In an illuminating article written in 2008, “How Not to Repair the World,” Hillel Halkin explained how the meaning of tikkun olam had changed drastically from its understanding by the later Jewish prophets to its subsequent meaning expressed by rabbis in the Talmud. The former reflected a messianic aspiration for a worldwide transformation, the latter a practical, anti-messianic, and narrow focus on the well-being of the Jewish community. After elaborating on this distinction, and noting the disastrous role of messianic beliefs in causing the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E. and the failed Bar-Kokhba revolt in 132-135 C.E., Halkin warned about messianic expressions that were becoming more common among some religious settlers and their supporters in the years leading up to 2008. That warning is much more pertinent now that Bezalel Smotrich, Itamar Ben-Gvir and Simcha Rothman, hold positions of power in the current Netanyahu government and the Knesset, a reality that wasn’t even a remote possibility in 2008.
Halkin’s article first appeared in the July/August 2008 issue of Commentary magazine, and was recently republished as one of 18 essays contained in Halkin’s 2021 book, A Complicated Jew: Selected Essays. The article was stimulated by the then popular use of the expression, tikkun olam, by numerous American Jewish liberals – (“misuse” would be more accurate according to Halkin.)
Two understandings of tikkun olam
Halkin emphasized “the contradiction between the prophetic tikkun olam of the Aleynu prayer and the Mishnaic tikkun olam of the rabbis, which embody opposite conceptions of change. One—whose goal is the world’s perfection—is sweepingly utopian and looks forward to a radical transformation in the religious behavior and social relationships of all mankind. The other is cautiously pragmatic and concerned with the management of Jewish reality.”
For example, Zachariah, one of the later prophets, was the author of what became the last line in the Aleynu prayer, which reads, “As it is written: Then the Lord shall be King over all the earth; on that day the Lord shall be One and His name One.” (Translation by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.) In contrast, rabbinic Judaism emphasized the social interest of the Jewish community in weighing an action. Halkin discussed several examples from the Talmud where the expression tikkun olam is applied, including this one: A family whose member has been kidnapped wants to pay a higher than usual ransom to obtain the release of the captive. However, this would be opposed by rabbinic authorities on the grounds that doing so would encourage more kidnapping and/or raise the ransom amounts demanded. Thus, the interests of the family is outweighed by the anticipated negative impact on other families in the community. The focus is on the Jewish community, not the whole world; in this example pain cannot be avoided, but the goal is to minimize it. This is an inherently practical rather than a messianic calculation.
Why the turn away from messianism?
Halkin believed that the rabbinic adoption of an anti-messianic understanding of tikkun olam came in reaction to the severe trauma of specific events. He wrote: “For, to a great extent, rabbinic Judaism, though it never openly admitted as much, developed as a means of containing and redirecting the prophetic legacy, whose grand vision of a utopian tikkun olam had brought the Jewish people to the verge of ruin.” What ruin? Halkin continues: “Rabbinic Judaism emerges into the light of history toward the end of the period of the Second Temple, which was destroyed in the great revolt against Rome of 67-70 C.E. This revolt, and the similarly failed Bar-Kokhba rebellion of 132-135 C.E., were Jewish catastrophes of a magnitude that was not to be repeated until the Holocaust. When they were over, the Jews of Palestine had lost their temple, their last vestiges of independence, hundreds of thousands of lives, and a large number of their homes and villages, and had been banished from Jerusalem, to which they would not return in significant numbers for nearly two millennia. The root cause of this was precisely the prophetic legacy. It was the apocalyptic messianism of the biblical prophets, particularly the later ones, that encouraged the Jews of Palestine to embark on two courageous but hopeless adventures that challenged the military might of the Roman Empire.”
A warning in 2008
In light of the destruction arising from messianism 2000 years ago, Halkin warned in this 2008 essay of the potential danger to Israel’s existence posed by “a new historical outbreak, in some of the ranks of the settler movement and its supporters, of the religious messianism of which secular Zionism was a sublimation—an outbreak that, if it is not successfully subdued, could lead to consequences as fateful as did the two uprisings against Rome.” At the time, the danger was only “potential” because none of the activists had positions of power and the chance of them gaining power seemed remote. Fast-forward 15 years to 2023, where a number of prominent rightists have been elevated to positions of real power in the current government, after winning significant concessions from the Likud in the negotiations prior to the government’s formation. The dangers Halkin described in 2008 have now been greatly multiplied.
