Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Tikkun Olam and the First Jewish President

Michael L.

{Cross-posted at the Elder of Ziyon.}

kippa In September of 2011 New York Magazine published a cover showing the back of what we are to assume is the kippa-wearing head of Barack Obama with the headline:  "The First Jewish President": The Truth?  Barack Obama is the best friend Israel has right now, written by John Heilemann.

I do not know about you, but when I first saw this cover I just rolled my eyes and shook my head.

In March of 2012 White House loyalist, Jeffrey Goldberg, published a piece in The Atlantic entitled, Barack Obama Is Such a Traditional Jew Sometimes in which we read this mind-boggling bit of nonsense:

"I'll grapple with the meaning of Obama's Jewishness later, but the dispute between the Jewish right and the Jewish left over Obama is actually not about whether he is anti-Jewish or pro-Jewish, but over what sort of Jew he actually is."

What kind of a Jew Obama actually is?

What insipid hogwash.  Why is it that when right-wingers call Obama a Muslim they are branded as racist, but when left-wingers call him a Jew we're supposed to get that warm cozy feeling in our cockles, like hot chocolate on a cold winter night with just a little bit of peppermint schnapps before a roaring fire.

Today in a piece for the Times of Israel by Ilan Ben Zion and Rebecca Shimon Stoil, we read:
President Barack Obama on Friday called for the establishment of a free Palestinian state alongside Israel, saying it was necessary for the preservation of Israeli democracy and security, and integral to Jewish values.

Wearing a white kippah, Obama spoke to a crowd of about 1,000 at Washington DC’s Adas Israel Congregation, one of the largest in the capital, marking Jewish American Heritage Month.

He touted his pro-Israel policies and close ties with Jewish advisors, wishing the audience a “slightly early Shabbat Shalom” and peppering his speech with Hebrew terms such as “tikkun olam” — repairing the world. 
I find this to be the worst sort of disingenuous pandering and he does it while lecturing Israel about "Jewish values."  Who the heck is Barack Obama to hold forth on Jewish values to anyone, much less the Jewish people of the State of Israel?

Barack Obama has shown himself to be the least friendly President of the United States to the State of Israel since its inception.  Even Jimmy Carter, who is widely regarded as a president unfriendly to Israel, never had the temerity to tell American Jewish leadership that they should inform their Israeli-Jewish counterparts to search their souls to see if they really wanted peace.

Of course, no American president ever openly embraced a genocidally anti-Semitic organization at a time when they were calling for the conquest of Jerusalem during campaign rallies, either.

But mainly what I want to address is this notion of tikkun olam, "repairing the world."  It is no coincidence that Obama would breathe that bit of Hebrew to an American Jewish audience.  In recent decades the idea of tikkun olam has moved from the fringe of Jewish national consciousness, at least in the diaspora, toward the center and is associated with ideals of universal human rights.  For many people to be a good Jew one must practice tikkun olam, which means promoting ideals of social justice, which means supporting the Democratic Party.

We can, of course, take it one step further and suggest that in order to be a good Jew one must support tikkun olam, which means promoting ideals of social justice, which means supporting the Democratic Party, which means promoting Obama's policies on the Arab-Israel conflict, which means Israel must make "painful concessions" in order to induce the Palestinian-Arabs to finally accept a state for themselves on historically Jewish land.

Depending upon one's point of view, the ideal of tikkun olam can be interpreted as wholly noble and selfless.  It can be seen as representing what is best in the religious traditions of the world.  It can also be seen, of course, as a diamond from deep within the Jewish tradition, dredged up, washed-off, shinied up, and stripped of all deeper meanings in the service of left-leaning domestic American politics.

Whatever one's view of tikkun olam, however, we must not allow the generosity of spirit which animates the concept from preventing us from standing up for what is in the best interest of the Jewish people.  For example, we should be generous in allowing people of all faiths access to Judaism's holiest site, the Temple Mount, but we should be not so generous that we allow one religious group privileged access while denying every other the right to even pray there.

