Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Tikkun Olam - A Clarification

Having read the responses from some readers, and re-read what I wrote yesterday about Tikkun Olam, I fear my post showed the weaknesses of blogging. I could have written a better piece on the topic.

It was not my intention to say that Judaism (or any world-religion, for that matter, Islam included), being old, doesn't have ability to guide its adherents through modern arguments. On the contrary. World religions contain accumulated wisdom of millennia (or 1,500 years, in the case of Islam, the youngest of them).

What I was saying is that mining that accumulated treasure so as to bolster a particular new-fangled idea is intellectually dangerous and potentially dishonest; by cherry picking a particular strand of a culture without recognizing its context one runs the danger of losing precisely the accumulation of wisdom.

Two examples from present day Judaism.

Judaism gives tremendous importance to Erez Israel, and also to the cohesiveness of the Jews as a national group. Yet by focusing merely on that it is possible to justify the wackiest hoodlums at the edge of the settler movement; even if you're careful not to go that far it's still possible to see the settler movement as more central to the existence of the Jews than it deserves (and see the occasional musing even among the settler's intellectual leadership about how perhaps they haven't lost most of the Jews by giving the settlements a priority they should never have had).

The Tikkun Olam camp is the mirror reflection of the settler movement (not it's loony and criminal elements) in that they also glean concepts that really are there, pare off most context, and give their ideas a significance they don't really have. Does Judaism contain ideas, indeed, uniquely compelling formulations of universal aspirations, for complete peace and justice? Yes, it does. Long before other cultures did, too. Yet the earthy, realistic considerations never get lost in mainstream Judaism. Aspirations are great; living in the flawed world is more important. Judaism is not about fixing the world - or perhaps it is, but in a very complex way which does not much resemble the political behavior advocated by the Tikkun political camp, who owe more to modern political impulses invented in the past few centuries. Judaism is too worldly to get swept off its feet by such ideas, even if some of them can be traced back to it.

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