Liberal Jews in the United States have “distorted” Jewish teachings to align with a narrow political agenda, according to the author of a new book called, “To Heal the World? How the Jewish Left Corrupts Judaism and Endangers Israel.”
Published on June 26, the book “sets out to slaughter the sacred cow of Tikkun Olam, at whose udder too many unlearned Jews have suckled,” according to author Jonathan Neumann. He blames American Jewry’s leaders for not only reinventing aspects of their ancient heritage, but also for causing damage to Israel by aligning with groups hostile to the Jewish state.
For much of the book, Neumann explains how the concept of Tikkun Olam — or “repair the world” — has been co-opted by liberal Jews to advance their vision of “social justice.” The author claims that based partly on a reading of isolated words in the Hebrew prayer “Aleynu,” a generation of American Jews have come to equate their religion with a commandment to tackle all of society’s ills.
Calling this application of Tikkun Olam “the bastardization of an ancient civilization,” Neumann claims the movement “was conceived by Jews who had rejected the faith of their fathers, and midwifed by radicals who saw it as a pretext to appropriate Jewish texts and corrupt religious rituals — such as the seder — to further political ends.”
In a point he makes several times, Neumann argues that Tikkun Olam and “social justice” are political ideologies, as opposed to tenets of Judaism. Specifically, believes the author, liberal Jewish leaders have misapplied teachings of the Prophets as intended for a “universal audience,” as opposed to a set of guidelines for the Jewish people.
“What the Bible says and what the Jewish social justice movement thinks it says diverge,” wrote Neumann. “Abraham’s appeals for Sodom are not the purpose of Judaism. The story of Joseph is not a straightforward example of benevolent government. The Exodus from Egypt is not reducible to political revolution.”
In a New York Post op-ed published last month, Neumann claimed that American Jews “have been led to believe that the purpose of the Jews in the world is to campaign for higher taxes, sexual permissiveness, reduced military spending, illegal immigration, opposition to fracking, the banishment of religion from the public square and every other liberal cause under the sun — all in the name of God.”
As rhetorically asked by Neumann, “Isn’t it just a little bit incredible for the teachings of the ancient faith of Judaism to happen to comprise without exception the agenda of the liberal wing of today’s Democratic Party?”
In Neumann’s assessment, the Hebrew Prophets spoke about taking care of Jewish orphans and widows — as opposed to the downtrodden members of other communities. Additionally, the Prophets were not opposed to Jewish ritual and worship, despite claims to the contrary.
“Liberal Jewish activists now apply [Biblical injunctions] universally and obligate everyone to everyone else,” wrote Neumann. “But this undermines the covenantal connection between each Jew, and the Jews’ distinction from gentiles, and the relationship between the Jewish people and God.”
Even more alarming than Tikkun Olam’s application to politics, believes Neumann, is the progressive Jewish movement’s framing of “the Jewish people as an outdated and chauvinistic relic, with no need for a nation-state of its own in its ancient homeland. Consequently, Jewish social justice activists help to defame Israel and weaken America’s bond with the Jewish State,” wrote the author in his op-ed.
Taking on an array of liberal Jewish thinkers and organizations, Neumann claims a critical mass of American Jews have essentially “checked” their connection to Israel at the door in order to gain acceptance from progressives.
“According to this logic, if you do not recognize that challenging ‘Zionist oppression’ is part of social justice — if you try to pretend for pragmatic or ideological reasons that it is separate from social justice or a tolerable special case — then your social justice efforts are disingenuous and are not going to succeed,” wrote Neumann.
Referring to former president Barack Obama as the “Tikkun Olam” commander-in-chief, Neumann claims that Jewish social justice warriors are “in disarray” following a year and a half of President Donald Trump’s leadership. Despite their staunch opposition to many of Trump’s policies, liberal Jews are not seen as full allies in the battle against Trumpism, according to Neumann.
