“There is one who sings the song of his soul, and in his own soul finds all…. And there is one who sings the song of the nation, who cleaves with gentle love to Knesset Yisrael as a whole, and sings her song with her…. And there is one whose soul expands further beyond the bound of Israel, to sing the song of humanity…. And there is one whose spirit expands and ascends even higher, to the point of unity which all creation, with all creatures and with all worlds, and sings with them all…. And there is one who ascends above all these in a single union…. The song of the self, of the nation, of humanity, of the world — all come together within him…. And this perfection in all its fullness ascends and becomes a sacred song, God’s song, Israel’s song….” (Rav Avraham Yitzhak Kook, Orot HaKodesh 1:p.144f. Translation from Rav Kook: Mystic in a Time of Revolution, Yehuda Mirsky)
This teaching of Rav Kook is my response to an article in the September 14 Jewish Standard by Rabbi Mitchell Rocklin called “Rosh Hashanah has nothing to do with the attraction of tikkun olam.”
Rabbi Rocklin draws support for his diatribe against liberal Judaism and liberal Jews from a book whose title is “To Heal the World? How the Jewish Left Corrupts Judaism and Endangers Israel.” In this view, tikkun olam is equated with social justice, which is a bad thing, because, for the rabbi, “social justice does not seek human greatness, but equality outcomes…. There is nothing great about all humans living leveled lives of equality or sameness.” Accordingly, Judaism really is not very interested in working toward a more equal or more just society, but in a “liberty that frees up individuals’ potential for greatness, enabling them to to produce great if unequal outcomes.”
I contend that his approach brings us to exactly the society we have today, in which a tiny fraction of Americans have achieved what he refers to as “human greatness,” meaning that they become one part of the top one percent of our economy, the super rich (which equals the super powerful). The other ninety-nine percent are left with the leftovers.
Taking the conservative line, Rabbi Rocklin criticizes Jews and Jewish organizations that oppose public funding of religious institutions, and those who criticize policies of the Israeli government (accusing them of “turning away from our peoplehood”). But public funding of parochial schools is bad for several reasons. It threatens the separation of religion and state that is one of the foundations of American democracy. And, inevitably, it will reduce funding of public schools, which are under threat today by the federal education department.
Regarding criticism of Israeli government policies, organizations such as the New Israel Fund and Be’tzelem are engaged in constrictive criticism of many policies of the right-wing government while being strong supporters of the State of Israel and its people. They are not “turning away from peoplehood”; rather they want the Jewish people and the Jewish State to live fully up to the principles of its founding document, the Declaration of Independence.
I return to the fourfold song of Rav Kook. Rav Kook was not a Reform Jew, nor was he a liberal. But he did posses a broader and deeper understanding of Jewish destiny than the critics of tikkun olam. He believed that all human beings, Jew and gentile, are created in the image of God, and all are partners with God in the ongoing creation of the world. We were put into the world to be its caretakers: “God took the human and set him in the Garden of Eden to work it and to keep it” (Gen. 2:15). Humans, including Jews, have a positive mitzvah of caring for our only home. We also have a moral and religious imperative to be our brothers’ keeper.
We are responsible for one another, not only for our fellow Jews.
Judaism is neither politically nor socially conservative or liberal. In fact it is both. We believe that Jews have a special covenant with God, that we have a unique role to play in human history. We believe that the creation of Israel is an amazing and even miraculous event and we fully support its existence as a Jewish and democratic state. We believe in an America that is democratic, multiracial, multicultural, multiethnic, and multireligious, an America that is open to immigrants who want to be part of our democracy and to refugees seeking safety on our shores, just as our parents and grandparents found security here as refugees from many forms of anti-Jewish persecution
As to repair of the world and social justice, I believe that the prophetic reading for Yom Kippur says it all:
“No, this is the fast that I desire: to unlock the fetters of wickedness, and untie the cords of the yoke to let the oppressed go free; to break off every yoke. It is to share your bread with the hungry (not only the Jewish hungry or oppressed), and to take the wretched poor into your home; when you see the naked, to clothe them, and do not ignore your own flesh.” If you do all of these (social justice?), “then shall your light shine in darkness and your gloom shall be like noonday…. And you shall be called ‘Repairer of fallen walls, Restorer of lanes for habitation.” (Isaiah 58)
Our prophet calls the Jewish people an or lagoyim, a light to the nations. Rav Kook believed this, as did Yishayhu ben Amotz. In this very broken world and nation, a world and nation deeply in need of healing, the message of both of these great teachers must be heard. It is a message of chesed v’rachamim, of love and compassion, of seeing that we are indeed God’s partners, in creation and in the ongoing work of repair and healing.
In the liturgy, our rabbis often referred to God as Nishmat kol Chai, the soul of all that lives. Each one of us has a part of that neshama, the soul that unites us with the greater Nishmat kol Chai, and with the souls of all that live. We seek the greater tikkun, the repair of the world, in every small act that makes our society and our world more whole.
Rabbi Aryeh Meir of Teaneck is on the faculty of the Academy for Jewish Religion and the chairperson of the Teaneck Environmental Commission.