Congratulations are in order for Barack Obama. The former community activist and senator, known to friends and foes alike as both a great orator and accomplished author, is apparently striving to add yet another lofty title to his already remarkable resume. Not content with merely being the president of the United States, Obama evidently wishes to assume the role of chief rabbi as well.
That, at least, is the impression one gets from the remarks he delivered last week in the East Room of the White House to mark Jewish American Heritage Month. Speaking to a cluster of prominent invitees, the commander-in-chief suddenly morphed into the interpreter-in-chief, as he expounded on a theme taken straight from Jewish belief.
Invoking the principle of tikkun olam, or repairing the world, Obama chose to twist this age-old idea almost entirely beyond recognition, suggesting that it encompasses everything from “rebuilding our economy” to “strengthening old alliances and forging new ones.” And then, taking this dubious line of thinking a step further, he even linked it to his efforts to create a Palestinian state.
Needless to say, it is quite common for politicians to wrap themselves in the flag, or in this case a prayer shawl, in an effort to cloak their positions with a semblance of authenticity and legitimacy.
BUT THIS time, Obama has gone too far. His distortion of the concept of tikkun olam is so breathtaking in its arrogance, and offensive in its ignorance, that it cannot be overlooked. Not only does it exhibit a fundamental misunderstanding of Jewish theology, but it is also an insult to Jewish history and destiny.
To be sure, the term tikkun olam has taken a beating in recent decades, primarily thanks to various liberal groups which have misappropriated it to further their social-action and political agendas. Often concerned more with saving trees in a South American rain forest than with assisting their fellow Jews in need, they slap the label onto their activities with utter disregard for the origins and meaning of the phrase.
The term tikkun olam first appears in the Talmud, where it is used primarily in connection with rabbinical enactments concerning, of all things, divorce. But the phrase is perhaps most well-known because of a reference to it in the Aleinu prayer, which is recited thrice daily at the end of services.
And that is what makes this all so deliciously ironic, because if Obama, or for that matter, many of his Jewish supporters who bandy about the term, would bother to take a look at its context, they might not rush to employ it as frequently as they do.
“Therefore we place our hope in you O Lord our God,” begins the second paragraph of Aleinu, “that we shall soon see the glory of your power, the elimination of abominations from the earth, the idols felled and the repair of the world (Letaken olam) through the kingdom of God.” That hardly sounds like the platform of the Democratic Party, don’t you think?
Indeed, it is evident that the ultimate tikkun olam, the one which Jews enunciate three times a day every day, has nothing to do with multiculturalism, pluralism or even global warming. It represents a yearning for the day when the entire world will acknowledge the God of Israel as creator of the universe. Somehow I doubt that is what Obama has in mind for the rest of his term of office.
But the irony gets even better. For according to tradition, the first paragraph of Aleinu was authored by Joshua, who led the Israelites in conquering the very same Land of Israel that Obama now wishes to divide as part of his ambitious plan to “repair the world.” And the second section was said to have been composed by a biblical figure named Achan, who took part in the capture of Jericho.
Thus, if one were to insist on applying tikkun olam to modern political agendas, it clearly would resonate more profoundly with those who wish to settle the Land of Israel, rather than carve it up. But that has not stopped Obama and others from seeking to redefine this religious term, misrepresent it and then exploit it to score a few political points.
And that has got to stop. It is time that we take back the term, which has often become a cover for some Jews to dilute Judaism and transform it into little more than fighting oil spills or salvaging endangered species of birds.
NOW DON’T get me wrong. I am of course all in favor of Jews playing an active part in public life and contributing to the betterment of society and mankind. Looking beyond ourselves and helping others is surely something to be encouraged and fostered.
But experience demonstrates that when we embrace universalism at the expense of particularism, and reduce Judaism to nothing more than a hodgepodge of liberal causes, we do both ourselves and the world a great disservice. This, after all, is the road which leads directly to assimilation and to ruin.
It is precisely by caring for our own, and putting Jewish concerns first, such as Israel and Jewish education, that we can continue to have a lasting and profound impact on the cosmos as proud and knowledgeable Jews.
The fact is that we do not need to make the world a better place to
keep Judaism strong. The opposite is true. By strengthening our
practice and our faith, we can then contribute the most, both to
ourselves and to others.
So by all means, if you care about the fate of toads in Wyoming or
salmon in Oregon, go ahead and do something about it. But in the
process, don’t overlook Torah study, or the campaign to free Gilad
Schalit, or the need to help Ethiopian Jews build a better life in
The surest path to repairing the world starts right here at home. And
if we don’t start worrying a little more about ourselves, you can rest
assured that no one else will do it for us.