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Beyond Repair

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

Ari M. Brostoff
September 03, 2010
(Flickr/Nick Wheeler)
(Flickr/Nick Wheeler)

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.

Marissa Brostoff, a doctoral student in English at the CUNY Graduate Center, is a former staff writer at Tablet and the Forward.

Ari M. Brostoff is Culture Editor at Jewish Currents.