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Time to say Kaddish for ‘tikkun olam’

The universal focus of Judaism's most important teaching crushes the holy living that lets Jews and Judaism thrive
Crocus flowers dot the grounds of the Kommemiyut Forest. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
Crocus flowers dot the grounds of the Kommemiyut Forest. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

As we welcome in this New Year, we know that we are at a critical juncture in American Jewish history. Synagogue affiliation continues to drop. Jewish ritual practice weakens with every passing year. Parents are far too often choosing for their children to attend soccer and gymnastics over Hebrew School and youth group. Even Israel — that one topic which used to unite the Jewish people — even Israel has become a lightning rod that divides, rather than unites us. Frankly, without a major course correction, the future for non-Orthodox Jews in America appears in jeopardy.

There is no question that American culture is partly to blame. Liberal religion as a whole is decreasing in our country, as fewer people of any religion attend worship services. We are blessed with so many freedoms and privileges that it is easy to choose to be an American first and a Jew second, or to choose not to be Jewish at all. I’m reminded of the story of when Napoleon was trying to conquer Russia. A group of Hasids went up to their rebbe and asked, “Rebbe, should we pray for Napoleon to win, with his promise of liberty, fraternity, and equality? Or should we pray for the Czar, and continue among all this anti-Semitism?” The Rebbe responded, “What is good for the Jews is not necessarily good for Judaism.” In America, it is surely good for the Jews, but it has not been so good for Judaism.

In response to the decline in Jewish life here in America, we have tried to reinvent religious schools and day schools. We have gone through revolutions in prayer styles and published new prayer books. We are ever trying to improve synagogue practices, becoming more welcoming communities and more caring congregations. Yet, somehow, the decline of Conservative and Reform Judaism continues.

What Is Judaism’s Most Important Teaching?

And so, in this season of reflection, I believe the time has come to look at the very core of American Judaism itself. If I were to ask, “What is Judaism’s most important teaching?” surely some would say Shema Yisrael (i.e., monotheism) and others might suggest, B’tzelem Elokim, that we are all created in God’s image. More of us might say, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” or “Do not do unto others as you would not want done unto you.” Perhaps there are those who might say, as Micah taught us, “Do justice. Love mercy. And walk humbly with your God.” But for most of us, we might agree that the Jewish teaching that has predominated American Jewish thought for the last 40 years is the concept known as tikkun olam: repairing the world.

Tikkun olam is the buzz phrase around which many a synagogue is organized. Tikkun olam is the label we use when we explain why we give to charity or why we are kind to one another. Tikkun olam is put forward by most of the American Jewish community as Judaism’s most important teaching.

I would like to suggest, however, and I understand that this is a radical notion to put forth…but I would like to suggest that perhaps it is tikkun olam itself that is destroying the Jewish community. Perhaps it is time to say Kaddish for tikkun olam.

Hear me out, please. For the last 40 years, tikkun olam has dominated American Jewish thinking, though today’s tikkun olam is only a cousin to the original idea rooted in the Aleinu prayer and expanded upon by Kabbalah. In its origin, tikkun olam teaches that when we perform the traditional mitzvot — engaging in rituals like observing Shabbat or wrapping tefillin, as well as fulfilling ethical commandments like providing food to the poor — we bring our world closer to the original state of perfection that God sought for us in the days of Genesis. By doing mitzvot, we repair the world.

Regarding its American construct, however, Rabbi Arthur Waskow, an early proponent of American tikkun olam, summarized the movement this way: “Plant a tree in Vietnam in a defoliated former forest…Plant a tree in Appalachia where the strip mines have poisoned the forests. Go there to plant it; start a kibbutz there and grow more trees. Plant a tree in Brooklyn where the asphalt has buried the forest. Go back there to plant it and live with some of the old Jews who still live there.”[1]

To this, Rabbi Gerald Serotta added that the push to focus on tikkun olam was a “radical return to an understanding of Jewish wholeness which denies distinctions between Jewish and non-Jewish issues, and which seeks to bring Torah and Jewish learning to even greater application in the world.”[2] In other words, during the post-1960s era in which we American Jews experienced much less anti-Semitism and in which we find ourselves quite welcomed and successful on so many levels, Tikkun Olam sought intentionally to downplay both Jewish ritual practice and Jewish particularism in order to affect more global change.

