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Beyond Repair

Is tikkun olam, the Jewish concept of “healing the world,” as dangerous as David Horowitz says it is?

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Conservative provocateur David Horowitz is now 71 years old, but his stream of political manifestos, self-published web articles, and Fox News appearances are coming out as fast and furious as ever. Indeed, he has a new book out this week: Reforming Our Universities, a call to action against an academic system he argues has been hijacked by the radical left.

But in the past few years, Horowitz (who appeared in Tablet Magazine last week in a debate over the “Ground Zero mosque”) has also produced two small, philosophically searching, extraordinarily dark memoirs: The End of Time, from 2005, about his diagnosis of prostate cancer, and A Cracking of the Heart, published last year, about the loss of his daughter. In these works, Horowitz has much to say about contemporary Jewish ethics—and particularly about the popular concept of tikkun olam, or “repairing the world,” which he sees as dangerously utopian. If Jews believe they have “a mission to repair the world by bringing about the rule of God’s law on earth,” he argues in The End of Time, they may stop at nothing to see that will done.

Coming from Horowitz, this might seem like a predictably contrarian stance. After all, in Jewish discourse over the past few decades, tikkun olam has become a phrase almost as ubiquitous as Shabbat shalom. Hillel, about whom Joseph Telushkin has written a new biography for the Nextbook Press Jewish Encounters series, was the first to apply the concept to interpreting Jewish law. Codified in the Mishnah, elaborated by the Kabbalists as an injunction to restore the world to its divine order, and retrieved from obscurity by the Jewish Renewal movement in the 1960s and ’70s, the term has a connotation of progressive politics but is used today in a broad range of Jewish contexts to signify social action of all sorts. But in fact, Horowitz’s critique seems to have anticipated new rumblings in the Jewish zeitgeist: a reconsideration, from quarters more mainstream than his own, of tikkun olam.

“It’s a new trope on the right,” said Todd Gitlin, co-author with Tablet Magazine staffer Liel Leibovitz of a forthcoming book on the concept of “chosen people” and an occasional sparring partner with Horowitz. Gitlin said he encountered the tikkun olam backlash at a conclave last year, where he heard Anti-Defamation League chief Abraham Foxman take aim at the concept. “It suggests that the errors of the left are rooted in a theological mistake—and by implication, these are bad Jews who have forsaken their own people because of a misinterpretation of a text.”

Even Michael Lerner, the rabbi most deeply associated with “tikkun olam”—his magazine Tikkun helped launch the term to prominence in the 1980s—has his qualms.

“As my analysis began to sweep through the Jewish world in the mid-’90s, more and more Jewish organizations were looking for a quick fix,” Lerner said in an email. According to Lerner, such organizations tacked the phrase to occasional volunteer projects but still have yet to address deeper political issues. “It was the adoption of the language of tikkun olam without its substance that has provided some Jews with a new way of feeling proud of their Judaism on the cheap.” (Another progressive rabbi, Jill Jacobs, noted in a 2008 essay that some of her colleagues have suggested tossing out the term or “putting it on a twenty-year hiatus.”)

As Gitlin suggested, Horowitz argues that a theological mistake undergirds the leftist thinking of those like Lerner, whom he called a “menace” in an interview. (“Leftist,” in Horowitz’s usage, is a broad term; it seems to extend, for instance, to most people who vote for Democrats.) While leftists, he claims, hew to the notion that people are born pure and are corrupted by society, conservatives accept the fact that, as he writes in The End of Time, “a black hole lies at the bottom of every human soul.” (Sometimes, for an agnostic Jew, Horowitz sounds very Catholic. “We were given a perfect world, better than socialism,” he told Tablet. “And we couldn’t refrain from the temptation to do evil. I wish that I’d been taught a doctrine of original sin.”)

Coming from this philosophical position, Horowitz believes that attempts at tikkun olam are grave folly. Adherents to the concept—and particularly, those who have tied Jewish ethics to liberal politics—“believe you can make the world holy,” he said in an interview. “And that’s the most dangerous idea around. That’s the Mohammed Atta idea; that’s the idea of the guy who murdered the abortion doctor.” In The End of Time, Horowitz ultimately calls for a kind of anti-humanist existentialism. “Every life is an injustice,” he concludes. “And no one can fix it.” His argument culminates in a disavowal of “Moses, Jesus, Buddha, the Hindu gurus” for their naive encomiums to empathy.

