These past ten days Rabbis in the United States and Canada have been invited to participate in phone calls with Barak Obama and Mitt Romney. Though I chose not to listen in I do not want you to feel deprived of a significant Jewish New Year experience so I want to share with you my personal encounter with the President of the United States.
Last December I found myself sitting in a large Washington DC hotel auditorium waiting for President Barack Obama to address the URJ, Reform Judaism’s national body, and after a 17 minute introduction and a few bars of Hail to the Chief, the President of the United States is addressing 4000 Reform Jews. This is as intimate as gets as I do not represent either a blue or red state. No more than ten minutes into his I really do love Israel and what choices to you really have speech he utters the clarion call of modern North American Jewry. Tikun Olum, he says mispronouncing the Hebrew phrase that his speech writers have carefully inserted into the prepared text in the hopes of convincing us he is really a member of tribe. Three more times in his 45 minutes he mentions our admirable goal of Tikkun Olam, repairing the world. While some Americans may still argue about his place of birth, I can state unequivocally that he is not a member of the tribe. Even though he chatted about the difficulty of picking appropriate clothes for his daughters who are now on the B’nai Mitzvah circuit, even though he threw in a few Yiddishisms, even though he had a shout out to NFTY, he did not once mention chicken soup, brisket or any other traditional food that his mother or Bubbie made for him growing up in Hawaii or Kenya. However it was not his failed attempt at schmoozing that created a lasting impression, what stayed with me even now is how easily he presumed that every person in the hall accepted his premise that Tikkum Olam, repairing the world through means of social justice was the unambiguous raison d’etre of Liberal Judaism. The President’s use of this ancient rabbinic concept as a bridge to his Jewish constituency is understandable.
No trope is more common today than the injunction to engage in Tikkun Olam. The Hebrew phrase has an ancient pedigree, with spiritual if not mystical connotations; but of decidedly recent vintage is its current interpretation, namely that Jews are uniquely responsible for improving the lives of their fellow human beings. For many, indeed, the imperative of social justice defines the essence of Liberal Judaism. In “American Grace”, a study of contemporary religion, Robert Putnam and David Campbell report that Jews (unlike their Christian counterparts) tend to be tongue tied on matters of belief and religious observance but speak with great certainty about their responsibility to help “repair the world.” So important has this mission become that in the hearts and minds of many it is held to supersede all other commandments. One of my colleagues in Los Angeles said in a sermon: “Don’t keep Kosher; that is fine. Don’t keep Shabbat; that’s fine. Marry a non-Jew—whatever. But understand that it will take away from your Jewish identity if you don’t fight for justice.”
I was 23 years old before I had even heard the words Tikkun Olam. I had successfully celebrated a Bar Mitzvah, a confirmation, four years of under graduate studies with a minor in Jewish history, two years of Rabbinical school and somehow these two words had yet to find themselves in my vocabulary. All as a proud, card carrying Reform Jew. However in 1973 Gershom Shalom, one of the world’s foremost scholar of Kabbalah, visited the Cincinnati Campus of Hebrew Union College from Jerusalem. For an entire semester I studied with him the intricacies of Jewish mysticism. During one of those lectures he examined the concept of Tikkun Olam. According to the Laurianic vision of the world, God contracted part of God’s self into vessels of light to create the world. These vessels shattered and their shards became sparks of light trapped within the material of creation. Prayer, especially contemplation of various aspects of the divinity, releases these sparks and allows them to reunite with God’s essence. Tikkun Olam is about making God whole with the world, and making God whole with us is the ultimate intentionality of Tikkun Olam.
I’m not sure that Barack Obama was speaking to this definition of Tikkun Olam. However what I am sure of is that in our rush to “fix” the world we have focused on the on only the first word of the phrase Tikkun, fixing, and have virtually ignored the second word, Olam, the wholeness of God’s presence in our lives. We are usually so busy looking at deeds that we can perform that we have little time to ask ourselves the serious questions about what is the true goal of our fixing. We are so happy to help the needy, to uplift the poor, to stop the bombs and protest injustice that we have little time to realize that the attitudes and ideas that foster our actions are more often than not indistinguishable from those that inform liberal North American culture at large. That is not Tikkun Olam that is simply being a good citizen!
