Social Justice and Renaissance

November 1, 2000
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Leonard Fein

The line that made the rounds this summer had an American Jewish tourist in Israel ask-ing his guide how to say tikkun olam in Hebrew. The underlying point, of course, is that tikkun olam has become - take your pick: a mantra, a commitment, a cliché, a shtick - of American Judaism. Now and then, a knowledgeable critic will remind the term’s user that its derivation is from the Aleinu prayer, which expresses our yearning l’taken olam b’malchut shadai, to repair the world under God’s sovereignty. But the original intent scarcely matters any more than the term’s inherent ambiguity. Jews have internalized the words and their implication: A Jew is to mend, to fix, to heal, to repair our fractured planet - to pursue justice and perform deeds of loving kindness.

There are those who, whether with regret or pleasure, suggest that the current awakening - some call it a Renaissance, but it seems to me that for so fledgling a development, “Renaissance” remains an aspiration rather than an achievement - points us in a decisively non-, perhaps even anti-, tikkun direction. These days, the emphasis is increasingly on text study. The Orthodox, of course, have always been there; the Conservative movement has always claimed to be there; and now the Reform movement seeks to be there, too. And so, adult Jewish education is embraced by ever-increasing numbers and reaches well beyond the pastiche that once characterized it. And some (inestimable number) of the newly engaged students apparently conclude that we’re dealing here with a zero-sum game: you’re either a textnik or a social justicenik, but you can’t be both.

At the same time, we’ve moved farther from the sweatshops in which we once labored and the cities in which we once lived. The Lower East Side and its equivalents around the country have been “Tevya-ized,” transformed from lively memory to sentimental nostalgia. Erstwhile radicals (or their children) become entrepreneurs, the concept of a civic culture is rendered quaint, the market’s the thing. Suddenly, we’re not only rich; we are comfortable.

Or so, if the book of secular lamentations is taken seriously, we are led to believe. But of course, “comfortable” is the one thing Jews are forbidden to be. Emanuel Levinas writes of “the disengagement dictated by a desire to be comfortable that ossifies a society that has transformed the difficult task of Judaism into a mere confession, an accessory of bourgeois comfort” (emphasis added).

But before we conclude that all the talk of tikkuning the olam was no more than sheep’s wind, idle blather - or, at best, a passing fad - we’re well advised to look around at what significant numbers of Jews are doing with their time, with their money, and with their energies.

Over the course of the last 15 years or so, just the years in which the Commentary crowd has argued that the tide of Jewish liberalism has finally turned, the Jewish Fund for Justice, American Jewish World Service, Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger, Tikkun magazine, the National Jewish Coalition for Literacy, Tzedek Hillel, Boston’s Jewish Organizing Initiative, and New York’s Avodah and Chicago’s Jewish Council on Urban Affairs, along with a virtually endless stream of other local initiatives, have emerged - and, against all prediction, flourished. And now, just a-borning after years of urgent discussion, Amos: The National Jewish Partnership for Social Justice.

Careful - the conflation of liberalism and social justice can mislead, as my friends on the farther left as well as my acquaintances on the right now and then remind me. But that is a different story, another essay.

For some number of people, social justice is plainly a gateway into Judaism. It renders our storied devotions of the past immediately accessible and more or less replicable. Even in the more sedate precincts of the community, there’s a growing recognition that the promotion of social justice can be a vehicle for the promotion of Jewish continuity, a win-win. There is, after all, a rather dramatic difference between an invitation that reads “please come survive with us” and one that reads “please come help mend the world with us.” A community that seeks to stand must stand for something. For others, the old-time religion has never lost its redemptive appeal. And still others are determined that a people that boasts of being rachmanim b’nei rachmanim, the compassionate children of compassionate parents, must also ensure that it becomes the compassionate parents of compassionate children.

Withal, we are still a minority. But it has ever been so. A sturdy minority- for some the pursuit of social justice is Judaism’s heart; for others it is a necessary component, along with prayer, study, music, healing, any or all of Judaism’s multiplicity of offerings; for all, no so-called Renaissance worthy of the name is plausible without it.

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Leonard (Leibel) Fein is a teacher, writer, and veteran social justice activist. He is the founder of Moment magazine, Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger, and The National Jewish Coalition for Literacy. He serves on the Advisory Board of

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