Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Dennis Prager Award for the Jew Who Most Clearly Wishes To Be Christian

Dennis Prager rose to early prominence on this blog for being a Jew whose views of Judaism were remarkably Christian in orientation. It's a common-enough move on the Jewish right, which dislikes the generally progressive character of contemporary American Judaism, finds conservative Christianity's positions on a host of political and social issues more to their liking, and so retroactively decides that the Christian view of things is actually Jewish. Inevitably, the result is contusions and contortions in Jewish history and theology, as the critic almost reflexively begins adopting Christian theological frames as if they were in fact Jewish.

Anyway, here's Herb London giving a great example in the Daily Caller:
In a new book that provides a powerful theological basis for something now ritualistically called “the social justice movement,” Jewish reformers among others seized on the concept of “healing the world.” Leftists in the Jewish community call it tikkun olam or “healing of the world.” Believers assert that Jews must endeavor to make the world a place better than what we now experience. As a consequence, an overwhelming number of Jews embrace this movement and the actions that result from it as biblically mandated. However, there is one problem as Jonathan Newmann in his book To Heal The World? points out, the Bible says no such thing.
There's a couple of things you might notice about that paragraph. The first is that it's near-gibberish (what on earth is that first sentence saying?). The second is that the author he's referring to is in fact named Jonathan Neumann -- a discrepancy which made finding the book he's referring to annoying difficult.

But I want to just focus on the "one problem" passage, where he indicts the concept of tikkun olam by saying the phrase is not in the Bible. The abstract of Neumann's book makes a similar point: "This idea [of tikkun olam] has led to overwhelming Jewish participation in the social justice movement, as such actions are believed to be biblically mandated. There's only one problem: the Bible says no such thing."

And you know what? As best I can tell, they're right. The Bible never talks about tikkun olam.  However, "there is one problem" with that observation:

Treating the Bible as the be-all-end-all of theological or religious practice is a distinctively Christian way of viewing religious practice. For Jews, the Torah and Hebrew Bible are but one part of a much larger -- and equally essential -- religious tradition of interpretation, commentary, criticism, and response.

And it is that in tradition where tikkun olam finds its roots. Far from being made up by modern Jews, the phrase tikkun olam first appears in the Talmud, though it really took off as a theological concept with the Zohar (a foundational work of Jewish mystical thought written in the 13th century). It is exceedingly foreign to Judaism (but very natural to Protestant Christianity) to discount such sources as being inauthentic to the tradition or insufficient to support any sort of religious practice or obligation.

Now, to be sure, at various points in time tikkun olam has waxed and waned as a prominent feature of Jewish life. Its contemporary usage by many progressive Jews is not a down-the-line application of the term as used in the Zohar, which turn was not a copy/paste job from how the concept appeared in the Talmud. But that sort of movement is entirely normal in Judaism -- one can't indict it without also undermining a huge part of historical Jewish practice and development.

To be honest, though, I'm not that interested in the more esoteric theological debate. What's worth reemphasizing is the very basic way the claim was structured: "this isn't in the Bible, ergo, it isn't really Jewish." It's hard to find a more Christian way of framing the issue. And so, Messrs. London and Neumann, I hereby give you my first Dennis Prager Award for Jews Who Most Clearly Wish To Be Christian.

1 comment:

Rebecca said...

One wonders why they don't just take the leap and become evangelical Christians - or even just Messianic Jews in a congregation funded by the Southern Baptists, with that Jewish feel but evangelical way of looking at the world.

Do you remember Daniel Lapin? I think he actually deserved the first Dennis Prager Award - https://rabbidaniellapin.com/, although he does deny that he is a Christian.