In A Cracking of the Heart, Horowitz’s tone moves from aggrieved to grieving, and his attitude toward tikkun olam shifts slightly along with it. Horowitz’s daughter, Sarah, who had often served as her father’s political interlocutor, died at age 44 in 2008 from complications of Turner syndrome. Sarah was active in a progressive corner of the Jewish world deeply invested in the notion of tikkun olam—“a particular bone of our contentions,” Horowitz wrote. (Tablet Magazine’s predecessor site published an interview with Sarah Horowitz on the subject shortly before her death.) After she died, Horowitz found in Sarah’s apartment a page from the manuscript of The End of Time, which he remembered sending to his daughter in the spirit of debate. “You are not smarter than Moses, Jesus and Buddha,” she had wryly noted in the margins—and to some extent, he conceded.

Others who have inveighed against tikkun olam have done so in more measured terms. Foxman acknowledged that he’d taken a swipe at the concept at last year’s Jewish People’s Policy Planning Conference but said that his problem was not with tikkun olam as a value but with its current ubiquity in religious discourse. “What I’ve been critical of is those who have sold Judaism as, ‘All you have to do is love universally and that’s Judaism,’ ” Foxman said. “It’s not—it’s ersatz Judaism. It’s Judaism lite.” It also, Foxman added pointedly, has the potential to elevate political action on behalf of others while brushing past the theological significance of acting on behalf of Jews.

A similar debate has arisen in mainstream rabbinic circles. In 2006, Gordon Tucker, a Conservative movement leader who serves as rabbi at Temple Israel Center in White Plains, New York, delivered a Rosh Hashanah sermon that rebutted an oration being given by a Modern Orthodox rabbi a few suburbs away. The latter sermon, which Tucker had previewed at a rabbinical seminar, was called “The Two Most Dangerous Words in the Hebrew Language”; Tucker said he was “shaken” to hear that the two words were tikkun olam. (Jeremiah Wohlberg, the now-retired author of that sermon, did not respond to calls for comment.)

Asked whether he believed Horowitz’s critique held water, Tucker said that the rabbis of old who originated the concept had specifically guarded against Horowitz’s fears. “The rabbinic tradition is decidedly not utopian, in that it accepts the need to live and work in an imperfect world, and yet at the same time promotes the idea of an obligation to work in the direction of perfecting the world more than it already is,” he wrote in an email. “The words tikkun olam, after all, come from that same non-utopian rabbinic tradition.”

Marissa Brostoff is a former staff writer at Tablet Magazine. She is currently studying for a doctorate in English at the CUNY Graduate Center.

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I think that Tikkun Olam is important however Jews that think they can do “Tikkun Olam” without keeping, shabbos, Kashrut and everything else that G-d commanded us are being very unrealistic. Tikkun Olam start at home. Why would anyone listen to a person who isn’t willing correct themselves first.

A

I can practice tikkun olam perfectly well without observing every commandment, thank you very much.

For another view see Conscious Capitalism in the Jewish Tradition in Jerusalem Post http://bit.ly/aV23FG

With the destruction of the second temple, none of us are able to observe all of the 613 commandments. We should all strive to better ourselves by observing Hashem’s commandments to the best of our ability. It is not an all or nothing proposition.

Have a Good Shabbos, & a happy & healthy new year.

Christian asking a questionhere: Is tikkun olam found in the Torah specifically?
Thank you,

Judith M. Rood says:

At long last the concept of Tikkun Olam is being interrogated for its emphasis on our ability to achieve justice in the world. Only God can do this. It is time for us to begin to reframe the rabbinical paradigm which Neusner surfaced in his study of Jewish historiography. Biblical history is not allegorical; and the escape to Talmud was a response forced upon Jews by their loss of sovereignty and their sense that God had removed Himself from history. We need to reconsider the concept of providential history and recover our sense of God’s ongoing work in world history. Dispensational Premillennialists, normally understood as Evangelical Fundamentalists, represent a stream of Jewish thought that did recognizes the import of the end of Jewish Temple service and sovereignty in 586 B.C. and understands the shift to the Age of the Nations that some rabbis discerned in the Tanakh. Messianic Judaism appeals to Jews who have confidence that God is acting providentially in history, and that His Tikkun Olam is yet future, in the Messianic, Millennial Kingdom when Israel will be fully restored to its service in the Nations from Zion. The injustice and imperfection of our age is a function of the international state system that is governed by human passions and interests. In this Age we have an opportunity to relate to God in Christ, who atoned for the sins of the Jewish people and all nations, and at the end of this Age, God will come to judge the nations. Before that happens, the doors of the Kingdom will finally be closed to those who don’t recognize Yeshua as their God and their King. This teleology of human history is at the heart of Christian Zionism and is the Messianic Judaism.

