beyond it. To wit, the leaders of that movement do not claim they are fully embodying a rabbinic ethos in their social justice work. At least not literally (if Neumann had read Cohen in Tikkun he might not have said some of the things he said).

Rather, as I understand it Tikkun Olam is presented as a “sign” of what they determine is a rabbinic “inclination” at least to some degree that often gets embedded in a highly particularistic discourse that admittedly often subverts the very universal justice motif SJ people want to promote. In that sense, what they are doing is subversive but subversion is itself sometimes an exercise in tradition. We all know that the term as used in Hazal refers to a very different context but even some rishonim (a minority for sure) are willing to move the term beyond its literal context (Cohen cites the Meiri merely as precedent, not as a rule). As I wrote in my essay, the disembedding (a term I borrow from Seth Schwartz) of terminology by later authorities for different purposes is not new, or even radical. I gave some examples. While it is surely true that some SJ Jews think the term means what they say it means, one should not write to the lowest common denominator but the highest.

On the question of elu ve elu, I did not use that term intentionally. I think perhaps we are different in that I am a committed halakhic non-essentialist. I believe what determines halakha is not some ontological “correct” view nor even the best use of rules, but authority. Here I find myself close to the Hazon Ish who I argue elsewhere rejects the notion of an ontological or immaculate law (which is one reason why he opposed Dikdukei Sofrim). Law is what the authorities determine it to be. Period. Our job is not to find its truth but to fall in love with it.

But here, in any case, we are not talking halakha but aggadah. And in that realm while indeterminacy may be too strong (here I think David Stern’s corrective to Susan Handelman’s Slayers of Moses in his Midrash and Theory in on point) the use of rules of interpretation are often quiet elastic. And even more so in kabbalah and hasidut, as you know well. So to de-contextualize Tikkun Olam is not an anti-midrashic move per se, one can find more radical de-contextualizations throughout homiletic literature, as long as we know what we are doing. Neumann writes as a kind of sophomoric literalist by stating that such a move is heretical. What exactly is the heresy?

Most of the SJ Jews I know are not advocates of “traditional Judaism” if by that we mean Orthodoxy (which itself is a human construct driven in large part by authority). SJ Jews are making a claim that there exists an inclination in tradition toward a universalism that they want to disembed from the confines of traditional/particularistic discourse (itself, they claim, created via social and economic contexts), that is to let the previously encumbered rabbinic universalism flag fly. This is why the whole enterprise is based on historicism (which is why so many of them are products of JTS and HUC and not YU). So if the standard is “traditional Judaism” (undefined) than I claim the argument is false from the start because many of these SJ Jews deny that standard of the bar of legitimacy. In that sense, it does come down to an Orthodox/non-Orthodox battle but one where both sides have the requisite literacy of tradition but see its development and thus limits differently. This is why I mentioned the likes of Geiger, Kohler, et al who were talmidei hakhamim in both a traditional and critical sense.

As I wrote, I am sometimes critical of the SJ movement because I think the tradition is actually limited in the ways it can serve as a template for contemporary ways of addressing these issues. That is, I do not think the tradition is as elastic as many SJ Jews think. That is, I suppose, I think the tradition sometimes fails us. But I certainly applaud the creative (and yes sometimes subversive) ways in which they interpret sources and I think in most cases they are on solid interpretive ground to do so. But that is a debate worth having in the progressive community. (added emphasis by Dr. Magid).

4) MY Response to Dr. Magid’s Retort

Shaul,

I couldn’t disagree more with both of your points:

1) You write that “Rather, as I understand it Tikkun Olam is presented as a “sign” of what they determine is a rabbinic “inclination” at least to some degree that often gets embedded in a highly particularistic discourse that admittedly often subverts the very universal justice motif SJ people want to promote.”

While I admire the paradoxical sophistication of your ouroboric formulation, what you are saying is simply not true. The rabbis were not universally inclined at all. In close to three thousand pages of Talmud, one almost never encounters the Rabbis expressing concern for those outside their own community. When they do show consideration for those not part of their religious orbit, it is, as they explicitly state, for utilitarian purposes; משום דרכי שלום. Nor, as far as I am aware, are there significant examples resembling universalism in any of the midrash halakha or midrash aggadah texts.

There are of course several exceptions, times when they do articulate a universalist sensibility but they are infinitesimal and therefore insignificant as far as making a global claim about the “Rabbis” is concerned.

Moreover, the rare universalist statement in chazal is drowned out by the numerous times when they express emphatic particularist sentiments. They constantly extol their uniqueness, oftentimes contrasting it with the inferiority of others.

Tikkun Olam” is consequently not in any way a “sign” of a rabbinic inclination towards universalism. As a matter of fact, the phrase, in the rabbinic context, has one of two meanings, both of them expressing a desire for their own community’s betterment, not that of the world at large. It either expresses the Rabbis concern for the proper function of the marketplace, or a desire to avoid the risk of adultery. Either way, it most definitely does not expresses a universalist senseibility. Saying otherwise is therefore, dishonest and, if not deliberately at least passively, misleading. The term means what it means in the context in which it appears. It does not also mean something else.

Justifying the misappropriation, as you do, by suggesting that it is perhaps “aggadah,” or by alluding to the “elasticity” of classical texts or idioms, is incorrect. Tikkun Olam is a trope which operates outside of the halakha/aggadah paradigm. It is a concept that in two words articulates a very specific Rabbinic decree. It is neither elastic, nor is it open for reinterpretation.

