Sunday, June 21, 2015

Is Tikun Olam a Jewish Value?

Yale University President, Peter Salovey
I rarely get in the middle of a spirited debate between 2 columnists. But I believe it would be an injustice to not support the view that I think is the correct one. I am referring to Mishpacha Magazine’s 2 columnists, Jonathan Rosenblum and Eytan Kobre.

I don’t want to be misconstrued here. I will therefore stipulate that I have in the past strongly criticized Eytan’s ‘attack-dog’ style of writing. His columns always seem to be an angry, condescending, and derisive response to whatever issue or individual he is critical of. 

Kind of like his penchant for calling Conservative and Reform rabbis ‘clergyguys’. I suppose he doesn’t want to call a Reform or Conservative rabbi – rabbi. A title he feels implies that they are legitimate rabbis. It is interesting that Rav Moshe Feinstein had no problem referring to them as rabbis in his Teshuvos (not Rav which is reserved for Orthodox rabbis). I guess Eytan  is Frummer than R’ Moshe. But I digress.

Point here is that my ongoing issue with him is not what motives me here.  Looking at the issue as objectively as I can - I side with Jonathan Rosenblum. 

The debate centers around the commencement address given by Yale President Peter Salovey. Salovey - who is a descendant of the Soloveichik line - spoke about Tikun HaOlam - the up-building or improvement of the world. He treid to instill this concept as a goal for his graduates. And gave several examples. By starting a business and employing people; or pursuing an academic career in order to ‘light fires in the bellies of the next generation of college or high schools students’ - you are in effect improving the world. This is obviously a very Jewish theme.

Eytan took exception to Salovey’s comments. His point being that Tikun Olam as Salovey presented it is not a Jewish concept. Providing jobs is not what is meant by the expression, ‘L’Sakein Olam B’Malchus Shaddai’ – to fix the world with the kingdom of the Lord’.  He characterized Tikun Olam as mostly a ‘hollow charade’. One that is being used by the Conservative and Reform movement to define their very reason for being. They use it  as the reason for every social justice cause they deem worthy of support. Even supporting things which are clearly against Halacha. Like gay marriage. Eytan said that what we should instead be looking at is Tikun HaMidos self-improvement in the area developing positive character traits .

I found this column typical of the way he writes. He was condescending and derisive to a man whose only intent was to inspire his students. 

Last week Jonathan Rosenblum took issue with his colleague. Granted, he said that Tikun HaMidos is indispensable for any meaningful Jewish life. But Salovey’s message should not be dismissed. The activities that Salovey gave as examples of Tikun Olam do not become ‘hollow charades’ just because some of those that have excelled in them are lousy fathers or husbands.

As Jonathan points out, we are partners in God’s creation. God put us in an imperfect world in order for us to try and perfect it. The very first Mitzvah a man observes on earth after his birth is Bris Milah (circumcision) . God purposely made our bodies imperfect and commanded us to perfect them by this procedure. An example we must follow.

Rav Aharon Soloveitchik explains that Tikun Olam is one of the 5 important purposes of studying Mada. We study it in order to build up the world.

Eytan responded this week that Jonathan was ‘wide off the mark’. Quoting a 2008 article in Commentary Magazine by Hillel Halkin, he says that Tikun Olam as currently used by heterodox movements  is nothing more than a justification to pursue a leftist agenda masquerading as Jewish teaching. He then reiterates what our true mission should be –Tikun HaMidios. Without it, he says there can be no real Tikun Olam.

But it is Eytan that misses the point. He is so consumed with assuring the world that Conservative and Reform Judaism are false ideologies that anything they cite as valuable must - almost by definition - be wrong. 

Repeating his original point about Tikun Midos does not refute anything Jonathan said. While he does modify his original comments a bit by saying that there are positive applications of Tikun Olam as Salovey describes them - he qualifies them. Providing jobs as a version of Tikun Olam depends on the kind of job. If it is in a job that undermines the values of Judaism (...say a job on the porno industry) there is no Tikun Olam in that. With this I agree.

But saying as he did that Salovey’s comments are a hollow charade in order to denigrate heterodox movements is to be blinded to reality by his agenda. Just because those movements use Tikun Olam as their reason d’être and sometimes misapply it doesn’t take it off the shelf of Jewish values.  That was Jonathan’s point. And he’s right .