Opposing Antisemitism After Pittsburgh

I am indebted to this powerful Rosh Hashanah sermon by Rabbi Angela Buchdahl at New York’s Central Synagogue, from which I borrowed some ideas and several sources.

I have stated, on more than one occasion, that this is the best time and place to be Jewish in human history.  We have never enjoyed so much freedom, success, safety, and acceptance by the wider society than we do today.  I still believe that.

But last week, we were reminded that antisemitism is very real, and it is not going away any time soon.

Last Shabbat at the Tree of Life synagogue, eleven Jews, men and women between 54 and 97 years old, were murdered while praying.  These are their names:

Joyce Fienberg, Richard Gottfrie, Rose Mallinger—97 years old, Jerry Rabinowitz, Cecil Rosenthal, along with his brother—David Rosenthal, Bernice Simon, Sylvan Simon, Daniel Stein, Melvin Wax, Irving Younger.  May their memories be a blessing.

These were the most dedicated members of their community, the ones who, week after week, showed up at the beginning of services to ensure that there would be a minyan.  They are martyrs: Jews who died for the sanctification of God’s name.  

Their murderer, whose name I will not mention, shouted “All Jews must die” as he slaughtered them.

He did not care if his victims were Reform, Conservative, or Orthodox.  It did not matter to him whether they were Democrats or Republicans, or whether they leaned to the right or to the left.

All that mattered was that they were Jews.

While the shooter seems to have been working alone, his beliefs were consistent with views embraced by those who identify as part of White Power, Neo Nazi, or Alt-Right movements.  In an article in the The Atlantic last December, journalist Luke O’Brian summarizes White Nationalists’ fears of Jewish influence.

The Holohoax, as it is known, gives its adherents an excuse to blame everything they hate on a cabal of Jews: Feminism. Immigration. Globalization. Liberalism. Egalitarianism. The media. Science. Facts. Video-game addiction. Romantic failure. The NBA being 74.4 percent black. According to the Holohoax, it’s all a plot to undermine traditional white patriarchy so Jews can maintain a parasitic dominion over the Earth.

They see Jews as the top of the pyramid, the ultimate cause of everything that they consider bad.  

Saturday’s murderer had been railing against HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, which is one of several agencies that partners with the Federal Government to settle refugees – legal refugees, by the way.  HIAS had sponsored National Refugee Shabbat the week before, and Tree of Life Synagogue had participated proudly.

In one of his final online posts, the shooter wrote: “HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people, I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.”  

Who is to blame for letting immigrants in the country?  The Jews.  The ultimate Other.

Antisemitism has a long and terrible two thousand year history.  We have suffered countless persecutions: expulsions, forced conversions, torture, massacres during the Crusades, the blood libel, blame for the Black Death, the Inquisition, ghettos, the Chmielnitzki Massacres, pogroms, and of course the Holocaust.  

All of these and more were driven by hateful, antisemitic lies and stereotypes.  Jews are responsible for Jesus’ death, Jews are usurers, they are greedy, they have big noses and ears, they run the media, there is a secret organization of Jews that is controlling the world.

While these stereotypes originated in Christendom, they eventually spread into Muslim lands, where blood libels persist to this day and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion is still in print.

While we seem to have made great progress after the horrors of the Holocaust, the old antisemitism is still very much with us.  

Anyone who has traveled to Europe and tried to visit a Jewish community knows that synagogues there are fortresses.  To attend services on Shabbat in many communities, you have to first send a picture of your passport.  I attended Tisha B’av services in Trieste, Italy, a few years ago.  We barely had a minyan, but we were protected by an Israeli security guard at the door, two machine gun wielding Italian carabinieri, and two undercover police officers.

A synagogue is supposed to be a welcoming place.  It is a House of Worship, a sanctuary, a place of peace.  Sadly, antisemitism prevents this.  But not in America.

Yes, there are some very large, mainly urban synagogues that employ security, but we take for granted that our shuls are open places.  We take pride in it.  As Sinai’s Rabbi, I am constantly inviting people to join us on Shabbat for services, and to stay for lunch afterwards.  I insist, with 100% sincerity, that we love having guests.

In the last week, we have been questioning this sense of safety and security.  We have learned most painfully that antisemitism in not just words and rhetoric.

While Jews in America are trusted and seen positively by higher percentages than ever, we are also seeing increasingly nasty antisemitism on the fringes of both the right and the left.  Let me give a few examples.  As I do, pay close attention to your emotions.  How do you feel as I describe the following examples?

