Michael Knopf
Rabbi and editor of 'No Time for Neutrality'

Doing Good Better

Come with me and you’ll be
In a world of pure imagination.
Take a look and you’ll see
Into your imagination.

We’ll begin with a spin
Traveling in the world
Of my creation.
What we’ll see
Will defy explanation.

If you want to view paradise,
Simply look around and view it.
Anything you want to, do it.
Wanna change the world?
There’s nothing to it…

When the great Gene Wilder, of blessed memory, died a few weeks ago, I felt compelled to revisit Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, from which the song I just sang was taken. I had the joy of sharing this exquisite piece of cinematic candy with my children for the first time, seeing the magical world on screen anew through their entranced eyes.

When you watch a familiar movie this way, fresh through a child’s perspective, you pick up things that you hadn’t noticed before. For example, when we first meet Willy Wonka. He walks out from his factory to greet his guests, and to everyone’s shock, he steps out hobbling on a cane. As he makes his way to the gate, he seems to accidentally drop the cane. He looks as though he’s beginning to fall, but at the last moment, he does a somersault and hops back to his feet to great applause.

In my memory of the film, this was simply a demonstration of Wonka’s playfulness. But watching it again, I realized that the purpose of this scene was to cast doubt on his trustworthiness. As Wilder himself put it, “From that time on, no one [would] know if [I was] lying or telling the truth.”

Seen in this light, everything Wonka says in the film is cause for skepticism, beginning with the meaning of “a world of pure imagination.” I had always understood this song as an expression of unbridled idealism: “Wanna change the world? There’s nothing to it.” But now I see it for its subversive cynicism: It is only easy to change the world if that world is purely imaginary. Transforming a world that exists only in fantasy is as simple as changing the fantasy. The real world, on the other hand? Well, that world is much harder to change!

Scan the planet, and it’s easy to see what I mean: Global climate change threatens every last living being on this earth. A brutal civil war has been raging in Syria for over five years, resulting in hundreds of thousands of deaths and millions of refugees. In fact, conflicts around the world have contributed to the largest global refugee crisis in human history. A third of the world’s women have been physically or sexually assaulted at some point in their lives. Hundreds of millions of people around the world do not have access to clean water and millions more die each year from preventable causes like malnutrition and malaria. Almost half the world — over three billion people — lives in extreme poverty.

Those staggering realities around the world could lead us to forget that we have serious problems here, too. In the United States, poverty afflicts more than 16 million children, or roughly one in every five kids. More than 2 million Americans are incarcerated, more people — both per capita and total — than any other country in the world. Ninety Americans die every day from gun violence. We have a greater rate of income inequality than any other democracy in the developed world, a self-reinforcing chasm between rich and poor that has been widening for over 40 years. And, to make matters worse, virtually every problem that plagues Americans as a whole disproportionately impacts Americans of color.

These major local and global challenges are even more complicated and difficult to solve because of intersectionality. Intersectionality means that forms of oppression – like racism, sexism, homophobia, or xenophobia – are actually interconnected. Injustices in society usually involve the “intersection” of multiple forms of discrimination.

Intersectionality made big news this year in the Jewish world. It first made it to my radar screen when anti-Israel protesters staged a demonstration at an LGBTQ conference in Chicago, arguing that Israel’s treatment of Arabs ought to disqualify Jewish and Israeli gay-rights activists from participating in the conference. Then, this summer, the Movement for Black Lives platform argued that racial justice in America is interconnected with the cause of Palestinian liberation.

Even many scholars of intersectionality saw these applications of the term as abuses of its meaning. So we must not let our negative experience with the concept blind us to the truths it exposes: that brokenness in one part of the world is often connected to brokenness in another, and oppression is often multilayered. Martin Luther King was as usual prophetic when, in 1963, he argued:

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.

So, for example, the water crisis in Flint, Michigan was about poverty and racism as much as it was about public-health and the environment. Economic inequality is intertwined with issues as diverse as education, criminal justice, health care, and race. The impact of the Syrian civil war exposes intersections of xenophobia, Islamophobia, colonialism, and other forms of oppression. And climate change might be the ultimate intersectional issue, as policies and behaviors on one side of the world profoundly impact people everywhere else.

Repairing the world, tikkun olam in Hebrew, is a central feature of our tradition. Some go further, arguing that the whole purpose of Torah is tikkun olam. Some even say that tikkun olam is built into our DNA as Jews. Former Israeli Prime Minister and President, the great Shimon Peres, who sadly left this world just before Rosh Hashanah, once said, “We’re a nation born to be discontented. Whatever exists we believe can be changed for the better.”

