Tikkun Olam in American Judaism: A Religious Success Story?

by Jonathan Neumann

The hegemony of tikkun olam in American Judaism may be a linguistic success story, but from the point of view of religion it is nothing to cheer about. Philologos went on to protest the political appropriation of the term as “an example of how authentic religious concepts can be cheapened when retooled and promoted for a mass audience.” He feared that “the relevance we appear to give [the term] by decontextualizing it in this way comes at the expense . . . of honestly dealing with what tradition is trying to tell us.”

This is true not just of the term “tikkun olam,” but of Jewish social justice more generally. It was one thing for the Reformers to declare they were changing Judaism’s direction. But, as we discovered in the previous chapter, Jewish social justice activists today aren’t saying that that’s what they’re doing anymore. For the last few decades they’ve been saying this is authentic, traditional Judaism. That is, their liberal politics represent Judaism as it was always meant to be understood. Think about that. Isn’t it just a little bit incredible for the teachings of the ancient faith of Judaism to happen to comprise without exception the agenda of the liberal wing of today’s Democratic Party? It’s extraordinary just how few people have questioned how plausible this is. And yet, as far as so many American Jews are concerned, Judaism means tikkun olam and tikkun olam means contemporary liberalism.

In order to demonstrate how Judaism means social justice, Jewish activists repeatedly point to a number of traditional Jewish texts that they believe bear out their liberal politics. Each of these sources reflects something inherited from Classical Reform and the Social Gospel. Specifically, these texts are the story of Creation in Genesis, which establishes universalism as the foundation of Jewish social justice; the appeal to God, also in Genesis, of the patriarch Abraham for the residents of Sodom and Gomorrah, an act of universalistic ethical selflessness that Jewish activists interpret as representing the very essence of what Judaism is about; the economic policies of Joseph in Egypt, which illustrate the indispensable and benevolent power of the state in achieving redemptive ends; the Israelite Exodus from Egypt in the second book of the Pentateuch, which underscores TO HEAL THE WORLD? how fundamentally dif­ferent the Kingdom of God is from our own society and the need for political revolution to get us from the one to the other; the Prophets, who supposedly eschewed ritual and overcame backward particularism and taught the universal religion of ethics; and, appearing in numerous rabbinic texts, tikkun olam itself, which captures what Jews mean when they talk about social justice. Together, this handful of passages forms the worldview of tikkun olam. These sources constitute Judaism’s endorsement of the politics of social justice—they are what make Jewish social justice Jewish.

In his book Why Are Jews Liberals?, the neoconservative intellectual Norman Podhoretz wrote about how the Eastern European immigrants who got involved in labor activism and radical politics were effectively converting from Judaism to Marxism. Indeed the editor Abraham Cahan, as we mentioned earlier, declared that socialism is the new Torah. But the social justice movement has now in a sense reversed this process. Tikkun olam is not about turning Jews into Marxists. It’s about rebranding Marxism as Judaism. “The Marxists,” Michael Lerner writes, “certainly didn’t invent the challenge to private property. Anyone who has ever bothered to read the Torah knows that God claims the ownership of the world.” For too long, the tikkun olam movement’s rebranding of Marxism as Judaism has been allowed to proceed unchallenged. Lerner and his cohort believe that anyone who has bothered to learn the traditional texts of Judaism must conclude that this religion endorses and even mandates the program of social justice. They are wrong. Dismally wrong. So let’s take Lerner’s challenge. Let’s actually read the favorite Scriptural texts of the Jewish social justice movement. And let’s find out if the God of Israel really is a Marxist.


Jonathan Neumann is a graduate of Cambridge University and the London School of Economics. He has written for various American, British, and Israeli publications, was the Tikvah Fellow at Commentary magazine, and has served as assistant editor at Jewish Ideas Daily. He is the author of To Heal the World?

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