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Response to Tikkun Olam article

Rabbi Nathan Alfred of the United Hebrew Congregation, Singapore wrote a response to UPJ President Roger Mendelson's Weekly News & Drash article published on 3/4 August.

In recent weeks there has been an interesting debate emerging between the rabbis and the lay leadership of the UPJ, our regional umbrella body: the Union of Progressive Judaism for Australia, New Zealand and Asia. It started with an article by our esteemed UPJ President, Roger Mendelson, in one of his weekly UPJ newsletter articles. Offering a book review of the 2018 polemic work by Jonathan Neumann, “To heal the world? how the Jewish Left corrupts Judaism and endangers Israel”, he repeated the author’s main and controversial point, namely that in recent years, Reform Judaism has been acting somehow in a non-Jewish way by focussing on social justice and especially on Tikkun Olam, a Hebrew phrase that means literally “healing the world”.

The rabbis of the region read this and were in uproar, and Rabbi David Kunin, the chair of the Moetzah (our regional rabbinic council, of which I am currently the vice-chair) issued a strong response, sternly upholding Tikkun Olam as an important Jewish value strongly rooted in our traditions, as well as in our current practices. This elicited a detailed response from another member of the UPJ Executive, tracing back the phrase “Tikkun olam” and finding it less deeply rooted in our ancient texts. Netzer - our global youth movement - also have something to say here: their three pillars, to which all their branches globally must adhere, are: 1. Progressive Judaism 2. Reform Zionism and 3. Tikkun Olam.

In actual fact, this debate is nothing new. Rather we are shining a fresh light on an ancient debate, why are we Jewish, and what is Judaism for? In his initial article, Roger mentioned that being Jewish is about keeping the lights on in shul and the leyning rota filled. And I have a lot of sympathy with that view. Sometimes it seems to me enough to drag a minyan together to go through the motions and maintain our rhythms and cycles. But yet with Tikkun Olam we want more: that it’s not always enough just to read the Kaddish because we know we must as a mourner, but that the words should inspire us to greater actions or behaviours as well.

This tussle between rituals and ethics goes back throughout Jewish history. In the nineteenth century the Reform movement in the United States decided that it should only follow the ethical mitzvot and not the ritual ones. The Pittsburgh Platform was published in 1885, and stipulated that the ritual laws in the Torah (eg kashrut, or clothes like Tallit and kippah) “fail to impress the modern Jew with a spirit of priestly holiness; their observance in our days is apt rather to obstruct than to further modern spiritual elevation.” Rather, they were inspired to solve the problems of their times, and the Platform concludes by stating: “in full accordance with the spirit of the Mosaic legislation, which strives to regulate the relations between rich and poor, we deem it our duty to participate in the great task of modern times, to solve, on the basis of justice and righteousness, the problems presented by the contrasts and evils of the present organization of society.”

This is the Classical Reform ideology which led so many American Jews especially to eschew a kippah, to shed their tallit, and to disregard entirely the laws of kashrut. If even your rabbi tells you it’s ok now to eat bacon and shrimps, then why would you not! But it’s also this ideology that has led to the incredible contributions of so many American Jews to contribute to the bettering of their society, be it in non-profits or philanthropy or the legal system, from Abraham Joshua Herschel walking with Martin Luther King in the 1960s to modern-day greats like Ruth Bader Ginsberg.

The concept of Tikkun Olam emerged from a kabbalistic idea that the world is a shattered vessel that needs to be pieced back together. It’s a simple yet powerful image, impressing upon us the imperative to fix and heal ourselves and the world around us. It’s also a shorthand for a number of specific mitzvot and commandments with older origins that we do find in the Torah: welcoming the stranger, taking care of the widow and the orphan, loving our neighbour, as well all the mitzvot that we recite every morning in the “elu devarim” prayer, reminding ourselves of what is important as we start out each day. Sometimes we can become intellectually lazy: why do we need to recycle plastic bottles? Oh it’s tikkun olam. Why do we care about immigrants on our borders? It’s tikkun olam. And what about fighting climate change? Oh yeah, that’s tikkun olam as well. I can imagine that a sceptic might feel short-changed by this perennial answer. At the same time, that’s not to say that we cannot work a little harder in our texts and find there plenty of support for the environment, refugees and not wasting resources.

While Tikkun Olam may have found its way to become a central pillar of Reform Judaism in the twentieth century, this discussion of what it means to be Jewish is much older. Our prophets were the social critics of their times, and provided a running commentary on the evils of their age. This passage from Isaiah is perhaps the most famous example:

“To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto Me? saith the LORD; I am full of the burnt-offerings of rams, and the fat of fed beasts; and I delight not in the blood of bullocks, or of lambs, or of he-goats. When ye come to appear before Me, who hath required this at your hand, to trample My courts? Bring no more vain oblations; it is an offering of abomination unto Me; new moon and sabbath, the holding of convocations--I cannot endure iniquity along with the solemn assembly. Your new moons and your appointed seasons My soul hateth; they are a burden unto Me; I am weary to bear them. And when ye spread forth your hands, I will hide Mine eyes from you; yea, when ye make many prayers, I will not hear; your hands are full of blood. Wash you, make you clean, put away the evil of your doings from before Mine eyes, cease to do evil; Learn to do well; seek justice, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow. Come now, and let us reason together, saith the LORD; though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.” (Isaiah 1.11-18)

God doesn’t care if it’s Rosh Chodesh or Pesach, says Isaiah. It’s annoying all this attention to sacrifice (and in our times, prayers), if it doesn’t lead to improved behaviour. It reminds me of the 2008 Israel film, Maftir, where the hoodlums and street gangs of South Tel Aviv tough it out for six days a week, running around and killing each other, but on Shabbat they’re all in shul and bidding to be Maftir, to be the one who gets to read the Haftarah. There is a peculiar dissonance here, and yet it’s something we indulge very much as a Jewish absurdity. For it complements the idea that even the worst sinner can repent one day before his death and be forgiven.

This Shabbat we begin reading from the book of Deuteronomy; our Torah portion is Devarim. Moses begins his final address to the Israelites, whom he knows will eventually cross over the River Jordan into the land of Canaan without him. And Moses reminds them, don’t forget the legal system we have established, don’t forget to act justly. But trust in God and follow his commandments, and do not stray after other gods.

Classical Reform ideology is not as popular today as it was in the nineteenth century. The tallit and kippah came back, and there is renewed interest in the wisdom and meaning of Kashrut. More recent generations of progressive rabbis have understood that Judaism needs rituals, and that we cannot live by ethics alone. The UPJ uprising against Tikkun Olam most likely understands this too. Borne out of frustration that we teach our kids to make the world a better place, when they see the next generation volunteer for NGOs in Africa and not in Israel, or marry a non-Jew for love, or uphold universalist ideals rather than Jewish ones, or be concerned to reduce sea-levels and not raise the level of the Kineret, they imagine that we are making a misstep with our Jewish future.

In the end, the answer is probably to be found in the middle. Judaism needs - has always needed - both rituals and ethics. The minyan is the heartbeat of our community, we need the lights on and the leyning rota and the rhythm and comfort of a quorate Kaddish. This must pass ledor vador from one generation to the next. But we also need to be saying something more for Jewish life to have meaning, and contribute to the world beyond our shuls and ghetto walls. If Tikkun Olam has become loaded for the older generation and laced with suspicion, let us find a new vocabulary. The sentiments are timeless - from Moses to Isaiah to the nineteenth century to today - let us, if need be, update our language accordingly.

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