Tikkun Olam Judaism

Jack Wetheimer derides it.  Justin Trudeau loves it.

And during this summer’s Jerusalem conference season, the World Council of Jewish Communal Services held its 12th Quadrennial Conference and speakers had some things to say about tikkun olam.  As it is 2012, folks in attendance at #WCJCS12 tweeted about the speeches and other random goings-on as did the folks at the seemingly hundreds of other conferences going on in Jerusalem.

(Although I somewhat wish I could attend #WCJCS12 or #JED21 or #JAFI2012 or #ROI or <<insert three to four letter acronym here>> to shmooze, build a more robust twitter following and drink watery coffee too, I realize that I do not have the funding nor secondary support staff at home to make such trips possible.  I am merely a Jewish educator.)

However, what I can do is attend/eavesdrop via twitter, drink better coffee in Toronto and occasionally offer a comment on someone else’s comment.  Hence an interchange with Mordechai Holtz over the following comments from David Brown:

Is there such a thing as tikkun olam Judaism? @ #wcjcs12
@mordecaiholtz
Mordecai Holtz

We need to be more than Jewish flavored humanism. Well said @ #wcjcs12
@mordecaiholtz
Mordecai Holtz

I wondered aloud if, in fact, there is any kind of Judaism outside of Tikkun Olam Judaism.  (Holtz replied: “Hmmm.”)

I can already anticipate the stinging reprove from the more frum folks over at Reddit/Judaism of the “Get your liberal Jew off my frum lawn” variety… as if liberal Judaism is synonymous with tikkun olam in the most content-free, wishy-washy tree-huggy manner.  Though I thank elishabenavuya for sharing my stuff there, the mostly frum folks who seem to lurk there never miss an opportunity to knock liberal Judaism.  So before you start knocking, take heed:

What I mean by all Judaism being “Tikkun Olam Judaism” is the orientation grounded in Torah which compels us to be outward-looking.   (Aha!  Content!)

I love you, tree!

There are dozens of examples of how concrete acts of tikkun olam transcend mere tree-huggery, but here’s one. Take the often cited tzedaka-related dictum from BT Bava Metzia 71a:  ”עניי עירך קודמין” – which, loosely translated, means “your poor first.”  (The larger discussion that concludes with the bon mot focuses on giving priorities.  Aha!  More content!)   Many Some Jews take this statement to mean Only help Jews … which would be a correct understanding of the statement if it stopped after the second word.   However, the word “קודמין” (lit. “first”) states outright that, on a list of priorities, you put your own community at the top but there are also other communities on that list!  (What kind of list only has one item?  Is that even a list?)  Even for the most myopic of Jews, there is no denying that there are other people in the world in need of help – our help.  Repeat:  Our help.

Here’s another.  The Torah trots out the triumverate of society’s most vulnerable: the ger, orphan and widow.  The orphan-widow combination appears about 20 times in the Torah, and often in the context of individuals who have financial means and surplus who are charged with helping those in need (read: widows and orphans).  Often, the call and justification for this act of tzedaka has nothing to do with conscience-tweaking, tree-hugging or wild universalizing.  Often, it is based on religious commandment (i.e., “Do this because I am God.” etc.), for historic reasons (i.e., “Do this because you were once in need.”), for karmic reasons (i.e., “God rewards the just.”) or for social reasons (i.e., “Those without are people just like you.”).  So, is the Torah’s specific call to action to those with means to help those without an act of tikkun olam?  In the literal sense, yes.  By helping the vulnerable, you make the world a better place.  I guess what it comes down to (and what irks the more myopic among us) is whether it is any less world-bettering if you as a Jew help a Sudanese widow or Ukrainian orphan.

How you answer that question might possibly speak more about your Judaism (Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, et alia) than anything else…

Just saying.

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