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Social Justice and the Future of Judaism

In ‘To Heal the World?,’ his critique of the modern Jewish left, Jonathan Neumann is not just wrong. He’s also way out of his league.

Shaul Magid
June 13, 2018
Photocollage: Tablet Magazine; original photo: Gali Tibbon/AFP/Getty Images
Photocollage: Tablet Magazine; original photo: Gali Tibbon/AFP/Getty Images
Photocollage: Tablet Magazine; original photo: Gali Tibbon/AFP/Getty Images
Photocollage: Tablet Magazine; original photo: Gali Tibbon/AFP/Getty Images

To Heal the World? How the Jewish Left Corrupts Judaism and Endangers Israel is a sweeping critique of the contemporary progressive Jewish left, arguing that its roots in the Jewish enlightenment (haskala) and classical Reform Judaism render it a distortion of “traditional Judaism” and a danger to Jews. When I say that To Heal the World? does not live up to its stated goals, it is not because I disagree with its conclusion, which I do. Rather, it’s because author Jonathan Neumann does not appear to have the requisite historical tools or sufficient knowledge of Judaism to make his case.

There are certainly well-argued and compelling books from the Jewish right criticizing the Jewish left. The reader can easily access the essays of Jon Levenson, David Novak, and Alan Arkush to note only three examples. These writers all have the requisite knowledge of history, general and Jewish, and a firm grasp of the literary canon sufficient to wage such critiques. I may disagree with them but I read them with utter seriousness and respect. To Heal the World?, on the other hand, does not meet this standard in terms of substance, method, or argumentation.

It is not that Neumann is always wrong. I agree with some of the interpretive excesses of the liberal Jewish adaptation of sources he notes, but his argument, even when on the mark, often collapses under the clay of its foundations. It is an example—one can find others in the pages of Commentary and other like-minded publications—of someone from the right who knows little about Judaism polemicizing against the left by claiming they know little about Judaism. In the chapter on tikkun olam almost all the rabbinic sources Neumann cites are sources used by social-justice activists themselves (which he contests) or sources he cites from secondary literature. In other words, this is not a source-based critique of social-activist Judaism but simply an ideological bromide against Jewish liberalism under the guise of a serious critique of social activism.

Neumann’s argument is that the progressive social-justice movement is aberrant of “traditional Judaism.” So what is “traditional Judaism,” or “traditional Jewish thought”—phrases that Neumann uses dozens of times yet never once defines. Does it include only rabbinic Judaism, or even books like Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer with its fantastical stories of ghosts and demons that many of its contemporaries rejected? How about the Zohar, whose doctrine of the sephirot was accused of being non-monotheistic by some sages? Or Lurianic Kabbalah whose theory of creation arguably undermined rabbinic teaching? Or maybe nascent Hasidism that was banned by the Gaon of Vilna as heresy? Or Rav Kook, whose books were burned in the public square by the 0ld-settlement Jews in Jerusalem? We would never know because for Neumann “traditional Judaism” is largely a placeholder that doesn’t really mean anything other than the opposite of whatever social-justice Jews are doing.

More to the point, Neumann’s argument fails because most of the social-justice advocates he is intent on pillorying are not arguing that their rendering of tradition is “traditional Judaism.” That does not mean they do not consider what they do legitimate Judaism, just not “traditional Judaism”—certainly not if by that term Neumann means Orthodox Judaism. Such an essentialist definition of “tradition” exhibits a significant lack of historical understanding of tradition as something that is continually made or re-made, rather than as a prepackaged gift bequeathed in turn to every generation.


The historical errors are plentiful but for the sake of brevity I will only mention a few. Neumann tells us that before the 19th century most Jews lived in ghettos, continually suffered persecution, and remained devoted to traditional Jewish practice. The first Jewish ghetto was established in Venice in 1516. Other ghettos existed after that but most Jews didn’t live in them. Before that Jews lived multivalent lives, some more in line with “traditional Judaism,” some less. In Medieval Spain and Renaissance Italy, for example, Jews enjoyed a fair amount of freedom interspersed with periods of persecution. The notion of what Salo Baron called the “lachrymose” understanding of Jewish history, stated as fact by Neumann, has not been taken seriously by historians for decades.

Neumann claims that when Jews were emancipated they were required to abandon their Jewish identity and that Jews were emancipated only as individuals but not as a community. The first claim is misleading. Even as many Jews did choose to distance themselves from their Jewish identity it was not often a condition. Many understood themselves to be fully emancipated yet remained fully Jewish, Moses Mendelssohn being the iconic model. The second claim was true in France but not in America, where George Washington’s 1790 letter to the Jews of Newport makes it very clear that Jews would be free as a community to practice their religion. They were not asked to abandon their Jewish identity.