Peres was known for his optimism, but for many of us, it’s hard to look at our world with such a hopeful attitude. Our world is so broken! The problems that plague our planet, our country, our city are each so complex and all interconnected! How are any of us supposed to repair such a world? In tikkun olam, has our tradition given us a commandment that is impossible to fulfill?

Some have recently tried to employ a data-driven approach to this problem. They’ve created a movement called “effective altruism.” Effective Altruism is best summed up by the title of a book written by one of its founders, an Oxford philosophy professor named William McCaskill. The book’s title is Doing Good Better. That’s what this movement is about, improving the way we approach repairing the world.

Effective Altruism argues that we tend to think about repairing the world too emotionally. Instead, we should give to charity and volunteer as rationally as possible: Crunch the numbers, embrace the evidence, use your brain. In Doing Good Better, McCaskill proposes we ask five questions when determining where to direct our philanthropic efforts:

  1. Will it dramatically improve a large number of lives?
  2. Is this the most effective thing one can do?
  3. How much is the cause overlooked?
  4. What would happen if I didn’t do anything for this cause?
  5. What are the chances of success?

There is much to admire about Effective Altruism. It points out that many of us can be fairly thoughtless in our charitable giving, if we give at all. We tend to give based on emotion or social pressure or moral licensing, doing a good deed to feel better about ourselves, so causes that help fewer people less effectively cannibalize resources that could be better used elsewhere. Others of us might be quite thoughtful in our humanitarian work, but focus on all the wrong data points. We consider factors like the salary a nonprofit pays its CEO rather than the nonprofit’s effectiveness. Effective Altruism points out that we must use our brains at least as much as our hearts when striving to do good.

I find something very Jewish about Effective Altruism. As I said on Rosh Hashanah, our tradition demands not greatness but goodness. And yet countless Jewish texts over the millennia have devoted themselves to exploring the best, most important, most effective ways for us to do good. Like Effective Altruism, Judaism wants us not only to do good, but also to do good better, to be thoughtful and deliberate about the ways we do good, to channel our efforts where they are most needed and most effective.

Still, Effective Altruism has not perfected tikkun olam. There is no perfect algorithm for determining the extent to which helping a given cause will improve lives. A mathematical formula can’t prove whether saving a life in Mumbai is more important than saving a life in Richmond, or whether it is better to save a thousand lives in Africa than a hundred lives in America, or whether it is better to take an action that is guaranteed to save ten lives today than an action that might save a million lives in five years.

And even if we could determine beyond doubt the best cause to support, we still wouldn’t repair the world. Even if we solved one major problem, we face thousands of other challenges at the same time, many of which are inseparable one from the other. And that’s not even accounting for the fact that new problems emerge all the time, sometimes even as a direct result of the way we’ve resolved a different issue. What good ultimately is channeling all energy into a small handful of the most important causes, even if we could precisely define their importance?

Our tradition has always understood the complexity of this problem. While we are commanded to repair the world, the Jewish tradition acknowledges that this task is bigger than any one of us individually and beyond the capacity of any one generation to attain.

But our inability to solve all our problems does not excuse us from trying to do as much as we can. As Rabbi Tarfon famously put it in the Mishnah:

לא עליך המלאכה לגמור ולא אתה בן חורין לבטל ממנה

It is not incumbent upon you to finish the task, but neither are you free to desist from it (Avot 2:21).

Just because a challenge is too big for us to completely remedy, or because we don’t have all the answers right now, does not mean we are exempt from the work. We are not permitted to see the task as futile and give in to despair, because to do so is to guarantee the world remains as broken as it is. Though we may not be able to do it all, each of us is obligated to find causes about which we feel passionate and then “do our share to redeem the world.”

The enormity of the task of tikkun olam also means that community is essential to its fulfillment. None of us can repair the world on our own. As a powerful Hopi teaching puts it, “One finger cannot lift a pebble.” The Torah persistently highlights this fact, showing that leaving Egypt, crossing the sea, standing at Sinai, and marching toward the Promised Land required the collective efforts of the entire people of Israel. And our tradition insists again and again that ultimate redemption will not arrive unless the Jewish people unites in the shared purpose of building a just and peaceful world.

Religious communities often illustrate this truth. My colleague and friend, Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Herrmann, once told me what her previous congregation, West Philadelphia’s Kol Tzedek, was able to accomplish through coming together in common cause: After a year and a half of communal learning and conversation, the members of Kol Tzedek decided they would work to secure good-paying jobs for Philly’s poorest citizens. They conducted a listening campaign, hearing the stories of workers earning less than minimum wage. Congregants mobilized to visit city council members and the mayor, convincing them to introduce a ballot measure to raise the minimum wage for all city workers. Then, they hit the streets to educate the public about the measure and inspire voter turnout. The initiative passed by an overwhelming majority.

I find this so inspiring: Because a community of faith worked together toward a common cause, between 10-15,000 of Philadelphia’s poorest got a much-needed raise. A lot of real people’s lives were made a whole lot better thanks to the collective efforts of a synagogue. Sure, we can do some good on our own. But we can do good better when we work together.

Community is also essential to tikkun olam because communities are always comprised of diverse individuals, each with their own unique constellation of interests, talents, and skills. There are too many local, national, and global challenges for any one person or any one community to address. But being part of a community that values tikkun olam provides opportunities to work together and also a supportive framework for individuals to repair the world in independent and mutually reinforcing ways. The Torah illustrates this beautifully when it outlines the plan for building the Tabernacle in the wilderness. The Book of Exodus presents a clear vision for what the finished structure will look like, but calls for each individual to contribute whatever their heart moves them to bring. The Tabernacle can only be built when everyone in the community offers according to their passions and abilities. When we are part of a community of conscience, we can feel empowered to pursue our own passion projects because we know that others in the community are addressing theirs, enabling us to cover as much ground as possible.

Of course, communities can’t live up to their potential to facilitate tikkun olam unless they teach the meaning of that value and pass the sense of commitment to the next generation. That’s why our tradition teaches the most important thing we can do for world repair is to study Torah: “Talmud Torah k’neged kulam.” According to Jewish law, the study of Torah is equal to all of the most important ethical commandments, including honoring parents, acts of kindness, and pursuing peace (Mishnah, Pe’ah 1:1).

Of course, action is crucial. But only study establishes the intellectual, emotional, and spiritual framework for the work we are called to do in the world. This is especially true given the complexity of repairing the world. Only serious study of a tradition dedicated to chronicling age-old wisdom and moral reflection can help us navigate the infinite large and small judgments involved in the work of tikkun olam. Only through study can we learn how, exactly, we can do the most good, and also why we should bother.

That’s why this year, my congregation will be hosting a year of adult learning about tikkun olam. We’re calling this exciting education program L’taken Olam: Building a Better World.All year long, we will be holding classes and seminars aimed at deepening our understanding of this core Jewish value and empowering us to make a real difference.

But even if our community weren’t spending a year taking a deep dive into tikkun olam, it is already part of the fabric of our congregation’s life. Just the other week, dozens of congregants – from young children to seniors – gathered to host Caritas, sheltering, feeding, and entertaining our city’s most vulnerable. Last Purim, many of our school children made care packages for the elderly and hand-delivered them; and dozens of us took time off during a workday to make and deliver bag lunches to the homeless in Monroe Park. Earlier this year, all it took was one email to help us raise thousands of dollars in less than two weeks to provide water to the people of Flint.

These are just a few examples, and even then only of the work we organize. Our congregation is filled with activists for important causes, volunteers for many worthy organizations, and folks who give generously to those in need. That’s not a coincidence. Synagogues by their nature attract people who do good, and inspire their members to do more.

For that reason, there is no form of charitable giving more effective or more important than supporting and being part of communities of conscience like ours. Consider for a moment this fact: Jewish Americans give to charity at much higher rates than other Americans. And the biggest predictor of whether a Jewish person will give to charity is how connected they are to the Jewish community. There is a direct causal link between being a member of a synagogue and being a generous charitable giver, not just to Jewish causes, but to all causes. So, if you want to do good better, there’s no better place to start than right here.

And there’s no better time than right now. Yom Kippur is the perfect moment to rededicate ourselves to tikkun olam. In the haftarah for Yom Kippur morning, we read what the prophet Isaiah said the day really means. According to Isaiah, God says, “This is the fast I desire: To unlock fetters of wickedness, and untie the cords of the yoke; to let the oppressed go free; to break off every yoke. It is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home; When you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to ignore” others in need. As my teacher, Rabbi Sharon Brous, put it, Yom Kippur is not about bringing “an annual guilt-offering to the Jewish God of Institutional Religion…We are here to remind ourselves of who we are, and who we are called to be. We are here to dream together about what we can build, and then to go get busy building.”

May this High Holy Day season inspire us all to do our share to repair our world in the year to come. Through learning and teaching, discerning and taking action, may we together do what we can to build a more compassionate, just and peaceful world.

May you be inscribed for a year of good.

About the Author
Rabbi Michael Knopf is co-editor of 'No Time for Neutrality: American Rabbinic Voices from an Era of Upheaval', now available on Amazon, and spiritual leader of Temple Beth-El in Richmond, Virginia. The views expressed in this article are solely his own, and do not necessarily reflect those of his congregation.
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