Tikkun Olam: Who’s Repairing the Jewish People?

Tikkun Olam: Who’s Repairing the Jewish People?

From the desk of Rabbi David Lyon

 “Tikkun Olam” (repairing the world) gets a bad rap from some, and maybe for good reason. Tikkun Olam is an aspiration that has roots in Jewish texts, including mysticism, and has become a veritable watchword of Reform Judaism. This brief sentence can’t explain how Tikkun Olam became the banner under which Reform Judaism marches, but I can offer a fair observation. American Reform Judaism’s roots are found in the Pittsburgh Platform of 1885. Though American Reform Judaism has adopted subsequent platforms, to be sure, it still preserves its primary commitment to ethical deeds that bear witness to God’s Torah in this world. Moreover, the prophets’ focus on social justice continues to be the fuel that propels Reform Judaism in its essential work.

Jewish leaders who stand on Reform Judaism’s original platform to amplify the prophets’ teachings in our current climate of violations against social justice should be lauded and praised. But, I’m concerned that expertise in Tikkun Olam has blinded us from seeing its effect and limitations. The momentum gained by the Reform movement to serve social justice issues should have earned us a prized place among like-minded advocates. However, the results are mixed and they should be a warning sign.

While in Israel, recently, Tal Becker said to our group of rabbis, “Israeli Jews are a majority in Israel, who think they’re a minority. American Jews are a minority who think they’re a majority.” Israelis can’t escape their insecurities; American Jews can’t get over themselves. To be fair, America is a different place and the role of any minority group in America, is to grasp its rights and participate in our democracy. But, Israeli-style insecurity reminds them that no one else in the world is as committed to their survival as they are. History and contemporary experience are their proof. It should be our proof, too.

While the Reform movement stands with interfaith leaders to advocate for social justice wherever it’s lacking, we are still attacked for our beliefs, our peoplehood, and our Land. “Intersectionality” is a new buzz-word that currently describes how perceptions of accumulated power by one group is used to marginalize weaker or disadvantaged groups. The theory has been used to accuse Jews of using perceived accumulated power (banking, Hollywood, government, communications, etc.) that also marginalizes Palestinians, for example. When Jewish groups marched for Black-Lives-Matter and the women’s march, they were accused of and assailed for contributing to the issues they came to defend, i.e., you can’t stand up for Blacks and women when you oppress Palestinians and create world-wide tension. A common Jewish response is to prove that we are with them and not against them. After all, years and miles have been traversed to serve the social justice causes that bring us together. Right?

Intersectionality is this generation’s way to scapegoat Jews for the world’s pain even though such a small minority is incapable of producing it. Unfortunately, it’s not going to change just because Reform Jews assemble in places where injustice is found; not on all the streets of America, and not on the border with Mexico. When Jews are attacked in their synagogues and beaten on the streets of America, we need to assemble differently than we have been. The time has come to seize the most powerful tools we have at our disposal. Unlike Israel, where military arms are their most powerful tools, ours are the principles of democracy.

Our Jewish future depends on transferring power we’ve accumulated legitimately to the causes that will safeguard us here. The Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) and the Religious Action Center (RAC) have done exceedingly well in building relationships with interfaith leaders and articulating social justice agendas. But, their most important work is still ahead of them. It’s past time to capitalize on relationships with political leaders who wield the gavels of justice against anti-Semitism in all its forms. It’s past time to call on Jewish allies to affect change where we need it to happen.

This is more than a synagogue initiative. This is a movement-wide concern that must exceed all other priorities for the foreseeable future. Headlines shouldn’t tell just about the latest shooting at a synagogue or the beating of a Jew wearing a kippah or rising anti-Semitic statistics; headlines should announce facts that compel the world not to turn against a small minority (any minority) for its pains. Not this time.

Writing in our Summer Bulletin (2019), I explained that “bigotry, racism and xenophobia must be met with more than passion; they must be met with education, understanding and self-respect. Education is vital. We must know our people’s history in order to know how to prepare for our future. Understanding is critical. We must be able to navigate this era with insights into our people’s outlook on world events and our place in them. Self-respect is essential. We must initiate our own response and advocacy from a place of Jewish pride and hope. We do not have to defend ourselves as Jews; rather, we must defend our right to be exactly who we are without apology.”

Tikkun Olam is an aspiration. It has propelled Jews to see what is and transform it into what ought to be. It’s embedded in the sacred covenant God makes with the Jewish people. But, without the Jewish people, who’s going to keep the sacred covenant? Let’s repair the Jewish people, and then the world.


Rabbi David A. Lyon is Senior Rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel in Houston, TX. Rabbi Lyon serves on the Board of Trustees of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and chairs its professional development committee. He is the author of God of Me: Imagining God Throughout Your Lifetime (Jewish Lights, 2011) available on Amazon.com. He can be heard on “iHeart-Radio” KODA 99.1 FM every Sunday at 6:45am CST. Listeners around the greater Houston area, and now the internet, tune in to hear his words about life and its meaning from a Jewish point-of-view. Each radio program is available as a Podcast, called “Heart to Heart with Rabbi David Lyon”. Click here to listen online, or download the iHeartRadio app. 

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Rabbi David Lyon

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