As such, tikkun olam has devolved today to mean anything that fits into the categories of community service or helping the underdog. The focus on universalism has led to stripping the word “mitzvah” of any sense of divine obligation, and instead understands “mitzvot” to mean, simply, “good deeds.” And, to me, most problematic of all, the teaching of tikkun olam as it has evolved over the last several decades places greater emphasis on valuing the global human community over caring for our fellow Jews and for the continuity of Judaism.

On one hand, those who embrace tikkun olam as Judaism’s central teaching are absolutely right. Please hear me say this: We must do more to build bridges with other faith communities. We must assist the poor of the entire world; we must respond to the evil that is racism; and we ought to be concerned with the plight of all those who suffer in the world, including — as some of our Jewish friends remind us — the plight of the Palestinians. Please hear me clearly: repairing the world is an essential part of Judaism. Nevertheless, my fear, and history is coming to agree with me, that by dismissing the power of Jewish ritual observance and by undermining Jewish particularism, the universalistic commitment to tikkun olam by many Jews today could be, I believe, the downfall of American Jewry.

The Challenge of Tikkun Olam

What happens when we Jews don’t stand up for ourselves and for Judaism? Several months ago, the Movement for Black Lives — a coalition of more than 50 racial justice organizations from across the country — published a platform that, as part of its vision for “black power, freedom and justice,” also falsely called Israel an “apartheid state” and a perpetrator of “genocide.” Understandably, many supporters of Israel were up in arms and called for a rejection of at least the platform if not the Movement for Black Lives itself.

In an opinion piece in Forward magazine, though, two young Jewish adults, members of an organization called IfNotNow, wrote an article entitled, “Don’t Like Black Lives Matter? Get Ready To Lose Young Jews Like Us.”[3] As an organization, IfNotNow came together in 2014 as a response to Israel’s Operation Protective Edge by young American Jews with three demands: “Stop the War on Gaza, End the Occupation, and Freedom and Dignity for All.” For these Tikkun Olam-minded young people, the battle against racism in America is more compelling Jewishly than standing up against anti-Zionist, for sure, and perhaps even anti-Semitic rhetoric.

Now, my initial response to the article “Don’t Like Black Lives Matter? Get Ready To Lose Young Jews Like Us” was to question the authors’ intellectual integrity and their religious loyalties. I oppose racism with every ounce of my being too, and I recognize that Israeli politicians can make and have made poor ethical choices. But how could Jews not put their love for the People Israel and the State of Israel above else, I wondered. How could these Jews so publicly align with those spewing such anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist rhetoric? How could they not love, despite its troubles, Israel’s commitment to democracy and to the same values that we liberal Jews hold dear, like equality for women and for gays and lesbians? How could these people not see that, amazingly, Israel does more to protect the innocent among its enemies than any other country in the world?

But then I realized mine is the voice of the Holocaust Survivor. Mine is the voice of one who escaped czarist Russia. Or, perhaps, more to the point, the voice that screams out, “Protect Israel at all costs,” is the same one that sees an existential threat against Israel and against the Jewish people wherever I turn. That voice, my voice, is the one that wants to shout out “Jewish family comes first.” Mine are the eyes that see 2,000 years of anti-Semitism and I fear that anything smelling of anti-Zionism is a cancer among the world just waiting to metastasize into yet another Holocaust. Mine is the voice that says, “No one else in the world will stand up for the Jews. So we Jews must stand up for ourselves, and for Judaism.” Im ein ani li mi li? If I am not for myself, who will be for me?

Ma-alin B’Kodesh: Judaism’s Most Important Teaching for Today

Friends, continuing to elevate tikkun olam as Judaism’s central teaching is simply not working. Trying to shoulder the burden for all of the world’s problems is not keeping Judaism alive; it’s killing it. So, the time has come again to re-evaluate which teaching we might emphasize as the most important … for today. And, in doing so, we must find a Jewish teaching that continues to inspire us to make a difference in this world, but that will also sustain us as a people and as a religion into the next generation. I would like to propose, then, that the most important teaching for Jews today comes from the holiday with which Jews are most familiar — the December holiday that calls to mind the Jewish people’s battle against assimilation.

Hanukkah means something different to each one of us, but when we light the Hanukkah menorah, each one of us lights it the exact same way. The Talmud [BT Shabbat 21b] teaches that some 2,000 years ago, when our ancestors were arguing over how to celebrate the holiday of Hanukkah, the great sage Shammai came forward and taught, when you light the Hanukkiyah — the Hanukkah menorah — you should start with eight candles, plus the shamash of course, and work your way down to one candle.