Practicing Tikkun Olam without following the commandments is like pushing a car when you could be driving. Conviction in G-d and his kindness brings us to the conclusion that he’s commandments are divine gifts of affection, why would we want to thwart them? And since we do not now what the reward or punishment is for any action our attempts a correcting the world if not guided by the will of G-d could be doing more damage than good. I hope everyone that reads this has a happy and healthy Yom Tov w/ only success in all their holy endeavors be it charity, Torah study, growth in observance, growth in character or any other area they seek to expand in their souls.

A

Steph F. says:

Never mind original sin — DH would do well to look to the Jewish notion that each of us has a yetzer hara and a yetzer tov. His political understanding and his theological understanding could be a bit more subtle.

Mr. Sarna, the link you provided is no good, and that sounds like a great article. Back in the day, growing up Reform, I thought that “tikkun olam” by itself was sufficient by itself to be a good Jew. Later, I came to realize that, divorced from a knowledge of, awareness or understanding of the context in which tikkun olam is practiced, namely halacha and its Talmudic interpretations, tikkun olam descends into a Universalist morass devoid of any particular Jewish meaning. One could gain the same meaning from it as one might from being a good Boy Scout. You don’t need Judaism for that. Judaism, like a good marriage, is hard work and I think too many people assume that since they can call being a good Boy Scout by a Hebrew name, that it’s enough to give one a true understanding of why it is we Jews do what we do and why, not just out of a desire to be a good person and repair the world, which doesn’t make that activity particularly Jewish. It’s a good start, but that’s about it.

Tikkun olam has a distinguished and significant history. In the Renaissance it influenced Christian Kabbalists as they interpreted some Kabbalistic texts and published it in the European vernacular languages. It helped create the secular societies of today. It most likely influenced even Freud. More recently, Bill Clinton used it in a strange way. Interpeting the phrase and tracing its influences is a fascinating effort.

Jack Kaufman says:

Beware of people who want to tell you how to live, how to love, how to pray, how to aspire. Read what you will into Tikkun Olam and live it.

David Horowitz’s reflections on the human condition are in fact a very insightful commentary on they cynicism and regret that’s inevitably characterizes conservative political perspectives. Liberalism, in the words of Bill Clinton, is about extending the playing field to include as many people as possible in the game; conservatives are must draw boundaries to protect the field and the current players. There’s validity and necessity in both approaches. That said, I a person of faith who believes that the most important idea Judaism is not tikun-olam, but b’zalem elokhim, the idea that we are all created in the image of God, I must believe in the human spirit. Kashruth, Shabbat and telifiah are the boundaries that give my life meaning and purpose; the “commandments” that matter most are the opportunities I have to help others.

Ruth Gutmann says:

While it sounds much like the old disagreements between universalists and particularlists, the opponents of tikun olam are trying to disguise a particular kind of politics which those of us unashamed of still being liberal must at all cost oppose.

Since following every Jewish practice heals nothing, I humbly suggest we begin with a little Z’dakah. No one touched ever so slightly by things Jewish can doubt its universal need and particular appropriateness at this time of year.

DEAR STEPHEN F.,

MY UNDERSTANDING OF TIKKUN OLAM IS IN FACT A GREAT DEAL MORE SUBTLE THAN MARISSA BROSTOFF PRESENTED IT, AND IN A CRACKING OF THE HEART I EXPRESSED A VIEW IDENTICAL TO GORDON TUCKER’S WITH WHICH MARISSA APPROVINGLY ENDS HER ARTICLE.