First, the right.

A Republican candidate for State Senate in Connecticut sent out a campaign mailer this week attacking his opponent, Democratic State Representative Matthew Lesser, who happens to be Jewish.  The ad depicts a photoshopped picture of Lesser with bulging eyes, a maniacal grin, hands clutching wads of cash — not dissimilar to other antisemitic caricatures of Jews that have appeared over the past centuries.

Last year, White Nationalists held their Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville, which resulted in the murder of Heather Heyer.  President Trump infamously told reporters, “I think there is blame on both sides…  You had some very bad people in that group… but you also had people that were very fine people, on both sides.”  The Alt-Right took his words as an endorsement.

Just last week, the President proudly declared himself to be a “nationalist.”  And at a rally Saturday night, just hours after the massacre in Pittsburgh, he railed against immigrants, referring to this coming Tuesday as the “election of the caravan.”

Many have drawn connections between the President’s frequent anti-immigrant, anti-Other language and the hate-driven violence that we have recently witnessed, including the shooting of two African Americans in Kentucky, and the mailing of 14 pipe bombs to targets that the President has verbally attacked repeatedly.

That’s on the right.  How about the left?

Traditionally, the Jews of Great Britain have been strong supporters of the Labour Party.  But its current leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has tolerated and even encouraged antisemitic rhetoric and actions within the party for years.  In 2012, Corbyn hosted a panel comprised of a number of Hamas members.  In 2013, he suggested that “Zionists don’t understand English irony.”  In 2014, he attended a memorial ceremony and placed a wreath for the terrorists who murdered Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics.  Just recently, the Labour Party’s National Executive Committee refused to accept the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of anti-Semitism.

Ilhan Omar is a Democratic representative in Minnesota’s House of Representatives.  This past August, she won the primary for the Democratic nomination for the House of Representatives in Minnesota’s 5th District, meaning she is all but certain to win the general election this Tuesday.  In 2012, she tweeted, “Israel has hypnotized the world, may Allah awaken the people and help them see the evil doings of Israel.”

Liberal Jews should be natural allies for the Women’s March.  And yet, three of the Co-Chairs, most notably Tamika Mallory, have refused to denounce the march’s association with Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam, who has a long history of blatantly antisemitic rhetoric, including praise of Hitler.

Just last Spring, Mallory attended the Nation of Islam’s annual gathering, at which Farrakhan praised her and declared “the powerful Jews are my enemy… the Jews have control of those agencies of government” like the FBI.  The Jews are “the mother and father of apartheid,” and they are responsible for “degenerate behavior in Hollywood turning men into women and women into men.”  When confronted with this, Mallory refused to disassociate herself or the Women’s March from him.  Quite the opposite, she has often praised and appeared in photographs with Farrakhan.

So let me ask a question.  Over the last four minutes, I spoke about antisemitism on the right and antisemitism on the left:  A Republican ad depicting a Jewish opponent with classic antisemitic imagery; President Trump’s divisive rhetoric encouraging right wing extremists.  I spoke about the leader of the British Labour Party’s tolerance, and even encouragement of antisemitic behavior.  I mentioned a soon to be elected Democratic Congresswoman who made references to global Zionist conspiracies.  And I spoke about an organizer of the Women’s March who has refused to renounce Louis Farrakhan.

Which made you more angry?  Be honest.  Who did you find yourself trying to excuse in some way?  

My guess is that those who consider themselves to be politically liberal got angrier about the antisemitism on the right, while those who consider themselves to be conservative got angrier about the antisemitism of the left.  And both sides probably found themselves minimizing, dismissing, or even rejecting the antisemitism on their own ideological side, or getting mad at me for even suggesting it.

I have been looking at myself this past week, and I have found that I have done all of these things.

On the Conservative Rabbis’ listserv, less than 24 hours had passed, and there were already arguments raging over who was to blame for the rhetoric that encouraged the shooter.  Of course, there were those who placed responsibility on President Trump for fanning the flames of hatred.  But in response, there were accusations that it was in fact President Obama who started the divisive language that led to Trump’s election and Saturday’s tragedy.

Here is what I have observed about how Jews react to antisemitism.  We blame the antisemitism of the other side.  It makes us so mad.  “Why don’t other Jews see it?” we ask in exasperation.

And then we ignore, excuse, or minimize the antisemitism on our own side.  “Those are just a few fringe elements,” we tell ourselves.  “They don’t really matter.”