In this morning’s Haftarah Isaiah seems to chastise the Israelites for their obsessive focus upon ritual at the expense of the world around them. You have heard the words forever: “Because on your fast day you pursue your own affairs, while you oppress your workers. Because your fasting leads only to strife and discord, while you strike with cruel fist. Is this the fast I have chosen? A day of self-affliction? Is this what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the eternal? Is this not the fast I have chosen: to unlock the shackles of injustice, to loosen the ropes of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to tear every yoke apart.” Stirring words bold sentiments, a challenge to every Israelite to refrain from meaningless ritual; a clarion call to fix the world?
If we stop reading at that point that is what Isaiah appears to be charging us to do. But if we read further we find that the text does not end with the fixing. It goes on to say, “if you keep trampling my Shabbat, from pursuing your own affairs on my holy days, if you call Shabbat a delight then you shall delight in God. I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth and I will feed you with the portion of Jacob, your ancestor.” The Text is challenging us to see our actions as a path to sacred connectivity; the text calls out for us to see our deeds in the context of a relationship between ourselves and the divine.
It was Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel who said that there are three ways in which we can experience the divine. The first is when we look at the wonders of the world and seek out the mysteries that are behind them. That is the hope that underlines our moments of silent thanksgiving, Hodaah.
The second way in which we experience God according to Heschel occurs when we look into our sacred texts, get beyond the strangeness of language and datedness of events and find in the writings wisdom beyond worldly wisdom, a feeling that in them is our heritage and we can make that heritage into our personal inheritance. That is why we as a Temple offer opportunities for you to study each week and every Shabbat.
The third way in which we experience God is when we make Judaism into a verb and do mitzvoth. And when does this happen? It happens when we draw upon our own spiritual resources, economic resources and allow the spiritual awareness within each of us to be present and available for us to tap into.
Heschel reminds us that there are different paths to the divine, in fact there maybe more than his three paths, but that the ultimate goal of our Jewish enterprise is to find the sacred in our lives.
It is good to do good deeds. That is obvious, or should be to all. All who act on behalf of a better world are to be praised. But in our Jewish world there is more to helping the poor or needy than mentschlichkeit. A mitzvah is an invitation to God, a kind of magnet, to draw God close. It really comes to this: Tikkun Olam is not just something that you do for someone else; it is the means by which you potentially summon God into your beliefs and your behaviors.
Some here this morning will say phooey, I’m going to repair the world because that is what a good citizen does. To those who say phooey I say go ahead and be a good citizen, there is nothing wrong with acting upon responsibilities held to be obligatory upon the citizen of this great country. But I will share with you this morning that Secular Judaism is an oxymoron. It is a faint echo, not a strong voice.
Secularity is a lost cause for those who would seek the first cause. Secularity is a blueprint for designing spiritual loneliness and self-abandonment. Our lives require that we come to believe in this power greater than our own which helps us to make order out of the madness of our times.
Throughout our history, throughout our Torah we are enjoined to both fear and love the Divine. We are told that spiritual fulfillment; wholeness of body and soul is achieved when we walk in Gods’ ways. The Torah understands that our highest spiritual goals are attained through and manifest in our actions. We serve God not by pious pronouncements of faith or tests of belief, but by “walking in all God’s ways”. It is not easy, nor simple to change our intentionality concerning Tikkun Olam does not happen all at once. You and I can’t simply lay out a plan to do something for someone else just for the purpose of snaring God into your own life. That is not a holy trip that is an ego trip. But if we listen to Heschel, if we listen to the still small voice within us, really listen to it, we can hear the Divine commandment calling us to this afternoon’s Torah portion: “AS I AM HOLY YOU CAN BE HOLY AND MY PARTNER IF YOU ACT MORALLY AND WITH A HEART FILLED WITH THE IMPERATIVE OF JUSTICE.”
Judaism is not about salvation but about repairing the world, a world that needs fixing because, according to our tradition, it is the cosmic plan to invites us to be partners with the Divine in bringing wholeness to ourselves and to those in need.