The great sage Hillel, however, looked quizzically at his rabbinic colleague. “No, no,” responded Hillel. “We should start with one candle on the first night of Hanukkah and work our way up to eight candles.” Shammai looked back at Hillel and challenged him. “Now why would we do that?” To which Hillel responded, “When it comes to matters of holiness, we should always look to increase.” Hillel taught that we Jews ought to be ma-alin b’kodesh: we ought to be those who seek to elevate ourselves in matters of holiness.

What Does It Mean to Be Holy?

Throughout our lives we ought to increase our holiness from one candle to eight. This word, kodesh or k’dushah, holiness, comes from the Hebrew root that means, “to set aside for a specific purpose.” Shabbat is kodesh: it is set aside from the rest of the week. When a groom puts the ring on his bride’s finger under the huppah, she becomes m’kudeshet to him: the bride and groom become distinct, set aside for each other and only for each other. To be kodesh, to be holy, we Jews must care especially for each other the way two spouses ought to care especially for one another. When it comes to tzedakah, when it comes to volunteer time, and when it comes even to the communities with which we most identify: family comes first. The Jewish people must care for Judaism and for our fellow Jews first.

At the same time, k’dushah, holiness, also means that we Jews must act differently than the rest of the world. When the rest of the world chooses to turn its back on those suffering, Jewish law does require that we seek to help. Jewish tradition teaches that in addition to helping the Jewish poor, we must also help the poor of other religions as well, mipnei darkei shalom: for the sake of peace. Yet, even in our desire to help all those in need, we ought not to forget that family comes first. While most people in the world might turn their backs on those in need, we Jews must go out of our way to help them. In this way, too, we become separate from all others.

Finally, we must work even harder to provide spiritual, soulful, Jewish opportunities for young and old alike, that we might all feel a deeper connection to God, and thus a great inspiration to serve our Creator through mitzvot: not good deeds that we can dismiss if we are tired or otherwise occupied, but commandments — sacred obligations from the LORD. We must do what God expects of us.

Only in our drive to be ma-alin b’kodesh, to be those who elevate in matters of sanctity, might we combine the key elements of spirituality, of Jewish peoplehood and of tikkun olam to improve the lot of all those who suffer, while still, at the same time, making sure to sustain Judaism and the Jewish people. When we commit to helping those battling mental illness and also to support our synagogue, we are ma-alin b’kodesh. When we commit to volunteering more at a soup kitchen and to increasing our Torah study, we are ma-alin b’kodesh. When we commit to kindness in our everyday lives and we commit to praying more frequently, we become ma-alin b’kodesh. When we take additional steps, both ritual and ethical, in our Jewish journey we become ma-alin b’kodesh. And when we recognize that we do indeed have a special obligation to care for our family, our fellow Jews, first and foremost — including and especially protecting the State of Israel and our Israeli brothers and sisters — then we become ma-alin b’kodesh. Then we become those who ascend in matters of holiness.

Friends, and I speak especially to the younger ones among us today, the time has come to say that tikkun olam is dead … so that Judaism can live.

Ethical AND Ritual Commandments So That Judaism Can Live

As we hearken to the sounds of the shofar from this Rosh HaShanah, let us strive to care deeply for our fellow Jews and to strengthen the State of Israel. Let us continue to seek to make this a better world for all who are in need — not though because of some vague notion of tikkun olam, “good deeds,” but because God commands us to help. Let us pursue spiritual lives of holiness, of following ritual and ethical commandments, that we might lead the American Jewish community into the 21st century and beyond. Friends, and this is my mantra, let us seek each day or even each New Year to take one more step in our Jewish journeys together.

Shanah tovah um’tukah: may it be a sweet and peaceful New Year for us all.

[1] Krasner, Jonathan. “The Place of Tikkun Olam in American Jewish Life.” Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. November 1, 2014.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Little, Ally and Michelle Weiser. “Don’t Like Black Lives Matter? Get Ready to Lose Young Jews Like Us.Forward. August 4, 2016.

About the Author
Aaron Starr is a rabbi at Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield, Michigan. A member of the Conservative Movement's Rabbinical Assembly and the Michigan Board of Rabbis, Rabbi Starr is a past president of the Rabbinical Assembly-Michigan Region and the Metropolitan Detroit's Board of Jewish Educators. Rabbi Starr is the author of the book, "Taste of Hebrew," and the article in Conservative Judaism, "Tradition vs. Modernity: The CJLS and Conservative Halakhah."
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