Neumann attempts to set up a simplistic and outdated dichotomy of Jewish life before and after modernity to make the case that modernity itself is the poison that leads to the distortions of contemporary Jewish social activism. The basic trajectory of Neumann’s argument is that there is a straight line between classic Reform’s “treyf banquet” in Cincinnati in 1883 and contemporary forms of social-activist Judaism today. This is based on his claim that the reformers misconstrued prophetic verses to claim that Judaism was a religion of “ethical monotheism” (he never uses this popular term, which is surprising) where rituals and Jewish difference were abandoned for ethics and universalism.

There is certainly a case to be made that classical Reform Judaism went too far in its accommodation to America but Neumann gives no context whatsoever as to why and how those decisions were made. One would think from reading Neumann that the great reformers of the 19th century, from Abraham Geiger to Isaac Meyer Wise, David Einhorn, and Kaufman Kohler were meddling liberal rabbis who knew a smattering of the Hebrew Bible and distorted it toward assimilationist ends. In truth all were highly trained scholars in the Hebrew Bible and rabbinics. Einhorn published a German commentary on the siddur replete with zoharic references and Kohler was, among other things, one of the great scholars of rabbinics and early Christianity in his generation. They knew how to read texts and made their choices carefully. We may see some of those choices as mistaken. But to insinuate they could not properly read or understand a biblical or rabbinic text in context is quite astonishing since Neumann himself seems to have a very limited understanding of the tradition he espouses.

The crux of the argument that classical Reform’s errors extends to contemporary social-justice Jews is weak. Firstly, contemporary advocates of social-justice Judaism such as Aryeh Cohen, Elliot Dorff or Jill Jacobs, who are central figures in the book, do not center their work primarily on biblical texts but rather on rabbinic literature. It is the turn from the Hebrew Bible to the rabbinic corpus that marks one significant difference between classical Reform and these new iterations of social justice. Secondly, contemporary social-justice leaders such as Cohen, Dorff and Jacobs do not eschew Jewish ritual at all but are highly functioning practitioners of traditional rituals now based on egalitarian principles. Jacobs and Dorff both write halakhic responsa. Neumann’s claim that these activists think the prophet Isaiah’s critique of Israel’s ritual behavior supports rejecting the need for ritual in toto, which was the case for some classical Refomers, is simply baseless. Their entire body of work contradicts that accusation. In their view, progressive liberalism can, and should, work with ritual practice now refracted through the lens of certain liberal principles. In that sense it is not “traditional Judaism” (although again we don’t know what means for Neumann) but it is certainly non-assimilatory; as Emmanuel Levinas, a hero of many of these activists said, it represents a universalism that is performed through its particularism.

Regarding theology, Neumann spends some time criticizing Arthur Green’s Radical Judaism as an example of precisely what is wrong with Jewish liberalism. Neumann claims Green presents a universalized spirituality that is barely Jewish at all. The problem is that he doesn’t seem to understand Green’s project or what underlies it. To criticize Green for not being in concert with “traditional Jewish thought” is somewhat ludicrous given that the title of Green’s book is Radical Judaism! Setting that aide, Neumann claims Green’s argument of acosmism, the “oneness of being” and his claim to use creation, with its universal message, as a lens to view revelation, with its particularistic message, is closer to Eastern mysticism than to Judaism.

The only problem with this assertion is that it is mistaken. Agree with him or not, Green’s assessment is born from a deep reading of traditional Jewish sources. Neumann simply doesn’t know them. He claims Hasidism only “flirted’ with some of these ideas. He clearly has not read Sefer Baal Shem Tov, the Maggid of Mezritch’s Maggid Devarav le-Yaakov or R. Shneur Zalman of Liady’s Likkutei Torah carefully where the notion of the “oneness of all being” and thus a kind of panentheism, is standard fare. The Hasidic ‘ayn od milvado (there is nothing except God) or the zoharic leit atar panui minei (there is no place void of God) are just two common examples. On the creation-revelation dichotomy Neumann is clearly not familiar with the Zohar or Tikkunei Zohar which is entirely made up of 72 renderings of the first verse in Genesis often using creation as a lens through which to understand revelation. Nor does Neumann seem familiar with Lurianic Kabbalah or R. Moshe Cordovero’s Pardes Rimonim where creation plays a pivotal and central role.