What is the result?  A few things.  No antisemites change their minds.  Jews on the right and Jews on the left get angrier at each other.  We widen the rifts within the Jewish community. 

Right now, there is a small window of cooperation in our grief.  I was impressed by a joint editorial written by the ideologically opposed Editors-in-Chief of the Forward and The Algemeiner, and signed by a dozen leaders in Jewish journalism.  It was titled #WeAreAllJews.

We […] join together to unequivocally condemn this brutal act of antisemitism and all deadly acts of hate. We also condemn the climate of hate that has been building for some time now, especially on college campuses and on social media, where the veneer of anonymity has allowed antisemitic cesspools to flourish, and from irresponsible political leaders who engage in hateful speech and who are abetted by the silence of others.

I think we can all agree on the following:  Antisemitism is evil, whether it comes from the right or the left.  I can accept that you have a different opinion than me about taxes, or health care, or immigration policies.  But if there is one thing that ought to unite us, it ought to be our Judaism.  We have got to be united in opposing anyone who expresses hatred against the Jewish people, or who stokes that hatred.

What is more important?  Being a Democrat or Republican, a Conservative or a Liberal, or being Jewish?  Why would we ever let political affiliation to drive a wedge in the Jewish community?

Don’t just blame the other side.  From now on, I want all of us to commit to calling out the antisemitism that persists on the fringes of our own political perspectives.  Those who are active in progressive causes need to stay engaged.  And similarly with those involved in conservative causes.  Do not allow the organizations and movements that you care about to get hijacked by antisemitism.  Do not allow antisemitic—or any hateful language—to go unchecked.  

Racism and hatred should not have a place in our politics.  If we do not call it out, then we are responsible for allowing it to grow.

This past week, our wider Jewish community gathered together on two occasions.  The first was a service of mourning on Sunday night.  It was attended by more than 400 people who felt an urgent need to come together to express grief and offer each other comfort.

The second gathering was an Interfaith Vigil of Solidarity Against Hate, which took place on Tuesday.

It was a special event.  More than 600 people assembled at the plaza in front of San Jose City Hall.  Mayor Sam Liccardo and the entire City Council attended, along with Joe Simitian, President of the Santa Clara Country Board of Supervisors, Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren, and many of our other local elected officials.

There were also dozens of clergy, and laypeople of many faiths and ethnic backgrounds.  Protestant Ministers and Pastors, Catholic, Episcopalian, and Greek Orthodox Priests, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs. These religious leaders brought their congregants with them.

We came together to say that we will not succumb to hatred.  Despite many differences, we are united as human beings, and as Americans.  While the need that brought us together was tragic, the experience of standing shoulder to shoulder was so reassuring. 

How did such a diverse crowd come together?

On Saturday, as soon as news about the shooting emerged, I started receiving personal emails from interfaith colleagues and friends.  They expressed their sorrow to me and offered condolences to our community.  They said that they would be reciting prayers and lighting memorial candles during their worship services the next day.  They offered to help our community in any way possible, including standing outside our entrances during service so that we would feel safe while we prayed.

Who was it that sent these messages?  Some were members of a small interfaith group of which I am a member.  We have met every month for the past couple of years to study and learn from each other.

One email came from a representative of the Evergreen Mosque.  Last year, when that community received a bomb threat, I was one of several dozen people of different faiths who stood outside the entrance to support their community during its Friday prayers.  

Another came from a leader in the local Hindu community, who I have gotten to know through a different interfaith organization.

When we decided to hold the Interfaith Vigil, I immediately sent out the notification to my interfaith colleagues, and many of them came, on very short notice.

All of my local Rabbinic Colleagues had the same experiences.  And this is true of the countless other interfaith vigils, services, and rallies which have taken place around the country this past week.

A threat, or God forbid an attack, is uniquely personal to the community that experiences it.  Kol Yisrael Arevim Zeh Bazeh.  All Jews are interconnected with one another.  At the same, how remarkable it is that people from extraordinarily different traditions feel such profound empathy for one another.

Can you imagine this happening in any other time or place in history?

I suspect that many of you had experiences this week in which non-Jewish friends, acquaintances, or co-workers reached out to express their condolences and sorrow.  Why do you think they did that?

Because they see you as a whole person, and they know that being Jewish is an important part of who you are.  And they value you for that.  That is what makes America so special.  And that is why I do not think we are facing the same situation as Germany in the 1930’s, or even contemporary Europe.