We should be generous enough in spirit to avoid war when we can, but not so generous in spirit that we allow our enemies to gain in strength at the encouragement of alleged friends.

And, of course, the very last thing that we should do is to allow ourselves to get suckered by false friends who take on the trappings of Judaism and lecture us about Jewish values in order to extract counterproductive concessions.

Let Barack Obama worry about his own values.

The Jews will take care of themselves.


  1. "Professor Steven Plaut of Haifa University wrote about “The Rise of Tikun Olam Paganism” (The Jewish Press, January 23, 2003), calling it a “pseudo-religion,” “social action fetishism” (The Jewish Press, November 19, 2008) and a “vulgar misuse and distortion by assimilationists.” He concludes that Tikkun Olam is quite clearly “a theological notion and not a trendy socioeconomic or political one,” observing that, “It would be an exaggeration, but only a small one, to say that nothing in Judaism directs us to the pursuit of social (as opposed to judicial) justice.”


    tikkun olam always sounded more like Christian doctrine to me the way it is currently applied. Hmmmmm....

    1. Well, for whatever it's worth I'd have to respectfully disagree somewhat. The principles of helping the widow and the orphan, looking out for the poor "stranger in your midst" and others, giving charity to the poor, and many, many other basic Jewish laws and principles all point toward a value of generally trying to make society appropriately just and appropriate compassionate. These are indeed core Jewish themes. But of course, both justice and compassion are there and must be applied in a balanced way.
      Even within the principle of "justice" there is the obligation to pursue mutually beneficial compromise, and compassion, rather than demand that the court "throw the book" at the other guy. (The court itself, of course, needs to be impartial)
      As for the phrase "Tikkun Olam", I myself have seen it used several times in the Mishnah, and there it appears to denote an imperative to keep society functioning. One example I recall off the top of my head involves a Rabbinic enactment to prevent mamzerut problems.
      So, there is no question that the way the phrase "Tikkun Olam" is commonly being used today is as a phrase which has been a gutted of meaning, and is instead being filled with whatever trendy "social justice" initiative is in vogue.
      But, the problem is less that "tikkkun olam" can't mean "social justice", and more that the concept of "social justice" itself has been cynically hijacked for political ends.
      Suffice to say, "social justice" and "helping the downtrodden" doesn't have to equate to "whatever the Democratic Party says this week". They certainly don't mean putting your brothers and sisters in danger, or helping people in need while neglecting your brothers and sisters who are no less in need.

  2. " For many people to be a good Jew one must practice tikkun olam, which means promoting ideals of social justice, which means supporting the Democratic Party."
    This puts me in mind of "rabbi" Michael Lerner:

  3. "President Barack Obama on Friday called for the establishment of a free Palestinian state alongside Israel, saying it was necessary for the preservation of Israeli democracy and security, and integral to Jewish values."

    Really? How so? Israel is democratic right now, and security is pretty darned good. Only the advice Israel has accepted from the "international community" has had a deleterious effect. As for the "Palestinians," what has been keeping them from practicing Jeffersonian democracy as of 1994? Checkpoints? Security arrangements? I don't think so.

    I think you might have been a little bit hard on Obama saying he meant to lecture about Jewish values. Another person might say he was merely trying to appeal to them through shared ideals, based on his (flawed) understanding, but in effect you are right.

    Obama's understanding of the history and issues is skewed and therefore potentially harmful. He should check out your blog and especially the Heritage Theft tab. ;0)

  4. I don't see that my point to this effect came up, so I'll try again:

    Bravo. Very well expressed.