In fact, one of Kabbalah’s great innovations is the way in which it shifted emphases from revelation to creation, or creation as a way to understand revelation. For example, some Hasidic masters argue that the aleph of revelation (Anochi, I am the Lord your God) is the lost aleph of creation, that begins with a “bet’ (Bereshit). There are many other examples one could bring from these “traditional” sources. One need not agree with Green’s admittedly “radical” and certainly creative and “nontraditional” renderings of these motifs. But to argue they are not born from, and highly informed by, traditional Jewish texts, is simply false.

Neumann could have proffered a different kind of critique of Green by arguing against his conclusions, even if derived from traditional sources. He could have argued that Green’s “radical” interpretation would undermine precepts that are needed today to maintain a stable and functioning Jewish spirituality. Instead of arguing the “un-Jewisheness” of Green, an argument which collapses under Neumann’s lack of knowledge of the sources, he could have said that all forms of legitimate Jewish spirituality are not applicable at all times. This would then open up a robust debate about what forms of Jewish spirituality best serve this historical moment and why. Regrettably, this opportunity was missed.

Neumann repeatedly claims social-activist Jews focus on biblical stories that are not central to “traditional Judaism,” for example the story of Sodom. This is nonsensical for a few reasons; first, there is a plethora of exegetical literature on this story, and the rabbis didn’t make such distinctions in any case, they commented extensively on what was in front of them. Yes, some episodes got more attention but that was not because they were deemed more important per se. For example, the talmudic rabbis focus extensively on the exodus from Egypt and only briefly with the sin of Adam and Eve. Yet kabbalists in the zoharic and Lurianic tradition focus extensively on the sin of Adam and Eve and less so on the exodus. The Talmud focuses much more on Moses than Abraham, yet Hasidic masters seems infatuated with Abraham. The rabbis are less concerned with verses regarding the land while Zionists such as R. Zvi Yehuda Kook make that the centerpiece of his writings. The inclinations of the interpreter, and what is at stake for them in constructing their reading of Judaism, will determine those choices. From a “traditional” perspective, every verse in scripture is of utmost importance, from the exodus to the decorative hem of the High Priest’s garment. According to Kabbalah, every letter is significant from the aleph of Anochi (I am the Lord your God) to the small aleph of Vayikra (the beginning of Leviticus).

But the real claim Neumann is making here is that the social-activist Jews he despises are arguing that their liberal universalistic interpretations are the only legitimate ones. This would be damning, except that for the fact that most of those criticized in the book simply do not make that claim. Cohen, Dorff, and Jacobs certainly do not think the only legitimate reading of a text is the liberal one. Certainly they think it is a legitimate reading, perhaps even the best reading, but not the only one. They all know that the tradition can bear the weight of many kinds of readings. They know this because they are trained in the classical tradition. They know, as do most social-activist leaders, that biblical texts can support everything from social welfare and universal health care to Baruch Goldstein’s murder of 29 Muslim worshippers. They just choose the former.

Late in the book Neumann presents a dichotomy, “Unlike Judaism which is built on a personal God, revelation … Jewish social justice holds … Unlike Judaism which offers a particularistic path to universal redemption … Jewish social justice is ….” (italics added). The particulars aren’t important, what is problematic here is the term Judaism. Someone educated in the intricacies of the Jewish tradition would rarely use the word Judaism as if it is a prepackaged hermetically sealed object. Judaism? Whose, what, when, where?

Neumann faults social-justice Jews for decontextualizing scriptural verses to meet contemporary needs. He often tries to undermine their readings by showing that in context the verse does not mean what they say it means or, more surprisingly, that the verses in question do not directly relate to their contemporary concerns, i.e., labor laws, health care, living wage, or socialist principles. This suggests that social-justice Jews are the first readers of scripture to use such methods to respond to contemporary issues. One wonders if Neumann has ever read midrash, whose genius is the art of de-contextualizing verses and twisting them creatively to mean something other than their contextual meaning. Neumann deploys the dichotomy between exegesis and eisogesis (reading out of a verse or reading into a verse) to chastise social-justice Jews for their irresponsible reading. But this dichotomy is so outdated it hardly serves as a critique of anything. Remember, these social-justice Jews are not learning law (halakha) from their midrashic readings, but rather using the Hebrew Bible or rabbinic texts as resources to articulate a value they believe the tradition can represent.

Neumann’s claim that the social-justice Jews’ preferred rendering of scripture always yields a liberal conclusion is true, of course. In fact, that is their point, they are liberal Jews! Zionists do exactly the same thing, as do ultra-Orthodox anti-Zionists, Hasidic Jews, or Modern Orthodox Jews. Neumann’s own method of reading of scripture perhaps comes closest to that of Christian fundamentalists, whose quasi-literalism critically accuses the midrashic (traditional) reading as “pharisaic.” Refusing to take a biblical text out of context—more strongly, delegitimizing that enterprise—is not the traditional rabbinic method of reading scripture.