Antisemitism will certainly continue to exist.  It may even turn violent.  But I have faith in the goodness of most people.  

I was reminded this week of a letter that President George Washington wrote to the Hebrew Congregations of Newport, Road Island in 1790.  While his address is specifically addressed to the American Jewish community, it really expresses the best of what pluralism and religious freedom is supposed to be in America – for people of all faiths.  I would like to conclude with these words by our Founding Father.

The citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy—a policy worthy of imitation.  All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship…

May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants—while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.

May the father of all mercies scatter light, and not darkness, upon our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in His own due time and way everlastingly happy.

Amen.

God Is On Everyone’s Side, And No One’s – Rosh Hashanah 5778 (first day)

Many of the ideas in this D’var Torah were taken from a presentation by Yehudah Kurtzer of the Hartman Institute.

Upon election to his second term, Abraham Lincoln delivered as his inaugural address one of the greatest speeches in American history.  It was four years into the Civil War.  The war would end and the President would be assassinated just a few weeks later.  Lincoln articulated one of the most profound statements of religious humility ever spoken.

He was meditating on the use by pro-slavery Confederates and abolitionist Unionists of religion to support the morality of their respective claims.  How is it possible for diametrically opposed sides to claim God’s blessing with equal passion and conviction?

Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces; but let us judge not that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has his own purposes.

This is not to say that Lincoln wavered one iota in his belief in the evil of slavery and the moral imperative of eradicating it.  The best that President Lincoln can hope to do is, through his own wisdom and faith, choose a course and pray that it aligns with the will of the Almighty.

In the Torah portion for the first day of Rosh Hashanah, God is on everyone’s side, and no one’s.

As the reading opens, God takes note of Sarah, as promised, and she becomes pregnant with Isaac.  At her son’s birth, Sarah declares, “God has brought me laughter.”  (Genesis 21:6)

Some time later, Sarah demands that Abraham send away her maidservant Hagar along with Hagar and Abraham’s son, Ishmael.  Abraham is upset, but God reassures him, instructing, “whatever Sarah tells you, do as she says…”  And regarding Ishmael, God “will make a nation of him, too, for he is your seed.”

When the provisions run out, Hagar places Ishmael beneath a bush and walks a distance away so that she can weep without having to watch her son die.  It is then that God sends an angel who declares that “God has heeded the cry of the boy where he is.”  The angel reveals a hidden well and reassures Hagar that Ishmael will father a great nation.

In the same story, God is on Sarah’s side, Abraham’s side, Isaac’s side, Hagar’s side, and Ishmael’s side – even while these individuals oppose each other.

What does God stand for in this story?  Life.  The flourishing of human potential.  Each of these characters, Isaac and Ishmael, Sarah and Hagar, and Abraham have a path before them that they cannot discern.  They cannot see the world as God sees it.  Each of them chooses what he or she thinks is the best course of action.  Those choices bring them into irreconcilable conflict with one another.

And yet God’s role is not to negate one or another person’s choices, but rather to direct them towards the paths that will lead to blessing.  God enters the story at three critical points.  The first is to bless Sarah with fertility.  The next is to reassure Abraham that Sarah’s seemingly cruel demand will in fact turn out okay, something that Abraham is incapable of realizing on his own.  God appears for the third time when Hagar has given up hope.  Once again, God directs Hagar to the well that will save Ishmael’s life and lead to his thriving.

These characters are blessed to have God step in at just the right moment to redirect them and let God’s will be known.  We are not so blessed.

We suffer from a terrible case of moral hubris.  It is a pervasive disease across the entire political spectrum: right to left, liberal to conservative, Democrat to Republican.

As we celebrate the world’s birthday, it is hard not to consider the extreme rancor that exists in society.  There is so much partisan hatred.  People are feeling more politics-derived anxiety in their personal lives than ever before.  It is tearing the social fabric apart.

Some of us right now are thinking, “It’s not me.  It’s the people on the other side who are unable to see things as they really are.  They are the ones who are full of hate, who are naive, who are blind to the truth.”

Consider the following:

A 2015 study published in the American Journal of Political Science found that “the level of partisan animus in the American public exceeds racial hostility.”  In other words, Americans hate people from the opposing political party more than they hate people of different races.  Further, partisan differences are driving people apart with regard to behaviors and identities that have absolutely nothing to do with politics.

We all know about the divisions between red states and blue states.  But increasingly, people of the same political parties are segregating themselves by neighborhood.  Parents are often upset when a child intermarries into a family of the opposite political persuasion.  A 2009 survey found that only 9% of marriages were between a Republican and a Democrat.

Dating websites have reported that party affiliation is a more important criteria in a potential mate than physical appearance or personality.  And it is not that people of similar values end up falling in love.  This political discrimination comes into play at the initial mate choice.

The animosity that we feel towards those from the opposing party is stronger than the favoritism we feel towards those from our own party.  Partisanship pushes us apart more than it pulls us together.

It has gotten so bad that party affiliation even compels us to change our preferences for things that have absolutely nothing to do with morality or politics.  The author of a recent study summarized the issue like this:

Imagine that you walked into an ice cream shop on Election Day.  You discover that the shop is filled with supporters of the presidential candidate you oppose, and you find supporters of that candidate morally abhorrent.  When you get to the front of the line, the worker tells you all of the other customers just ordered red velvet – normally your favorite flavor.

[The] studies demonstrated that when asked to order, you are likely to feel an urge to stray from your favorite flavor toward one you like less, politically polarizing an otherwise innocuous decision.

We are willing to abandon our favorite ice cream flavor because we perceive it to be popular with our partisan opponents!

This trend affects the Jewish world as well.  Increasingly, communities are become segregated by party affiliation.  Synagogues have split in half over politics.  It is tragic, because our Jewish values, shared history, and beliefs should be bringing us together.  Instead, partisanship is driving us apart.

But God does not have a party.  God is not from a “Red State” or a “Blue State.”

As a Rabbi, I struggle with how and when to engage with what happens out in the political realm.  As the Rabbi of a diverse congregation, what is my role?  What should Sinai’s role be?

Should it offer an apolitical respite?  Is it a sanctuary in space in the way that Shabbat is a sanctuary in time?

Or perhaps the synagogue is the place where we come to affirm our moral grounding.  Maybe we need a place to engage constructively and thoughtfully on what happens “out there.”

Some congregants urge me to get more political.  Others come to shul looking for a break from all of the noise and contentiousness “out there.”  Let synagogue be a place in which politics is not mentioned.  Let it be a place where we can focus on our inner lives, on the spiritual.

I would kind of like it to be both.  A place where we come together as brothers and sisters in unity.  Celebrating what we share in common, which is a lot.  And learning from each other’s differences with love and respect.

The truth is, regardless of our politics, most of us share the same essential moral beliefs.

Morality is a system of values and principles of conduct having to do with good and bad, right and wrong.  They are developed throughout childhood, strongly influenced by the people who raise and teach us.  They are molded by the standards of the communities in which we live.  Of course, religion plays a huge role.

Our core moral beliefs should direct our political viewpoints.  Let’s say that my moral code tells me I have an obligation to feed the hungry.  There are people in every society who do not have enough to eat, and cannot satisfy their basic needs.  The Torah tells me that I cannot remain indifferent.  I must do something about it.

That should lead me to take a political position.  What do I think is the best way to feed the hungry?  Should the government redistribute wealth from those who have it to those who do not?  Or, should it be left to individuals and private groups to take the lead, with the government either encouraging such efforts from the sidelines or simply staying out of the way?

While the Torah and the Rabbis legislate specific ways to give, the rules around tzedakah focus mainly on individual responsibilities, or those of a tight-knit community, not on society’s obligation.  They do not provide any specific guidance for determining how or even whether a government should provide welfare, food stamps, or social security.

This means that people with similar moral beliefs could end up embracing completely opposite policy solutions – even though we are pursuing the same goal.  This is a good thing, as none of us knows how to end poverty.  The best way to find solutions is through open political systems.

This is how it should work:  our moral convictions should lead to our political positions.

Unfortunately, things are working exactly backwards.  Partisanship has co-opted politics and corrupted morality.

The research shows that my primary allegiance is to my party, not to my morals.  When the opposing party embraces a particular idea, my knee-jerk inclination is to oppose it – not because my morals tell me to, but simply because my opponents favor it.  And the idea itself, along with those who support it, become morally tainted.

It is a serious problem when vast swaths of Americans label each other evil, racist, fascist, and communist because they hold different political views.  After all, it is possible for intelligent people to reach different conclusions.

Religion bears some responsibility for the extreme polarization that we now experience.  In the last century, Judaism and Christianity in America embraced the biblical prophets as models of righteousness.  This may sound surprising, but this embrace of the prophetic ideal has created some rather severe moral traps.  The left has been particularly drawn in.

