Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Atlas Shrugged Tikkun Olam

Tikkun Olam, in its authentic, Lurianic Kabbalistic version refers to an introspective approach and methodology by which an intense relationship between man and God is forged, mitzvoth realized and slowly but meticulously, the world self corrects. Michael Lerner’s fabrication and fictional version of Tikkun Olam has no basis in Jewish thought. Judaism never adhered to, nor advocated, the social or economic system reflected in his vision of an advanced and sophisticate Western Civilization.

If any economic system is advocated in our tradition it is capitalism. The laws in Leviticus outlining society’s economic and social obligations to the underprivileged underscores a system of private ownership and private enterprise. One only has to view some of the laws outlined in Leviticus 19, Deuteronomy 26:12, Deuteronomy 19:28-29, Deuteronomy 24:19-22 to appreciate this. Many of our prophets, including one of the greatest advocates of the oppressed, Amos, recognized the private enterprise system as valid, if only muted by self control over greed and exploitation of the weakest. They never advocated overthrowing the existing system, but tempering it. A system was in place and in their eyes it was graced by God.

In the Bible and later in prophets, the struggle in resolving the gap between rich and poor isn’t through Tikkun Olam, but Tzedakah. Tzedakah, a fundamental in Biblical and prophetic literature validates the capitalistic system of private enterprise. A distinction is made by our Rabbis between Tzedakah and charity for the poor. Charity is an optional but benevolent gesture towards the underprivileged; Tzedakah is a commandment. We are directed to give Tzedakah and this isn’t subject to our mood or benevolent whim of the moment. The commandment of Tzedakah doesn’t assume a greater agenda of an economic reordering of society or the redistribution of wealth. On the contrary, our tradition is rich with a plethora of examples where the wealthy are extolled as blessed by God. Our Temples were adorned by gold and silver, provided by the faithful, and the entire priestly service underlines majestic imagery only supported by a wealthy community. Even the blessings and cursings of the Bible as evidenced by the Tocheca enhance this idea. The second paragraph of the Shema (Deuteronomy 11:13-21) which faithful Jews recite daily underscores this vision of a prosperous economy if only we adhere to God’s word.

Furthermore, many of the stories in the Bible which we revere, place an inordinate amount of credit to wealth. Abraham is lauded for developing his wealth which placed him in a powerful position when offering Lot a choice piece of real estate. Jacob’s self esteem is enhanced as a result of his vast holdings of live stock and property, and uses his position of wealth when it comes time to face off with his brother and nemesis, Esau. In both cases, it is wealth that provides Abraham and Jacob the ability to successfully negotiate deals that hold promise for the future. The Torah supports private ownership to the point hat the Talmudic sages endorsed the Prozbol.

The Jewish value system does place a premium on private property and intensely believes in the ingenuity of man and utilization of his capital to succeed. While Judaism doesn’t support Ayn Rand’s vision of the world, the Mishna in Avot doesn’t negate that approach. “What is mine is mine and what is yours is yours” is in the estimation of the sages a mediocre man-he will respect the law, but not help others. Translation: Our tradition epitomizes ownership of private property and free enterprise, but denounces unbridled greed which ultimately will contribute to society’s decay as evidenced by the prophet Nathan’s comment of Kivsat Harash when condemning King David. Amos addressed this issue when he exhorted the rich from closing in on the poor farmers and forcing them to sell: legal but not moral

The Jewish system doesn’t believe as the yefeh nefesh do in the redistribution of wealth and a reordering of society, in order to help the poor. Judaism understands the disparity between rich and poor makes no value judgment in that, but our willingness to give Tzedakah. But no one is expected tp provide Tzedakah to the lazy, alcoholics or drug addicts. There is nothing in our value system that condemns materialism, wealth or the pursuit of wealth. In fact we aren’t embarrassed to ask God for his munificence, as is expressed in our tefillot. There is no justification for Jews to be made to feel guilty about pursuing careers where amassing wealth is its by product. There is nothing in our tradition that justifies affirmative action at the expense of more talented people or where Jews will be discriminated against.

While we are commanded to give 10% to Tzedakah there must be some concerns over this number. Initially when we were commanded to give the 10 % this was in lieu of an efficient tax structure, and based upon an agrarian economy, with virtually no other effective welfare system in place. It isn’t at all clear if this 10 % was intended as the base tax or as a sur tax, and if it was based on one’s gross or net.

These questions ought not to be see as argumentative or meant to be mocking, because in terms of halachic application and ethical considerations these issues must be contended with. Under our current tax system, whether in America or Israel, a considerable amount of our tax dollars are allocated to social concerns: Health Welfare and Education, Medicaid and Medicare. The taxes allocated to these programs in essence are Tzedakah. Therefore, it may well be that by paying our taxes we are fulfilling the commandment of Tzedakah. Paying any more Tzedakah would be superfluous as far as the mitzvah is concerned.

This type of Tzedakah, in Rambam’s estimation, would be toward the lower end of his rating system. He developed a rating system by which Tzedakah is valued. Had the liberal democrats of the 1960’s given ear to the Rambam perhaps we would have been able to realize the Great Society of the LBJ democrats. Their approach to correcting poverty in the world is similar to that of todays liberals-those who hold Tikkun Olam inhigh esteem. According to the Rambam the most meaningful form of Tzedakah is not by giving money, but by providing work, partnerships or providing a loan to a business. The least meaningful forms of Tzedakah are “throwing money” at the problem. He understood that in the long term, giving money wasn’t what solved the problems of poverty, but that providing the tools, education and opportunity was the answer.


The current paradigm of Tikkun Olam has no basis in our tradition, whether we search the Mishna or Kabbalah. It is a fabrication cobbled together by left over liberals in the tradition of the failed Great Society of the 1960’s. It was a system where entitlement programs were seen as the panacea for our problems and where individual responsibility and accountability, once considered virtuous, were conveniently replaced with a new virtue allowing for society to bear that burden. It is no wonder that when this burden becomes unbearable and too difficult to carry, this form of Tikkun Olam will be shrugged by Atlas.