In some way the centerpiece of Neumann’s critique is what he determines is the misconstrual of the term tikkun olam (fixing the world) that has become the leitmotif of social-justice Jews. Let us say for the sake of argument that he is correct, that the term in liturgical and later kabbalistic usage does not refer to the Jewish responsibility to fix the world. That social-justice Jews are in large part articulating a Jewish social gospel that originated in early 20th century Protestantism. Is this new? Not at all. It would be hard for example to find a representative text in the Hebrew Bible that embodies our conventional notion of monotheism. Where can we find anything in the tradition resembling Zionism, a collective move to return to the ancestral land before the messiah and without a Temple? Yes, the term tikkun as it used in kabbalistic literature bears little resemblance to what it meant in the Bible or the rabbis. The word devekut in the Hebrew Bible and rabbinic texts hardly means what it has come to mean in Hasidism. And Rav Kook’s use of the term teshuva (repentance) as a marker for cosmic return is hardly aligned with the biblical and prophetic use of the term. In short, tikkun olam is simply a sign, the adaptation of a Hebrew term to embrace a liberal Jewish ideology. The fact that the term did not mean that in the aleinu prayer or even in kabbalistic literature is in some way obvious but also banal. Neumann can disagree with the liberal principles embodied under the banner of the contemporary usage of tikkun olam but rendering it illegitimate by showing it deviates from the term’s original meaning is no critique at all.

What Neumann could have done, and here he would have some sympathy from a reader like me, would be to argue that some of the connections Jewish social-justice activists try to make to connect their contemporary concerns to Judaism are unfounded because the tradition itself does not have sufficient resources to make such a claim. He could have argued that liberalism itself, like any contemporary cultural or political ideology, does not always (he could even say, often) cohere with a tradition for which such sentiments would simply be anachronistic. He doesn’t do so, I presume, because he wants to argue liberalism and “traditional Judaism” almost never cohere with tradition and because he wants to preserve a seemingly immaculate tradition that he can then use to support his more conservative ideological positions. This is unfortunate, and to my mind a missed opportunity.

The second part of the book focusing on Israel is neither original nor particularly compelling. It is a standard neoconservative pro-Israelist argument claiming that liberalism destroys or endangers the Jewish national project. You either buy it or you don’t. For those who don’t, there is nothing here that will cause you to change your mind. But there is something here to say about Zionism. Neumann does not seem to understand that vis-à-vis the tradition, however construed, the old reformers and new social-justice Jews and Zionists were engaged in a similar project toward different ends; that is, a critique or strong reading of traditional sources to come to terms with a new contemporary reality. There was good reason why a large swath of traditional Jews rejected Zionism early on just as they rejected the Reform movement; in their minds both Zionism and Reform were illegitimate positions. The fact that today contemporary diasporism in the form of Jewish social justice, and Zionism, religious and secular, have both won the day only attests to the compelling nature of their nontraditional critiques and their ability to present them over time as part of “tradition.”

Why do I care about all this? I consider myself part of the progressive left Neumann is attacking (full disclosure, Neumann mentions me numerous times, mostly parenthetically). I too have critiques of the community to which I belong and I think liberals and progressives sometimes overextend their reading of Judaism to serve progressive ends. I do not think Judaism always supports a progressive agenda. But then neither do most of the people Neumann criticizes. Having spent the past 40 years studying Judaism from haredi to progressive yeshivot to universities and seminaries, as a university professor of Jewish studies and a rabbi (ordained Orthodox but no longer Orthodox), I see it as my professional obligation to be a critic of Judaism. Like all religions, Judaism is in a constant process of evolution, correction, and adaptation, and I think the sources of Judaism bear witness to that assessment. But I am fully devoted to the notion that any critique, right or left, contain the requisite understanding of the tradition one is defending or criticizing. When I read To Heal the World? I thus feel moved to bring its deficiencies to light, not just because I disagree with its conclusions but because I take issue with its lack of preparedness to enter into what is a real and significant debate about Judaism in the 21st century.


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Shaul Magid, a Tablet contributing editor, is the Distinguished Fellow of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College and Kogod Senior Research Fellow at The Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. His latest books are Piety and Rebellion: Essays in Hasidism and The Bible, the Talmud, and the New Testament: Elijah Zvi Soloveitchik’s Commentary to the Gospels.