(The same is true for its kabbalistic function. לתקן עולם במלכות שדי is not a abstract concept created by kabbalists. It is a phrase which articulates a very specific mystical theological trope. One can expand the trope or apply it more broadly than initially intended, but one certainly cannot shave off half the phrase (במלכות שדי) and then use it in a way that not only ignores its intended meaning but also subverts it. The phrase was coined to convey a particular kabbalistic religious ideal. Turning it into something which promotes a secular value, is a subversive and inexcusable misappropriation.)

When it comes to the classical medieval Rishonim, the picture is still the same–most of the classical medieval thinkers were hyper-particularists–with perhaps one or two exceptions.

For example:

1) R. Tam. It seems that entertained universalists senseabilities, at least to some extent. (He qualifies the highly exclusionary statement, אתם קרוין אדם ואין אומות העולם קרוין אדם. He also explores the possibility of not treating his non-Jewish French neighbors as idolaters, as regards yain nesech. Although, to be honest, the impetus there seems to be financial, not ideological. Standing in stark contrast to his seemingly universalist attitude, however, is the fact that he negates the significance of adultery with a non-Jew, using damning language toward them.)

2) Rambam also appears to embrace universalist values–if Menachem Kellner is to be believed. Although, I personally am not convinced by his arguments. Many of Maimonides’ formulations, at least on the surface, seem pretty particularist.

3) Meiri. Here too do we need to be truthful: Meiri is not a conventional Rishon. Few would put him in the pantheon of classical Rishonim.

I, therefore, do not see how one can with integrity use chazal as a precursor for our contemporary sense of social consciousness.

You further defend the misappropriation of Tikkun Olam by employing the Izhbitzer. You write that “what they [the SJ activists who make reference to the tikkun olam trope] are doing is subversive but subversion is itself sometimes an exercise in tradition.”

While I, of course, agree with the premise and, as you well know, it is indeed a concept with deep roots in Jewish theology, going back all the way to chazal, I, nevertheless, don’t think that the notion of “subversiveness” which these theologians were condoning, is applicable here, this is not what they had in mind. The proponents of “subversive theology” indeed support someone who chooses to subvert traditions and conventional norms for the greater good, but that is not a justification to mislead others in having them believe that a text says something which it does not say, especially when the misrepresentation is done for the purpose of gaining undeserved authority.

I actually believe that making chazal the forebears of the Tikkun Olam enterprise was a mistake. Claiming allegiance to the our prophetic tradition would have been more honest, and also more successful. The prophets indeed are predominantly universalists and also articulate their values far more poetically than the Rabbis did.

Referencing the prophets is of course not ideal either. There is still room to ask whether the Rabbis were complimenting the prophetic universelist ethos, building off of it and adding an additional jurisprudential layer, or where they subverting and rejecting the prophetic universalist consciousness? Either way, the prophetic tradition, on its own terms, would still have provided a legitimate foundation for Jewish universalism. Using instead the Rabbinic and kabbalisitc Tikkun Olam trope was a mistake and, for a traditional ear, grating, dishonest and infuriating.

This misappropriation has also come at a high price to our cause. It has managed to alienate many in the more traditional camp, making them enemies, instead of allies. They are now filled with rage toward us.

Neumann’s book gives voice to that fury, albeit, inarticulately and with a layer of personal animus which is offensive and inappropriate.

2) I also strongly disagree with your understanding of how halakha functions. You radically overstate the role of the posek in deciding halakha. The decisor of course has a prominent role in determining law, but to claim that he or she are the sole factor in making law is incorrect. Psak is a live organism, growing and perpetually expanding. That growth is nourished by a symbiotic relationship between text, history, the community of observers, and the decisor. One without the other is useless. I heard your presentation on the Chazon Ish, and my dear friend, if you can excuse (the yeshivah bachur) bluntness: the Chazon Ish would have been horrified by the attribution of such a radically antinomian thesis to him. He would have rejected it as heretical and anathema to everything he believed.

He most certainly allotted significant leeway to the posek, but that is a far cry from saying that the posek has no obligation to retain a devout and reverential fidelity to text, precedent and tradition. (Dr. Magid has written a paper in which he further develops his thesis about the Chazon Ish’s jurisprudential philosophy. I hope to return to this issue when that paper is published.)

* * *

To conclude: personally, I strongly identify with the social justice agenda and proudly consider myself part of the progressive community. I also do not doubt for a moment that social justice is a Jewish value. For myself, social action actually has deep spiritual significance. The drive to make life better and more just for all of humanity is fueled by a belief that every human being, regardless of color, race, or sexual orientation is created in the divine image; be’Tzelem Elokim. Making the world more pleasantly inhabitable for all who are iconic imprints of the divine will allow the divinity present in all of us to become tangible and ever more palatable. I do, however, think that the use of Tikkun Olam as proof for a traditional orientation toward a universalist social justice ethos is incorrect and smacks of cultural misappropriation.

With this I will conclude. Perhaps we can revisit this sugya sometime in the future. לכשאפנה אשנה פרק זה.

About the Author
Rabbi Ysoscher Katz is the Chair of the Talmud department at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, and the director of the Lindenbaum Center for Halakhic Studies there. He received ordination in 1986 from Rabbi Yechezkel Roth, dayan of UTA Satmer. Rabbi Katz studied in Brisk and in Yeshivat Beit Yosef, Navaradok for more ten years, and is a graduate of the HaSha'ar Program for Jewish Educators, Rabbi Katz taught at the Ma'ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls and SAR High School, and gave a popular daf yomi class in Brooklyn for more than eight years.
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