Tikkun Olam, which roughly translates from Hebrew into “repair the world," comes from ancient rabbinic texts that imply humankind is spiritually shattered into shards, and it is up to us to piece it back together through acts of kindness. The phrase has impacted Jewish behavior and beliefs— especially those of American Jews, and that's a problem for author Jonathan Neumann. In his book, To Heal the World? How the Jewish Left Corrupts Judaism and Endangers Israel (All Points Books, June), Neumann argues Tikkun Olam is a dangerous hijacking of what was once a minor liturgical metaphor turned into a call for a liberal political Judaism
Drawing on his view of Judaism’s basic tenets, Neumann critiques some American Jews’ perspective of Jewish values, including Tikkun Olam, which he says has redirected the perspective of the Jewish community towards liberalism and social justice. To Heal the World? makes a case that Judaism should be separated from politics and social justice issues.
"I'm not trying to make a partisan argument," Neumann maintains. "It's more a question of [are] these politics, and particularly the more liberal, the more radical politics we see within the Tikkun Olam movement, justified by biblical and rabbinic texts in the way that is claimed? I would suggest that they're not."
Neumann found that since 2016, many young American Jews have joined social justice movements. But they're discovering that anti-Semitism also exists among the American left, most often in the form of anti-Israel rhetoric. Often they are forced to choose between their social activism on one side and on the other, not only support for Israel, but a worldview in which Jews are cast as conspirator. In that way, this idea of Tikkun Olam distances American Jews from Israel and from their own history, according to Neumann. Consequently, the Tikkun Olam movement provides what appears to be a theological rationale for that disconnect, he says.
So, then, what is the true theology, in Neumann's view? What does the Bible and rabbinical tradition actually say? First, he says, responsibility is toward fellow Jews. Take care of your own family before you take care of your neighbors. Then, stay together as Jews. "You know, I think with a 70-plus-percent outmarriage rate is not the behavior of a community that is trying to sustain itself," Neumann says.
Neumann is a graduate of Cambridge University and the London School of Economics, but "I observed and spent a lot of time living and working in America and I really see how hegemonic Tikkun Olam is and the adverse impact that it's having on American Jewish behavior,” he said.
And while Neumann says he does expect the book to generate controversy among American Jews, he hopes it is taken in the spirit of generating a conversation. "I absolutely want this to be about where we go as a community and how we understand our tradition," Neumann says. "You know, I'm more than happy to be corrected.”
Adam Bellow, editorial director at St. Martin’s’ All Points Books imprint, called To Heal the World? “an innovative and intellectually serious dismantling of a concept that sits at the very foundation of Jewish liberalism.” He expects a backlash over the book, which is a “fundamental challenge to the golden calf of Jewish social justice,” he added.
“At best, I would hope that an earnest Jewish leftist reads To Heal the World? and finds it so stimulating and provocative—and even offensive—that they feel compelled to write their own book-length refutation,” Bellow said. “If so, I'd love to publish it.”