Picking and pruning

Author Jonathan Neumann sees secular Jewish leftists as distorting the religion and its traditions.

DEMONSTRATORS TAKE part in a ‘Muslim and Jewish Solidarity’ protest against US President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in New York City, 2017 (photo credit: MIKE SEGAR / REUTERS)
DEMONSTRATORS TAKE part in a ‘Muslim and Jewish Solidarity’ protest against US President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in New York City, 2017
(photo credit: MIKE SEGAR / REUTERS)
Jonathan Neumann, author of the compelling and provocative treatise To Heal the World? How the Jewish Left Corrupts Judaism and Endangers Israel, views my mother as a failed Jew.
My 92-year-old mother, born in Brooklyn to poor Jewish immigrants, doesn’t keep a kosher home or observe Shabbat, and knows little about the ritual text. She proudly identifies as a Jew, but Neumann would describe her Jewish life as nothing more than the practice of some loose strands of liberal politics tied together and glossed over with pieces of Jewish nostalgia.
Neumann is not looking to insult my mother; on the contrary, he wants to recruit her. He believes she has been deprived of what is most precious to him – a genuine relationship with God and an authentic religious life. He feels the liberal progressive Jewish activists in America who have seduced my mother have deceived her by picking and pruning biblical passages selectively and putting them forth as a substitute for the real thing.
He is particularly disturbed by how frequently many of these Jewish progressive leaders use the notion of tikun olam – which is generally understood in the public sphere to mean the responsibility each one of us carries to go out and repair the world – to attract secular and disenfranchised Jews into their fold. Neumann claims they are using the term “tikun olam” without any real understanding of its meaning. He begs Jews like my mom to reconsider their behavior and consider an alternative route, one that he believes will bring them closer to God and the spiritual centeredness he senses they seek.
“This doesn’t necessarily mean jettisoning liberal politics,” he writes. “Rather, it means approaching the classical Jewish texts with honesty and curiosity and without prejudice and preconception. It means opening oneself up to the practices and beliefs of one’s forebears and to the proposition that their wisdom should be learned, their contributions celebrated, their sacrifices mourned, and their dedication emulated.”
The author understands that the pull of modernity on Jews has been hazardous to them for a long time. He cites Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, the leading Reform rabbi of his day in 1883, who was open to replacing certain traditional religious practices with “social justice.” Wise emphasized to his congregation the importance of universalist ethics, but contemporary critic Cynthia Ozick believes this set a dangerous precedent, and calls “universalism the parochialism of the Jews” (a belief attributed to her by Edward Alexander in his The Jewish Idea and Its Enemies). Harvard scholar Ruth Wisse concurs, claiming “the way to overcome antisemitism is to resist the temptations of the universalist illusion – to be more Jewish, not less.”
Even moderate leftists leave Neumann feeling that they have betrayed their own people, and to him this is unforgivable. He finds Michael Lerner of Tikkun magazine very distressing. He feels Lerner cleverly distorts the meaning of “tikun olam” to push forth his liberal agenda, which includes naturalizing illegal aliens in the United States, easing restrictions on abortions, and overhauling the economy to prevent climate change. He is annoyed by the writings of Rabbi Arthur Green, who preaches a philosophy of religious humanism that encourages the interconnectedness of all peoples and a reverence for nature.
Neumann explains that tikun olam is not and has never been a central concept of traditional Judaism. It has been marketed as such, even though there is no foundational basis for this in the religious texts. He believes Jews must observe their unique covenant with God and the Land of Israel and accept that they have an obligation first and foremost to their fellow Jews.
The author makes some very convincing arguments, particularly about the beauty and order that accompany a religious life, and for the need for Jews to stop denying the corrosive antisemitic forces that lace the American leftist movement. He also makes some pressing points about the dangers of assimilation and the alienation of contemporary American Jews, particularly among the younger generation. He provides plenty to think about. His insistence that one learn about one’s religion before jettisoning it also is prudent.
But I feel equally compelled to return to my mother’s Jewish life and Neumann’s condemnation of it. I have memories of listening to her speak about the sanctity of Jewish life, the exceptionality of the Jewish people, and I can still recall her pained silence about the Holocaust. I remember her reminiscences about Jewish life in Brooklyn during the Depression, when one family would discreetly leave a few dollar bills on the kitchen table of another family that was in greater need. I can still hear her lecturing me on how important it is to treat others with kindness and to stand up to those who malign others. My most moving recollection is the stories she would tell me about my maternal grandmother, whom I never met, who would sing melancholy songs in Yiddish as she looked out her small kitchen window as my mother watched, hearing a sadness in her voice that remained with my mother, and then with me, forever.
Somehow, Neumann waving a magic wand over her life and deeming it insufficient seems inappropriate and overreaching. Who is he to decide? Isn’t he, perhaps without meaning to, erasing some of the very Jews he claims he is so eager to protect, the very same Jews who would never think to insist that he change his ways for them?