DAVID HOROWITZ

LazerBeam says:

So are the secular and religious interpretations of tikkun olam mutually exclusive or is there a possibility of co-existemce? The former involves leaving the world a more just and humane place than you found it, making you a better person. This secular version has universal value, but, as was noted in the article, then anybody can do it, so it is not uniquely Jewish. The latter involves leaving more of the world faithful to God’s laws, and only the adherents to the true faith can do it, so it is uniquely Jewish but self-limiting. Regarding the latter, is the act of reproducing with children who are faithful to God’s laws an act of tikkum olam?

For purpsoes of reconciling the two interpretations, if, as Hillel once observed, the essence of the Torah is do not do unto others what you would not have done unto yourself, and ignoring human suffering, even that of the unbeliever, is contrary to that essence, then perhaps the two intepretations are not mutually exclusive, and I am closer to God and more open to God’s laws for being a better person by caring about and for those less fortunate. If each Jew practicing secular tikkun olam is a light unto his or her neighbors, as Zion is a light unto the nation’s, and more and more unbelievers adhere to even one of God’s laws as a consequence of that example, then the latter can follow from the former, and you can get there from here.

The fact that Tikkun Olam has somehow has been polarized into secular & religious is very disturbing. In Judaism all laws come under the umbrella of G-d’s providence. This is the reason that the Talmud, the text of Jewish Holy laws, is a compendium not only of religious laws but civil laws as well. Editing out the religious side of tikkun olam gives you at best a 50% chance of redeeming the “olam” (as it were) and at worst it makes you 50% more likely to ruining G-d’s creation. Of course since “we do not know the reward for a good deed or the punishment for a sin,” the stats can actually be a lot more gloomy. Why chance it? Try to keep the laws and add to them one by one. G-d does not require perfection y created us and knows we are not angels. Just try we a little and the reward is immeasurable!

Love & Shana Tova!

A

“Hillel used to say: If I am not for myself who will be for me? Yet, if I am for myself only, what am I? And if not now, when?”

Steve Brizel says:

Tikun Olam is unquestionably important, but only after one recognizes that God is the King, that He revealed Himself to the Jewish People and that He will do so again. Adopting the liberal agenda is hardly manifesting one’s belief in Tikun Olam.

Hi Steve,

Thanks for saying what I’ve been trying to say (but failing miserably!)

A

The concept of “Tikkun Olam” is ubiquitous in liberal Judaism for one reason: everything else has been removed. Once you take away, piece by piece, what makes Judaism unique-you are philosophically bankrupt. That is exactly what happened to reform and then conservative Judaism.

The idea of Tikkun Olam being central to Judaism replaced (for those movements) the idea of G-d being central to Judaism. But even the idea of attempting to bring spiritual perfection to a physical world has been watered down to a philosophy that essentially says “do a good deed and your are fulfilling the mandate of the Jewish people.” Don’t worry: be happy. Judaism has much, much more to offer than this simplistic idea.

Fortunately, people are starting to realize that Tikkun Olam has become code for near lockstep support for the ideas and causes of the left. While all people should do “good deeds” for their fellow humans-Jews have always had a much wider, and higher calling.

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TheMechanicalAdv says:

The “liberal agenda” is a straw-devil invented by the behaviorist academy after they were taken over by the antisemitic writings of Kevin McDonald. Horowitz has apparently been taken in by these theories. All attempts by rational thinkers of every stripe to challenge the tyranny of the philosophical oligarchs is lumped together into an imaginary conspiracy, and we Jews are made to feel guilty for orchestrating it.

Our ability to rethink and critically improve ourselves is an existential threat to the Christian labeling of us as “Pharisees”. The think tanks of the American Right are attempting — apparently successfully, judging from these comments — to herd us, through collective guilt, into the stereotype the New Testament set us as.

We have survived as a people because we seek reality. This is enshrined in the Torah, when G-d told Moses that a rock will produce water if he talks to it. Moses passed the test, and dramatically demonstrated to us the difference between human laws that always need to be questioned (even if G-d commanded them) and improved on; and physical laws that are perfect and immutable.

There is only one reality, but there are many ways of seeking it. All cultures are independently homing in on the same basic principles. There is not — despite what the American Right and its converts like Horowitz want us to believe — a worldwide conspiracy to coerce this agreement. Rather, it’s simply that the principles make sense in the real world.

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Beyond Repair

Is tikkun olam, the Jewish concept of “healing the world,” as dangerous as David Horowitz says it is?

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