What’s Jewish about tikkun olam?

What’s Jewish about tikkun olam?

There is a prestigious Reform synagogue in Manhattan with a well-deserved reputation for social action. This synagogue organized and supported an orphanage for Jewish babies as far back as 1916. It hosts a homeless shelter that has run continuously for nearly 50 years. It distributes food packages every Saturday morning before tefillah services and has hosted charity benefits for everything from Haitian earthquake victims to Ukrainian refugees.

The following comes from the synagogue’s mission statement:

“The heart of the Jewish people’s mission is tikkun olam, the repair of the world. We are an active community, involved in individual participation and public activism, concerned about the needs of our members and of those in our neighborhood, our city, our country and the world. We regard these responsibilities as essential to our sense of who we are.”

In last week’s Torah reading of parashat Emor, which includes 63 ( count ’em, 63!) mitzvot, we are given a commandment that reflects a core value of Judaism: the mitzvah of pai’ah and leket:

“When you reap the harvest, do not harvest the entire field and do not gather all the gleanings of the harvest; instead, you are to leave those for the poor and for the stranger. I am the Lord your God.”(Vayikra 23:22)

Yet this week’s Torah portion, Behar, gives us a contradictory perspective. In commanding the laws of Shmita, which requires letting your field lie fallow: “You may eat whatever the land during its sabbath will produce—you, your male and female slaves, the hired and bound laborers who live with you.” (Vayikra 25:6)

Not everyone is entitled to partake of the harvest — only those in the clan.

Which perspective is correct? Anyone in need, or just our own people?

Throughout our history, from the time of our earliest exile, whether it was the unease between the Jews who chose to return to Judea and those who chose to stay in Babylonia, or between the Hellenistic Jews vs. the Maccabean loyalists; between the literalist Sadducees and the interpretive Pharisees; between the halachic Pharisees and the early Jewish Christians, there always has been the tension between the parochial and the universal. This parashah crystallizes the yin-yang duality of religion: mishpat vs. chesed; observance vs. charity; proscribed minutiae vs. tikkun olam.

The Torah’s call for leaving over some fragment in our field makes the case that tikkun olam is an essential manifestation of holiness. More than a manifestation: a mitzvah. How are we to choose between being ritually adherent and being more generally benevolent?

One of the most contemporary prominent advocates of tikkun olam was Leonard Fein, z”l. In 1974, Leonard (Leibl) Fein founded Moment Magazine. In 1985, he founded Mazon. In 1996, he founded the National Jewish Coalition for Literacy, a project mobilizing the American Jewish community to provide 100,000 volunteer tutors for the Read America program. He was a professor of politics and social policy at Brandies University and the deputy director of the MIT/Harvard Joint Center for Urban Studies.

Yet, at some point, Leonard Fein had this to say:

“With some hesitation, I confess: I am growing tired of tikkun olam….

“No, I do not mean I am growing tired of efforts to mend the world’s many fractures…. There is, I believe, one core idea that defines us … To be a Jew is to know, fundamentally, that this world is not working the way it was meant to, or the way it is supposed to. It is badly broken. In that sense, we are all of us in exile, whether we live in Jerusalem or in New York. And the meta-understanding that Jews bring to that condition is that we are implicated in the world’s repair … [but] altogether too many American Jews believe that when they endorse tikkun olam, they have made a complete statement of Judaism’s message.”

In March, the Jewish Funders’ Network held its annual meeting in Palm Beach. The group is an organization of independent philanthropists and foundations that in its own declaration of purpose, “seeks to transform the nature of Jewish giving in both thought and action.

“… Membership is open to individuals and foundations that give away at least $25,000 annually, and do so through the lens of Jewish values no matter whether the funds go to a specifically Jewish cause or to a cause more broadly defined.”

As Toby Tabachnick reported for the Times of Israel, “The crisis in Ukraine loomed large at the conference…. Other topics … included antisemitism; the preservation of democracy; diversity, justice and gender; environmentalism; the Abraham Accords; poverty; Jewish-Arab relations in Israel; and involving younger generations in philanthropy.”

Conferences and informal discussions certainly would have included conversations about Jewish education and continuity. Do supporters of tikkun olam have a responsibility to prioritize Jewish needs above larger crises? Does support for yeshivas take precedence over malaria in Africa and shelter for Ukrainian refugees?

When Leonard Fein wrote about tikkun olam back in 2000, the network had held its annual meeting when the theme of the meeting was — I’m not kidding — “Saving the Whales: Is it Jewish giving?”

Two decades ago, JTS Professor Jack Wertheimer was the keynote speaker at the JFN conference. He had just published the lead article in Commentary Magazine.

Here’s an excerpt:

“… surveys regularly make clear that big Jewish givers channel the preponderant bulk of their philanthropic largess to nonsectarian causes— universities, museums, and hospitals—and only a small percentage of their philanthropy to aid fellow Jews. …Hundreds of synagogues of all denominations sponsor social-action committees to spur volunteering at local soup kitchens, homeless shelters, and other venues aiding the downtrodden … just at a time when Jewish communal institutions are failing to attend to the needs of Jews at home and abroad. In today’s American Jewish community, representatives of every denomination have discovered a Jewish imperative to “repair the world” (tikkun olam), a commandment unknown to Jews for most of their history but that now, in the view of its most outspoken advocates, is preeminent….

Here is the quandary we Jews have to address. Is chesed — righteous behavior — the same as tikkun olam? Does one have priority over the other? Is it only to benefit fellow Jews or is it to be universally applied? Does funding a Hebrew School have precedence over famine relief in Ethiopia? Does providing for Jewish summer camp or supporting birthright Israel take precedence over maintaining hospitals or providing shelter for the homeless? What is our obligation? What is the Jewish thing to do?

We need to start discussing openly and deliberately, as a caring and committed Jewish community, about where our charitable dollars are going. We must prioritize an awareness that tzedakah is as major a fulfillment of our responsibility as tefillah or kashrut. We have to vigorously insist on charitable giving as an obligation to our community as well as to our society at large; to make sharing the bounty of our fields something we pride ourselves on, a Jewish imperative to advance our people and enhance our world.

Norman Levin of Teaneck is a retired synagogue executive director. He previously served as marketing director at the Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey.