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From Social Action to Humble Forms of Tikkun Olam in the American Reform Movement: Leonard Fein and Eugene Borowitz

Tikkun Olam, a pillar of Reform Judaism
Noam Zion is a Senior Fellow Emeritus of the Kogod Research Center at the Shalom Hartman Institute since 1978. He studied philosophy and holds degrees from Columbia University and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He studied bible and rabbinics at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and the Hartman Beit Midrash. In the past, he led the Tichon program for North American Jewish educators and he teaches in Hartman Institute rabbinic programs: the Be’eri program


While Rabbi Soloveitchik speaks broadly about the process by which human beings created in God’s image make a better world simply by being creative and building societal institutions, Leonard Fein, a Liberal Jewish activist raised on American democracy, identifies tikkun olam with social action, protest and political-legal reform emerging from an active civil society inspired by the ancient ecological Jewish image of tikkun olam. Leonard Fein sums up the secularized and yet still God-inspired meaning of the tikkun olam ideology that now expands greatly the way liberal American Jews conceive tzedakah work as social reform:  

For American Jews, tikkun olam – the repair of the world – means God’s world, but it does not work as it was meant to. The story begins with Eden, and goes on through the trials and errors of all the generations since. This exquisitely organic whole, this ecological masterpiece, has been fractured a thousand times, has been scarred and marred and blighted and polluted and bloodied, its beauty transformed, become hideous; it does not work; not as it was meant to, not as it might.
We are called to see the beauty through the blemishes, to believe it can be restored, and to feel ourselves implicated in its restoration. We are called to be fixers. We are so called whether Eden is fable or fact, whether Sinai is law or lore. And ‘all the rest,’ as it is said, ‘is commentary’.
Many American Jews have come to view ethics as the very essence of Judaism. It is the thread in Judaism’s tapestry that weaves most neatly into America’s own moral claims …. American Jewry is distinguished …by the opportunity it is offered, as an empowered community, to move from ethics to justice, to define itself as a partnership in tikkun olam. In America, in our time, such a partnership can serve as our preeminent motive, the path through which our past is vindicated, our present warranted, and our future affirmed.  
Even though Leonard Fein is not a rabbi, it is not an accident that he has often worked within the social action committees of the Reform Movement which sees this kind of political activism as a manifestation of religion. In their renewed Pittsburgh Platform of 1999 the Reform rabbis formulated this mission anew using the new rhetoric of tikkun olam:  
We bring Torah into the world when we strive to fulfill the highest ethical mandates in our relationships with others and with all of God’s creation. Partners with God in Tikkun Olam, repairing the world, we are called to help bring nearer the messianic age. We seek dialogue and joint action with people of other faiths in the hope that together we can bring peace, free­dom and justice to our world.
We are obligated to pursue Tzedek, justice and righteousness, and to narrow the gap between the affluent and the poor, to act against discrimi­nation and oppression, to pursue peace, to welcome the stranger, to protect the earth’s biodiversity and natural resources, and to redeem those in physical, economic and spiritual bondage, In so doing, we reaffirm social action and social justice as a central prophetic focus of traditional Reform Jewish belief and practice.  
Rabbi Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi reports on the centrality of tikkun olam in the youth culture of Reform Judaism in the 1970s – 80s and the way it replaced the role of traditional halakha in defining Jewish action as opposed to Jewish beliefs:  
As someone growing up in America in a classical Reform synagogue in the 1970s and 1980s, tikkun olam was the main core, the main activity of the heroes of Reform Judaism – social action. The great sacred act was the marching of Reform rabbis with Martin Luther King (1964). Seventeen of them were thrown in jail overnight because of their participation. And when they wrote a statement of why they went, they cite their responsibility of tikkun olam as a reason for participating in civil rights protests and risking themselves the way they did. One reform theologian calls this ‘actional piety.’  
Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi notes that tikkun olam meant for the Rabbis of the Mishna small-scale legal reforms occasioned by negative ethical side-effects of halakhic legislation. But the Reform form of tikkun olam as social action sweeps away halakha and replaces it with a different pattern of Jewish behavior, rather than tinkering to "fix" its leaks and contradictions:  