“[The] activists have been evicted from the White House, together with their messiah [Barack Obama], replaced by a coalition of religious Christians and traditionalist Jews,” wrote Neumann in The Post. “And natural as it comes to the political exiles to oppose the new administration, these activists are discovering that left-wing social justice marches have no place for Jewish warriors.”
‘The eventual end of the Jewish people’
A graduate of Cambridge University and the London School of Economics, Neumann is a regular contributor to Jewish-themed publications. “To Heal” is Neumann’s first book, and its publication was met by censure from some of the Jewish thinkers he criticizes.
In the assessment of author Shaul Magid, Neumann’s book “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.”
As one of the Jews targeted in the book, Magid takes exception not only to Neumann’s thesis, but also the author’s qualifications to write such a book in the first place. Accusing Neumann of making glaring errors when it comes to Jewish history, Magid takes issue with Neumann’s claim that America’s early Reform Jewish leaders were unschooled in Jewish texts, even as they attempted to contort those texts to meet “assimilationist” ends.
“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,” wrote Magid in an essay for Tablet.
In addition to Neumann’s failure to define “traditional” Judaism, the author erroneously claims that progressive Jewish leaders use the Bible as prime justification for their activism, according to Magid. In fact, most liberal Jewish leaders turn to rabbinic literature when making cases for social change, as opposed to the Bible, asserts Magid.
Magid also takes issue with Neumann’s claim that progressive Jewish leaders are dogmatically opposed to textual interpretations that don’t align with their worldview.
“This would be damning, except that for the fact that most of those [Jewish thinkers] criticized in the book simply do not make that claim,” wrote Magid. “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 worshipers.”
In terms of liberal American rabbis who beat the drums of social justice, Neumann accuses the progressive cohort of “[seeming] to affiliate almost uniformly with groups that are hostile to Israel.” From Black Lives Matter to LGBTQ activism, Neumann believes some liberal movements pull a bait-and-switch when it comes to permitting Jews in their ranks.
“Whereas the Jews are subject to extreme universalism, the particularism of other communities is, apparently, to be protected at all costs,” wrote Neumann. “It is, for example, inconceivable that advocates of Jewish social justice would tell African-Americans or Muslims that ultimately they should abandon their particular cultures, practices, or beliefs.”
Particularly alarming to Neumann is the culmination of social justice ideology, which “envisions the eventual end of the Jewish people,” according to the author.
“However noble the motive of American Jews, their pursuit of Tikkun Olam is a betrayal of the traditional faith of their people,” wrote Neumann. “That faith holds that through Abraham’s progeny all the people of the earth will be blessed (Gen. 22:18). Jews and non-Jews alike should be alarmed by the prospect of Tikkun Olam succeeding in assimilating the Jewish people into all of humanity, for then that blessing will be no more.”
With most of his book focused on diagnosing the ills of American Jewry, Neumann devotes some pages to offering correctives. First off, believes Neumann, Jews need to return to defining Judaism based on what he views as the religion’s core beliefs, as opposed to trendy social causes.
In other words, Jews need to stop equating Judaism with Tikkun Olam and social justice.
“The fact that American Jews have long engaged in political activism does not mean that activism makes them Jewish,” wrote Neumann. “It just makes them more like everyone else undertaking that same activism.”
In his final chapter, called “The Way Forward,” Neumann calls Tikkun Olam “an unreasonable answer” to the “reasonable theological question” of Jews’ obligation to the wider world. He calls for “Jews in exile” to focus on “the security, welfare, and ultimately the survival of the Jewish community,” as opposed to “following the lead of the Jewish social justice movement.” That movement, Neumann holds, is responsible for eroding Jewish life in America.
As noted by critics of the book, Neumann covers well-trodden ground in his quest to hoist Jewish social justice warriors by their own petards. Unlike a reading of the Talmud, “To Heal” makes few efforts to juxtapose opposing perspectives, much less identify common ground between “Tikkun Olam Jews” and the author’s brand of Judaism.