Jonathan Neumann, To Heal the World? How the Jewish Left Corrupts Judaism and Endangers Israel. All Points Books, 2018, 288 pp.
The unifying thesis of Jonathan Neumann’s scathing analysis of the pseudoreligion of tikkun olam is that is has no basis, textual or historical, in Judaism and was created, virtually ex nihilo, by Jews who had abandoned their religion but were skilled in assuming the long robes and long faces of biblical prophets (whom they consider charter members of the Tikkun movement). “The major Jewish denominations [have] officially adopted tikkun olam to describe their existing social justice programs, and today it has totally taken over American Judaism.” Do-gooders who had confused doing good with feeling good about what they were doing, the tikkunists twisted religious texts and religious rituals to serve the ends of liberal politics, very often liberal politics in its most blatantly illiberal and dogmatic forms. After Barack Obama embraced and lavishly funded the genocidal Iranian regime, bent on obliterating Israel, or Bernie Sanders, fatuously declaring “pride” in his “Polish” background, insisted that, in these dark times, the American Dream could be fulfilled only in Venezuela, Jewish devotees of world-healing became their most ardent supporters.
For a very long time, the call for “social justice” to be achieved through liberal nostrums like income redistribution and state control of the economy has sounded an alarm bell whose message is “Hide your women and lock up your silver.” The Scottish sage Thomas Carlyle liked to recall a young man who asked him what he could do to reform and repair the world: “Make an honest man of yourself,” Carlyle replied, “and we shall have one rascal less in Scotland.” Jewish tradition—and one assumes even the numerous rabbinical purveyors of tikkun olam are aware of this—traditionally has been bound by the belief that interference in world politics is as futile as trying to prevent earthquakes or floods. Jews are also, or so we used to think, bound by the Tenth (and most inclusive) Commandment: “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house; thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbor’s.”
How did tikkun olam (“repair” or “fixing” or “healing” the world) achieve its present status as a clarion call to Jewish liberals seeking divine endorsement of their political desiderata and prejudices, ranging from socialism to environmentalism to transgenderism?
The textual basis, Neumann points out, is slender and ambiguous. It is nearly nonexistent in the Bible but can be found in the Aleynu prayer, and observant Jews are familiar with it. “We put our hope in you, Adonai our God…to perfect the world under the kingdom of God.” But is it really an endorsement of (for example) the Democratic Party’s policies on immigration, abortion, and Israel/Palestine? The first paragraph of the Aleynu, Neumann points out, recounts the greatness of God and His special relationship with the Jewish people; the second promises eventual divine sovereignty over the whole world. But here arises a problem for the tikkunist world-healers. Although they lifted the notion of tikkun olam from this very prayer, many of their leading rabbinical tribunes do not allow its recitation by their congregations. And why? Because the second paragraph seems to look forward to the Kingdom of the God of Israel (and not of the Unitarians). They are eager for perfection, to be sure, but by means of the liberal agenda, to be imposed by Jewish liberals and their gentile laborers in the vineyard.
Neumann’s book is important not only for its analysis of how the world-repairers (an odd term for so large an enterprise) “corrupt” Judaism but of how they “endanger” Israel. The stench of Berkeley clings to several of their most publicized figures. The first popular tribune of the Tikkun movement was Michael Lerner, the founder of Tikkun magazine, whose purpose was “to mend, repair, and transform the world.” He would often interrupt his buffoonery to declare that “I have to be here. Berkeley is the center of the world-historical spirit.” In the fall of 1969 Lerner commenced open battle with “the Jewish establishment” of “fat cats and conformists” in an article titled “Jewish New Leftism at Berkeley” in Judaism magazine. In it he blamed Jews for the violence unleashed against them. “Black anti-Semitism is a tremendous disgrace to Jews; for this is not an anti-Semitism rooted in…hatred of the Christ-killers but rather one rooted in the concrete fact of oppression by Jews of blacks in the ghetto…in part an earned anti-Semitism.” He threw in, for good measure, hints as to the right target: “The synagogue as currently established will have to be smashed.” After a short, indeed disastrous academic career at the University of Washington (where he organized an anti-Mormon riot), Lerner turned to left-wing journalism and founded Tikkun, a welcoming home to countless believers in tikkun olam, who in some cities conducted seminars to explore his “ideas.” But what brought him to national prominence was the zeal with which he argued the Palestinian cause within the Jewish community. He also was quickly afforded space by the New York Times to tell how the voice of progressive Jews like himself had been “stifled” by the Jewish community. Shortly thereafter he was invited to whisper his “stifled” ideas into the ears of Hillary Clinton at the White House.
Among Berkeley tikkunists Lerner’s primacy in Israel-hatred is often challenged by Prof. Judith Butler, whose stupefying opaque prose (in 1999 she was awarded a prize by the journal Philosophy and Literature for “worst academic writing of the year”) gives her an unfair advantage over him in this contest. She may outdo all tikkunists in her hatred of Israel, is hyperactive in countless agitprop schemes, BDS, and so on, though at times she has belatedly regretted signing certain anti-Israeli petitions because they had “failed” to call for the elimination of Zionism itself. And why not, since “Israeli citizens” are becoming “a people of camp wardens”? (At Berkeley even the professor of Talmud, Daniel Boyarin, is obsessed with the Israeli-Nazi equation.)
Neumann’s book is essential equipment for anyone entering the war of ideas over the current decline of American Judaism and its consequent abandonment of Israel, which just happens to be the Jewish Third Temple. But it has one serious omission. The most important book on this matter of tikkun olam, philosopher Emil Fackenheim’s To Mend the World: Foundations of Future Jewish Thought (Schocken, 1982), is mentioned only in a dismissive note to Chapter 1. It deserves much more.
For Fackenheim, the world that had destroyed European Jewry was indeed in need of major repair, but—as I often heard him lament, bitterly, in his Jerusalem flat—“that clown Lerner has brought the term into disrepute.” For Emil a healing could come only with the foundation and survival of Israel; and indeed it had come. “What then,” he asked in 1982, “is the Tikkun? It is Israel itself.” The ability of Jews to create the state of Israel just a few years after the destruction of European Jewry is one of history’s greatest affirmations of life over death, a sign of hope for all humanity. Once upon a time, even American Jews understood that.