Tikkun olam and social action was the piety; it was in place of much of Jewish law. In fact, being the product of some of the international youth leader movements, youth groups, and camps, I could have told you many, many definitions of tikkun olam and how it’s done, and I don’t think I knew as a young person in a Classical Reform community what halakha was.  
For many Reform thinkers, that move was taken because of, or in large part because of, the failures of the legal system. Even if you believe that the legal system has in it an ethical impulse and a foundation that should lead it toward tikkun olam, in too many cases, it failed. If that legal system can lead to a situation which is not ethical, if its consequences and accepted applied consequences by halakhic authorities are unethical, then that system itself can’t be embraced as an ethical system. You’re going to need an ethical system in place of it.  
One reflective response to this trend in Reform Judaism has come from Eugene Borowitz, the premier American Reform Jewish theologian. He sees the use of tikkun olam as a rather opportunistic redefinition of a term whose rabbinic legalism and kabbalistic mystical meditations. Those classic connotations, he believes, are irrelevant to its usage as a stand-in for the traditional Reform ideologies of ethical monotheism, earthly, progressivist messianism and social action. Yet the use of term does reflect two changes in Reform Judaism. First, Reform Jews have a stronger Jewish identity in the post-modern era, rather than a merely universalist liberal one.  
Something like this dizzying passage from the modern to the postmodern turned the old Reform piety upside down. Instead of believing we are a community of universalists who retain some old Jewish roots, we now see ourselves in particular terms, that is, as North American Jews whose ancient traditions and recent emancipation engender in us a uniquely intense dedication to the messianic unification of humankind.  
Second, postmodernism has made progressive rationalists more humble about the process of change and our knowledge of what is necessary. That confident old rationalist faith and its "unbridled optimism" about “the perfectibility of man" was expressed in the Pittsburgh Platform of 1885 of the Reform movement:  
We recognize in Judaism a progressive religion, ever striving to be in accord with the postulates of reason. In full accordance with the spirit of the Mosaic tradition, which strives to regulate the relations between rich and poor, we deem it our duty to participate in the great task of modern times, to solve, on the basis of justice and righteousness, the problems presented by the contrasts and evils of the present organization of society.
By contrast the image of repairing or mending (tikkun) the world – a piece at a time – seems a more realistic and a more humble endeavor. Liberal Judaism has not lost is modernist faith completely but it has been chastened by modernity’s failures.
The Emancipation was not altogether a lie. It taught us something true about the dignity of each person and about the democracy and pluralism that make it effective, and this must be carried over into our postmodern Judaism. [However] We are too realistic about humankind to return to the messianic modernism that once animated us.
People of conscience must live today with the unrelenting stress of more ethical tasks than they can hope to handle. [It] has necessarily given us a new ethical humility. Is that what we are hinting at in translating tikkun olam as merely ‘mending the world,’ that is, at best leaving it a thing of patches, when not too long ago we hoped for more grandiose human accomplishment?
That spiritually healthy humility has left a greater space for our trust in and partnership with God which is why Borowitz concludes that for the Reform movement tikkun olam is not only a stand-in for social action, for ethics, but itself a form of piety, of spirituality with its own theology.
The goal of redeeming the world cannot be done by humans alone who will – perhaps – accomplish this task, only with God in a covenant.
Our once soaring ethical self-confidence has now given way to a more modest sense of what human beings at their best may hope to accomplish. If we nonetheless believe that while we cannot do everything, the social ethical tasks we can and must dedicate ourselves to are not futile despite our limitations, it is because we do them in partnership with Adonai. Even as we have let Adonai back into our hope for healing so we must now acknowledge Adonai‘s role in tikkun olam. Though we may fall short of our goals in this or that project, Adonai being good, will not ultimately fail to make goodness triumph in human history.
While Sabath Beit-Halachmi emphasized the failure of halakha that led Reform Jews to replace it with social action in the buoyant days of the 1960s- 1970s, Borowitz highlights the sobering failures of that optimism that has led to a slightly humbled theology of the process of "mending" the "patch-work" world. He points out that this modified goal is far removed for the literal meaning of Aleinu that seeks God’s worldwide dominion.

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