What is the point of Judaism?
Last night, I gave a defence of Judaism for the disengaged. I argued that religion gives us a sense of community, purpose and meaning. I talked about how Judaism is an antidote to many of the greatest problems we face in the 21st Century.
This morning, I want to talk about why progressive Judaism, specifically, ought to be our way forward. Progressive Judaism has, in recent years, come under attack. Last year, Jonathan Neumann released a book entitled ‘To Heal the World?’. Its subtitle – ‘How the Jewish Left Corrupts Judaism and Endangers Israel’ – probably tells you everything you need to know about this book.
In it, he argues that progressive Jews have distorted Judaism and created their own denomination, completely divorced from tradition. He pours scorn on one idea in particular, that of ‘tikkun olam’. The basic premise of this idea comes from Jewish mysticism. It argues that the world in which we live is broken, and that through the pursuit of social justice, we can begin to heal it.
For Neumann, this idea is an innovation. It is the ideology of the American New Left combined with some Jewish theology. In a way, he is certainly right. The idea of ‘tikkun olam’ was a new development. It was a rallying cry to bring together many of the issues on which the Jewish community in America was campaigning, particularly black civil rights, women’s liberation and international peace.
While he may be right about the nomenclature, he is completely wrong about the idea. This idea, that Judaism’s core is one of social justice, has been integral to progressive Judaism since its inception. Our founders, like Rabbi Abraham Geiger in 19th Century Germany, argued that the soul of Judaism was not in its laws but in its prophetic texts. The Reformers sought to reposition Judaism from its narrow focus on ritual to the universalist message of justice.
The prophets spoke in a language of justice that would be recognisable even today. In this week’s haftarah, we read of Elijah, arguably the greatest prophet post-Moses. His life was full of miracles: he could split rivers, heal the sick and bring on rainfall. At the end of his life, he was carried away to Heaven in a chariot of fire. All the wonder in Elijah’s life should not gloss over Elijah’s message.
He challenged kings, demanded an end to idol-worship and called on the Israelites to remember their covenant. For Jews the world over, he is the harbinger of messianic redemption. He is the first among our prophets to promise that a messianic age is coming. Subsequent prophets, such as Malachi, prophecy that, when Elijah returns, God “shall turn the heart of the parents to the children, and the heart of the children to their parents.”
For progressive Jews, this promise of liberation is built into our very understanding of what it means to live a Jewish life. We cannot just wait, passively, for a better age to come up to us, but must participate in building it. We do that through our pursuit of justice, by following our consciences, and by seeking to make the world a more loving place.
While the branding of this idea as ‘tikkun olam’ may be new in Judaism, its message can be found throughout the Tanakh, rabbinic literature, and our liturgy. It is at the core of what Judaism calls on us to do.
This authentic Jewish idea is what Neumann finds terrifying. He argues that this is a deviation from traditional Judaism. Of course, he never defines what precisely that is. In all likelihood, that is because he doesn’t know. In a review of the book in Tablet magazine, Shaul Magid argues that Neumann’s argument falls flat because he doesn’t have the requisite knowledge of Judaism to make his case. Neumann is, after all, not a Torah scholar, nor a Jewish historian. He is an opinion columnist. Magid shows very successfully how Neumann simply doesn’t understand how Judaism, whether Orthodox or progressive, actually works. There can be no more damning critique of a book than that it would have been better if it had been written by somebody who knew what they were talking about.
For Neumann, progressive Judaism must be contrasted with ‘traditional’ Judaism. He seems to have in mind an idea of bearded men in segregated synagogues keeping kosher, observing shabbat and keeping to a very strict set of rules. The first issue with this is that he seems not to understand that Orthodox Judaism is, itself, a modern innovation. It is a response to the modern world, that takes a conservative approach to life and a dogmatic approach to commandments.
It is deeply depressing that, even within our own ranks, many of our members imagine that the black hats have, in some sense, a more authentic version of Judaism than we do. When we look at other religions, we are fully aware that the most compassionate, charitable and honest version is the most authentic. We do not imagine that Christianity is at its most authentic in its belligerent form, nor that Islam is most authentic in its fundamentalist form. We know that they are both closest to God when they are humble, sincere and loving. Why are we so shy about expecting the same standards of our own religion? We are not at our most Jewish when we have the strictest food laws, but when we are sharing that food with others.
Most importantly, Neumann’s idea of traditional Judaism is so narrow and limiting. He never seeks to answer the question: what, then, is the point of Judaism? If our purpose on earth is not to heal the world, what is it? Should we just be slavishly obedient to some rules because we have a mythologised idea of how our ancestors were? Does Judaism have nothing to say to the modern world? If that is all we are, how can we be expected to survive? What would even make us worth preserving?
The truth is that, for we progressives, halachic observance and social justice are not competitors. They complement each other. Our food laws help us because they force us to think ethically about our consumption. Shabbat is a joy because it teaches us about the value of rest and the holiness of God. All our rules and rituals have value because they turn us into disciplined, conscientious people, who will seek out justice when it is necessary. Progressive Judaism sees very clearly that the point of Judaism is not the rules in themselves but the pursuit of a better world through them.
And, yes, all of this points us in a particular direction. You might call it the messianic age, as our prophets did. You might call it progressive Judaism, as our German founders did. You might call it tikkun olam, as the Americans in the ’70s did. Whatever name you give it, the message is clear. We have a short time on earth and we are here with a mission. As Jews, we have been tasked with a sacred purpose of perfecting the world, demanding justice and pursuing peace.
That is the point of Judaism. Let us work to heal the world together.
I gave this sermon at Newcastle Reform Synagogue for Parashat Ki Tisa on Saturday 23rd February.