Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Flatlining Tikun Olam

Guilt seems to be a character trait embedded in the DNA of Ashkenazi Jews (whether or not this is the case in the Sephardic community is debatable). Personal experience and keen observation over the past several decades has led me to believe that deeply engrained guilt coupled with other social/political circumstances has created a Jewish democratic scrimmage line dividing it from other emigrant communities who have realized the American dream and moved on to the republican party. Jews however are stuck in the liberal/Democratic tradition justified by a distorted notion of tikun olam. They can’t break free of this gordian knot and in spite of some of the recent but complex theories put forth by Norman Podhoretz (Why Are Jews Liberals) the answer is quite simple. Jews are driven by guilt. Jews feel guilty if there is any hunger in the world, disease, natural catastrophes, economic dislocation, war etc. The converse doesn’t apply however. When Jews are in a “tight spot” as we were too many times in the past and even today, there aren’t too many liberals coming to our aid or defense. It must be, the reasoning goes, that we brought it on ourselves or that we are guilty of violating the human rights of others. There have even been theologians who have explained away the holocaust as the will of God wishing to punish his chosen for not being obedient to His law.

Jews have a Christ complex. We are constantly sacrificing ourselves for the redemption of mankind. What we do and how we behave is for the good of the world. And we have our Talmudic and prophetic sources. “Whoever saves one person its as though he saved an entire world”, declaims Ethics of Our Fathers, or Isaiah or Jeremiah castigating the Jews for not living more ethical, moral lives. Our liberal rabbis love quoting from prophets because it tends to fit neatly into their liberal worldview of social justice buttressed by their hijacking of tikun olam, which never had anything to do with social justice. We Jews feel guilty that African-Americans are still on the bottom of the socioeconomic heap. Surprisingly black leadership doesn’t feel nearly as guilty as Jews do. Jews have had nothing to do with the plight of the black man nor were we ever responsible for him being sold as a slave 400 years ago. Yet we have taken ownership for this and a myriad of other social issues weaving them into our narrative of Judaism and the words of our prophets. The idea of tikun olam has been subverted and hijacked by the liberal rabbinate through the manipulation of guilt as a means by which to exercise its control and authority over its community.

For a long time I too bought into the agenda of the greater liberal democratic Jewish community that had social justice as its priority until I realized that our tradition rests on three legs: torah, neveim (prophets) and ketubim (wisdom books). The liberal rabbinate and their constituents seemed to have mined the torah and the neveim for the message and charge of social justice. However, absent were the teachings of the third leg – ketubim. That noticeable absence has been responsible for the distortion of Jewish teachings, creating only a partial portrait of Jewish values. In my study of the wisdom books one thing became abundantly clear: the message of the prophets wasn’t shared by the sofrim (writers of wisdom books) who were more interested and concerned with the development of the individual than the community. Now I began to understand why the liberal rabbinate so conveniently ignored the teachings of these wisdom books: Prophetic teaching were concerned with the larger community while the message of the ketubim was directed at the individual. The spiritual/intellectual development of the individual trumped the development of the community. The message of the ketubim didn’t fit into their neat little world of communal power and the exercise of authority. The guilt factor is totally absent from the ketubim, seen no longer as a tool of control.

Ecclesiastes is one example of a wisdom book which if anything dispels the notion of social justice or as many would call it tikun olam. While Hebrew prophets were concerned with social iniquity the sofrim were accepting of life as it was even with the absence of social justice. They were aware of evil but not motivated to modify those conditions. While the prophets saw redemption in the world to come, the sofrim were formulating their own ideas of individual fulfillment and gratification in the here and now. The sofrim for the most part members of the landed gentry were content with the status quo and although might have been aware of social injustice wished to maintain the status quo. Unlike the prophets who denounced corrupt monarchs such as Nathan and Elijah attacking the crimes of royalty, we have conservative positions from the sofrim such as this quote from Proverbs “My son, fear the Lord and the King. And do not become involved with those who seek change”(24:21). How’s that for tikun olam. Or “for the kings word is all-powerful and who can say to him what are you doing”(8:2).

The Ketubim are no less important and just as weighty as the prophets and Torah, After all they were canonized at the Council of Yamnia in the first century CE. The ketubim were no doubted canonized for later generations to study and learn from, as were the prophets. It would mean then that notions of guilt and its exploitation as a means of control aren’t necessary for those who subscribe to the teaching of the sofrim. It would behoove the liberal rabbinate and their followers to contextualize prophets and begin taking to heart the teachings of the sofrim. Perhaps they will be able to redeem themselves from a lifetime of guilt.