The first trap is an oversimplification of the moral imperative.  Think about the central message of just about every single prophet in the Bible.  Let’s take, for example, Isaiah’s rebuke in the Haftarah that we will read next week on Yom Kippur.  It is beautiful and inspiring:

This is the fast I desire: to unlock fetters of wickedness, and untie cords of the yoke to let the oppressed go free; to break off every yoke.  It is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home; when you see the naked, to clothe them, and do not ignore your own flesh.”  (Isaiah 58:6-7)

Isaiah seems to think that, if we only dedicated ourselves to it, we could end human suffering, inequality, and poverty.  The prophetic era lasted for hundred of years.  Most of the prophets offered some version of Isaiah’s message.  At no time did a prophet ever say:  “You guys are doing a great job.”  At no point in human history has a society ever managed to achieve Isaiah’s vision.

Why? Because the problems of human suffering are really complicated.  There is a reason why none of the biblical prophets succeeded.  They were overly simplistic and quite inflexible.

Think of Jeremiah.  He runs around speaking truth to power.  He lambasts the people for their greed and corruption.  He ends up getting himself thrown into a pit for his moral high-mindedness.  There is no doubt that Jeremiah was right.  He was living in a society that had lost its way.  He could see the righteous path forward.  But his message, like so many of the other prophets, failed to take into account the complexity of human beings.  He did not consider how they might feel if he insulted them.

The prophets label behavior as either good or bad, moral or immoral.  If you are not with us, you are against us.

This kind of righteousness is lonely, and if taken too far, can turn violent.

When Moses comes down from the mountain after the sin of the Golden Calf, he declares, Mi L’Hashem Elai!  “Whoever is for God, to me!”  There is no in-between.  The Levites heed the call.  At Moses’ instruction, they take their swords and march back and forth through the camp, killing “brother, neighbor, and kin.”  Three thousand die that day.

The Rabbis, in transforming Judaism, understood the risks inherent in the prophetic tradition.  Rabbi Yohanan declares, “Since the Temple was destroyed, prophecy has been taken from prophets and given to fools and children.”  (BT Bava Batra 12-12b)

Where the Bible speaks in absolutes, the rabbinic tradition is steeped in uncertainty.  The Talmud is filled with mostly unresolved arguments.  There is deep suspicion of anyone who would claim to know the will of God.

Another righteousness trap that we have made is in elevating the idea of tikkun olam as the religious goal.  Tikkun olam means, literally, “fixing the world.”  The term has been applied differently over the millenia.  At first, Tikkun Olam referred to a rabbinic decree that fixed a specific problem created biblical law.  Later, it took on mystical aspects.  The idea that tikkun olam is about social action and the pursuit of social justice is a uniquely 20th and 21st century innovation.  In many segments of American Jewry, however, tikkun olam has become the central religious message.

And this is a problem.

To speak of a fixed world implies, first of all, that I know what a fixed world looks like.  What does that say about someone who does not share my vision?  And finally, is it not a little audacious to imagine that the Jewish people, comprising less than two tenths of one percent of the world’s population, are going to be the ones to fix it?

Should we really be pursuing a perfect world?

A story in the Talmud relates a conversation between philosophers in Rome and Jewish elders.  “If your God has no desire for idolatry, why does He not just abolish it?”  “If it was something of which the world had no need,” they replied, “God would abolish it.  But what do people worship?  The sun, moons, stars, and planets.  Should God destroy the universe on account of fools?  Rather, olam k’minhago noheg.  The world pursues its natural course…”  (BT Avodah Zarah 54b)

We live in an imperfect world.  It is never going to become perfect.  There is no “fixing” the world.  The better model is that taught by Rabbi Tarfon in Pirkei Avot.  Lo alekha hamlakha ligmor, v’lo ata ben chorin l’hibatel mimenah.  “It is not for you to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it.”  (Avot 2:16)  The world remains a work in progress.

The Rabbinic model, as opposed to the prophetic, is one of moral humility.  It is one of engagement with others, including especially those who disagree with us.  It is making sure, always, that the solutions we pursue emerge from the core moral principles of the Torah.  But we recognize that no human being can know the mind of God.

It is through struggle, together, that we get closer to it.

Lincoln concludes his second Inaugural Address with an appeal for compassion for the common humanity of all and a prayer for peace, knowing full well that the fight to end slavery had to continue until its conclusion.  We would do well to embrace his words.

… With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan–to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.