In the lead-up to this High Holiday season, amidst the sermon preparations of many rabbis, a popular Jewish topic, Tikkun Olam (repairing the world), has risen to the forefront of Jewish media coverage. When asked whether he would participate in a White House High Holidays conference call or boycott it, as the Reform and Conservative movements did last year, one rabbi responded that he would call in, saying that he believed that it is important to raise the issue of Tikkun Olam. This follows on weeks of Jewish media coverage of a young Jewish British author, Jonathan Neumann, whose controversial book takes a different perspective. Its hard-hitting title is “To Heal the World?: How the Jewish Left Corrupts Judaism and Endangers Israel.”
This begs the question: does repairing the world relate to Rosh Hashanah, the day to which tradition ascribes the birth of the world? What should we focus on at this time of year?
Rosh Hashanah, with its emphasis on the connectedness between God’s sovereignty and human indispensability, instills in us an empowering sense of our own humanity. Throughout the prayers, we ask God to be king over us – but to be a king, He needs His people. So, we therefore also ask him to spare us. We note that God remembers everything – but also that He has promised to remember His covenant with our forefathers, an agreement that binds Him to ignore our failings if they would move Him to destroy us. Finally, we sound the shofar and discuss its connection with God’s glory at Sinai as well as to God’s mercy. We do so by evoking its connection to the ram that substituted for Abraham and Isaac’s sacrifice at the Akedah, as well as to the shofar that will herald our redemption. The message is clear: God is so powerful that He has established an unbreakably strong loving relationship with us – He has made Himself need us: as a companion in love and, as the Hebrew Bible and Midrash pointed out, as the focal point of creation itself.
Here is where the notion of Tikkun Olam becomes so attractive. If we are as important as we say we are in the Rosh Hashanah prayers, it is easy to understand how we might see our role – whether as created in the image of God or as co-creators with God – as requiring us to repair or heal the world. Judaism can easily be interpreted as a religion of positive social change, one that pushes man to be inspired by the majesty of God to do good to others. Indeed, charity is a major theme in Judaism, and it occupies an important place in the Yom Kippur service. It is easy to interpret the charity preached by the prophets of Israel as consonant with a modern understanding of social justice.
The problem, however, is that social justice does not seek human greatness, but equality of outcomes. This is radically different matter from the imperatives for charity and human dignity found in the Bible and rabbinic literature. There is nothing great about all humans living leveled lives of equality or sameness. The liberty prized by Jewish sources, on the other hand, tends to free up individuals’ potential for greatness, enabling them to produce great if unequal outcomes.
A politics that emphasizes social justice as the basis of religion can quickly lead us to forget who we are, both as human beings with individual rights and as Jews with religious identities. Consider some recent developments in Jewish politics involving divisions over issues that ought to create consensus. Most Jews oppose school choice, which would allow parents the right to educate their children as they see fit, as well as boost the only growing Jewish demographic in America: Orthodox Jews, most of whom use private schools to retain their Jewish identities. Then consider that despite a history of persecution, most Jewish organizations have taken negative stances on religious liberty in recent years. For the sake of creating what they perceive to be universal comfort and acceptance, these organizations would violate the rights of objectors attempting to live out their sincerely held religious beliefs. Finally, just as many Jews have ignored our need for schooling and religious liberty as individuals, too many have been turning away from our peoplehood by withholding their support for the State of Israel because they do not believe its policies complying with their vision of what a Jewish state ought to look like.
In addition to becoming less concerned with Jewish rights and peoplehood, American Jewry is becoming less religious as well. A new Pew study of organized religion in America found that American Jews far outpace other American demographic groups in their dissociation from organized religion. And the much-heralded Pew study of 2013 found dramatic declines in belief in God and connection to Jewish communities and institutions, while recording a substantial rise in intermarriage (except for the Orthodox).
This trend away from our religion should not be surprising. After all, if we forget our individual rights and common peoplehood, how can we possibly understand God in any meaningful way? Why should we be able to understand a God who loves and needs us if we do not love and need ourselves, but are instead so focused on fixing the world that we forget about our rights and peoplehood? If we have forgotten what it means to be free and unique in the name of ensuring equal autonomy for all, can we know what it is to look to God as the source of the freedom we each possess to maximize our potential? Surely not.
Our goal on Rosh Hashanah, then, is to feel human and Jewish while appreciating God. That is the focus of the liturgy – not fixing the world, and not primarily even charity (which, unlike social leveling, is certainly a vitally important obligation). One of the relatively few mentions of financial charity on Rosh Hashanah occurs in Unesaneh Tokef, and even there, this reference is embedded within a much larger prayer about God’s sovereignty, man’s frailty, repentance and prayer. These concepts are so intertwined that, ironically, many advocates of social justice advocates, in wishing to remove this somber and discomforting prayer, have advocated removing the only famous reference to charity from the High Holy Day liturgy. As for Tikkun Olam, this is mentioned in the Aleinu prayer in the context of God establishing Himself in the world. And this prayer too has, in some circles, seen recent modification to make it less particularistic.
Only once we are comfortable with the varying results of human achievement, whether the result of individual rights, religious particularities, or national differences, can we then hope to cherish our humanity and to live charitably. And only then then can we understand what it truly is to be Jewish – and to live in what is truly and literally the most humane manner possible. Our job is not to heal the world, but to localize ourselves in a meaningful relationship with the One who asks us to improve ourselves and the world.