The even greater danger today
Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir have been given significant powers in the Finance, Defense, and National Security Ministries. Many of their statements suggest a fanatical devotion to messianic actions in Judea and Samaria and on the Temple Mount. They have also expressed strong disdain for domestic dissent and for the views of the “international community,” including Israel’s most vital ally, the United States, and urge that their criticisms be disregarded. Unless they are significantly restrained, their future actions might cause severe security developments and damage Israel’s relationship with the United States. Or worse.
But in the first two months of the new government the main threat has not come from Smotrich and Ben-Gvir. Rather, since the first week of January the threat of the fanatical right has been manifest in Yariv Levin’s advocacy of revolutionary change that would dramatically weaken the High Court of Justice in Israel. His active partner is Simcha Rothman, who chairs the important Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee. Although Levin does not identify with the religious right, he displays a fanatical devotion that embodies a similar disdain for those who oppose his program, dismissing dissent as “political” or otherwise unworthy of respect. It seems to matter little to Levin that former judges and attorneys-general, lawyers, economists, financiers, security experts and others with worthy credentials have publicly and privately urged drastic changes in Levin’s program, warning or dire consequences for the State of Israel if his program is adopted. And, many of these critics simply cannot be dismissed as “leftists.”
In order to understand where Levin is coming from, it is worthwhile to consider the Merriam-Webster definition of a fanatic: “a person exhibiting excessive enthusiasm and intense uncritical devotion toward some controversial matter (as in religion or politics.)” The key words in this definition, “excessive enthusiasm and uncritical devotion,” imply an unwillingness to change one’s position even in the face of heavy criticism. In the case of Levin and Rothman, there is repeated dismissal of and even disdain for the overwhelmingly negative opinions of experts in the fields of law, economics, finance, and diplomacy. When Levin said on February 20, 2023 that “nothing will dissuade me from doing the right thing, and executing a reform to the judicial system,” he demonstrates a fanaticism that may seriously harm Israel’s economic and social well-being and international standing. If “doing the right thing” (as he sees it) is Levin’s overriding consideration in proposing his reform, then agreeing to meaningful compromise would qualify as “doing the wrong thing.” With such a moralistic take on the need for changes to Israel’s judicial system, it is clear why he dismissed even strong criticism from serious persons such as Yaakov Frenkel, Karnit Flug, Elyakim Rubinstein, and Shlomo Dovrat, among many others. Yes, Levin calls for dialogue, as does Rothman, but both reject making changes to those parts of the reform proposals that are most criticized – the government’s control of the Judicial Selection Committee, a drastic reduction of the areas the High Court can address, and an override provision that enables the coalition to negate an unfavorable High Court decision with its own votes. Together these severely undermine the independence and power of the Court and severely weaken the “checks and balances” that could restrain an aggressive majority.
The opposition in the Knesset is powerless to prevent passage of Levin’s proposed measures, huge numbers of protesters can continue to be denigrated (for example, as “anarchists”) and disregarded, and pleas from President Herzog and many others to halt the legislative process to facilitate real negotiations might continue to be ignored. One optimistic scenario would see five or more Likud MKs courageously announce that they would act to prevent passage of Levin’s proposed reform unless significant changes were made, which likely would derail the current legislative rush. However, such courage has sadly been lacking so far. Failing such a development, it seems that the only person who could demand that the legislative process be stopped and a broad consensus achieved is the person who appointed Levin as Minister of Justice: Prime Minister Netanyahu. His unwillingness thus far to intervene decisively with Levin and Rothman probably means that he has been threatened that doing so will cause his coalition to disintegrate. Yet, by doing so, even at the risk of losing his own hold on power, Netanyahu would partially salvage his reputation, reversing some of the major political errors he made during the last six months, errors that elevated to power persons lacking the wisdom to use that power judiciously. Such a decisive act by Netanyahu, despite the frustration caused for Levin and Rothman and their supporters, would be beneficial for the modern-day Jewish collective, the State of Israel; this outcome would be the very embodiment of rabbinic tikkun olam. However, if a consensus solution does not somehow emerge, then, in light of Halkin’s warning, the future spiral of events might be very dark indeed.