  5. " Why is it that when right-wingers call Obama a Muslim they are branded as racist, but when left-wingers call him a Jew we're supposed to get that warm cozy feeling in our cockles..."
    I think you know why. When right-wingers call Obama a Muslim it is almost always, if not always, a pejorative. If CAIR were calling Obama a Jew would that warm your cockles? Come to think of it, it might warm mine.
    Of course, your point, I think, is that it is a sucker's game, and I agree.
    Bill Clinton was black, Obama, Jewish, maybe Hilary can be Samoan. However, Republicans can only be white, even the dark ones. Just like Jews! ;0)

    1. If Elizabeth Warren can be native American, I'm quite convinced that Hillary Clinton can be Samoan.

  6. Obama wearing a kippa is equivalent to if I as a white person were to put on a dreadlocks wig!

    He isn't doing it out of any kind of respect, but only for political purposes

    1. On a lighter note, maybe we can charge him with a microaggression on the grounds of 'cultural appropriation'.

      You are right, he isn't doing it out of any kind of respect. Just political expediency.
      Would that more people could see that!

  7. Except of course nowhere in Judaism is it ever suggested that concept means anything purely in the realm of social justice. It's a religious statement. And as soon as you hammer that point home to the social justice liberals they spit on you in the true spirit of their own tolerance.

  8. Quick link to powerline:


    1. He holds Israel to a higher standard blind to the fact that it is surrounded by enemies and hate. That does not seem to come into his equation. Israel is not a state in a zone of security like democratic states in Europe or North America. Actually, based on the unique threat it faces, Israel maintains the highest standards of all. Just think how these other states would act if they were in Israel's shoes.

    2. The Arabs should have been told to grow up long ago. Haj Amin al-Husseini should have been tried at Nuremberg in order to reject Jew hatred by Arabs.

      Oil, the use of violence, and the Cold War allowed the phoniness to enter the room and over time become accepted as the norm. And now the progressives who see a new world order as "progress" justify the atrocities and tell everyone that it is human rights. Go figure.

  9. Volleyboy1,

    you are welcome to post here anytime.

    I want you to tell us how we are wrong.

    I do not have a problem with disagreement.


  10. Just watched Frontline on Obama, Syria and ISIS. Bush may have made things bad by action, but perhaps Obama made things as bad or worse by his inaction.

    And from those who claim to care so much about human suffering, thank god there is Israel to focus upon as the worst on the planet.

    Seriously, imagine what they could do if they they were not so addicted to the poison they have consumed. There is no shortage of real suffering in the world.

    And when it comes to those speaking for Jewish values, it would be nice for some specifics. By comparison to others, Jews and Israel stack up near the top in treatment of others, though always faced with great threat. So which values please?

    It's sad that American Jews are so out of touch they let Obama lecture them. Does he practice Jewish values in the way he treats those who diverge from his world view? Then again, they seem to identify more as progressives than Jews, so maybe it should not be a surprise to acknowledge how much they have changed.

  11. Tweet from Josh Rogan:

    "Marie Harf to be Senior Advisor for Strategic Comm. to Kerry, will continue leading on Iran negotiations communications strategy."

  12. David Bernstein in the WaPo in his 5/22 column "Obama is nostalgic for a "white" Israel' makes the point that Obama was giving patent support to a highly romanticized view of Israel that harkens back to the days of an Azkenazi socialist elite that was truly elitist, racist, anti Mizrahim, economically backwards and far more anti Arab than the right wind of Israel today. It would be as if an Arab leader extolled the wonders of 1950 America with Dwight Eisenhower, Jim Crow and the D.A.R. I have to agree whole heartedly. Obama wants an imaginary Israel that was far more bigoted far narrower far less vibrant than the Israel of today because he's so locked into his idiot-reading far left wing blather than he's let his mask fall.

    1. Did you happen to read any BTL comments? The WaPo comments section is a sandbox for anti-Semitic toddlers.

      That being said, I don't know that I agree whole-heartedly with Bernstein on this one. I think the left does have this Romanticized view, and is so satisfied with it that they don't look any further, and his piece does a good job of pointing this out. They are just simply ignorant, unaware and confused. Of course, Bernstein makes many fine points, but the title of the piece, while attention grabbing, is a little OTT.
      Photos of VE Day may make me nostalgic, but not for racial segregation, internment camps for Japanese or the German-American Bund.