US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman on Wednesday (May 20) appeared to criticize certain spheres of progressive Judaism that place a significant emphasis on the Hebrew concept of “Tikkun Olam,” or repairing the world, along with other humanistic values, and argued that prioritizing such concepts over the study of Jewish texts and history has dangerous long-term repercussions for the future of the Jewish people.
Before responding to the actual claims, I would like to indicate that I have great respect for Ambassador Friedman. Not only for his part in the historic decisions made by the current US administration but also for many years of passionate support for Israel before being elected Ambassador.
Having said this, Ambassador Friedman’s speech is a classic example of the deep gap between the Modern-Orthodox/Zionist-religious approach to Judaism and the progressive/secular approach to Judaism.
As much as I agree with the importance of studying Jewish texts and history, Friedman makes the most common mistake of Jewish leaders and educators which is to enforce what they believe is important rather than listen to the desires of those who they are trying to connect with or influence.
In April 2019, I was asked to help launch the ‘Shalom Corps’. A new initiative funded by the Israeli Ministry of Diaspora Affairs, Mosaic United, and the Jewish Agency. The mission of ‘Shalom Corps’ is to encourage Jewish activists to pursue their dedication to social justice, through a Jewish/Israeli perspective. One of the studies that led to the decision to start this new initiative shows that over 80% of N. America Jews believe that Social Justice or ‘Tikun Olam’ is the most important Jewish Value. However, only 18% of Jews who claim to be passionate about social justice, are connected to Jewish organizations. The remaining 82% of Jewish activists/philanthropists choose to pursue their passion to ‘repair the world’ with non-Jewish organizations. When researching the mission statements and policies of leading ‘human rights’ organizations, we learn that the majority of non-Jewish ‘human rights’ and ‘social justice’ organizations are disproportionately critical of Israel and/or anti-Semitic. This means that thousands of Jews who are active in these organizations are disconnecting from Israel and the Jewish world.
A good example of this issue is actress Natalie Portman. Portman, a proud Jew, Israeli American, and social justice activist rejected the Genesis prize as an act of protest Israeli government. Portman’s decision was celebrated by the BDS movement and other anti-Semitic organizations. When looking at Portman’s set of values and affiliations, it is clear that she is passionate about social justice, and many other humanistic values that are promoted by ‘Shalom Corps’. This is why we approached her and asked if she would take part in a Jewish/Israeli organization that promotes humanistic values. Unfortunately, we were rejected.
Portman is not alone. Studies show that most Jewish activists and philanthropists rather invest their time and fortune with non-Jewish organizations although there are many Jewish organizations that offer the same services and stand for similar values.
There are many reasons for this, some social or psychological, as Jews have always tried to integrate into the general society, some objective as the non-Jewish organization are more well-known and receive more press coverage.
My argument is that the main reason for this is that like Ambassador Friedman, progressive Jews do not agree with ‘defining religion in terms of doing things that are morally just’.
This is a tragedy.
Instead of emphasizing the fact that Jewish history as well as Jewish text is filled with similar values and ideas, Judaism seems irrelevant.
Instead of listening to what Jewish progressives are seeking and creating Jewish programs that can cater to their needs, old-school Jewish leaders and educators keep pushing the same content that is NOT relevant.
Instead of teaching that 3500 years of Jewish wisdom can complete modern humanistic values, Ambassador Friedman and others call for the opposite.
Unlike Ambassador Friedman, I believe that defining religion in terms of doing things that are morally just is critical. The fact is that the amount of funds/time donated by faith-based groups in comparison to secular/progressive organizations is incomparable. The question is how Judaism connects to this.
This past September I joined a group of Jewish volunteers offering humanitarian aid in the Bahamas after they were hit by hurricane Dorian. While it’s impressive that Jewish/Israeli organizations are on the shortlist of organizations that offer humanitarian relief when comparing the quantity and quality of services provided to the huge Christian organizations some may ask if the Jewish people are capable of doing more.
A few months later, I traveled to Ethiopia on a medical mission of Israeli doctors, nurses, medical technicians, and supporting volunteers from Save A Child’s Heart organization. In only a week, the Israeli team performed 31 live-saving cardiac procedures. One of the most impactful experiences from that delegation was when the head doctor led the Friday night kiddush. There, in the center of Addis Ababa, it was the old Jewish prayer that uplifted us and connected us to something much greater. The old Jewish tune carried for generations reminding us of who we are and where we came from.
My conclusion is that connecting humanistic values with the study of Jewish texts and history is critical.
Critical both for the future of Judaism and for the future of Israel.