(May 7, 2019 / JNS) Do Jews need more holidays? Most sensible people, whether observant or not, would agree that the current roster of festivals, sacred days, fast days, minor holidays and modern additions to commemorate the Holocaust and Israeli independence are quite sufficient to keep Jews occupied throughout the year.
But a band of social-justice activists are determined to add one more to the list: Yom HaTzedek, the “Day of Justice.”
To a casual observer, this might seem like a Jewish outgrowth of the way every conceivable aspect of life is now given a “day” on social media—from siblings to baseball cards. But the advocates of putting Yom HaTzedek on the Jewish calendar have a far more serious purpose. Their aim is to anchor a particular interpretation of social justice—made ubiquitous by the oft-misused phrase tikkun olam from the Judaic liturgy—not merely to the calendar, but to the way all Jews think and live.
On the surface, this sounds like something everyone should like. After all, who isn’t for social justice in this unjust and unperfected world? The self-consciously righteous tone of the planners may be off-putting. But they have the advantage of framing their cause as a collective act of doing good deeds, which is both publicly spirited and rooted in Jewish scripture. As such, it could be a way to address important problems, as well as a means of bolstering the continuity of an American Jewish community that is undergoing a demographic implosion due to intermarriage and assimilation.
But while I wouldn’t underestimate the chances that Yom HaTzedek will soon be coming to a Jewish Community Center or a synagogue near you, there are good reasons to have profound concerns about this project.
The first is that this is just the latest example of liberal Jewish groups and activists seeking not merely to reinterpret Judaism, but to hijack it for political purposes not synonymous with Jewish faith. Nor do they serve the interests of the Jewish people.
A concern for social justice is deeply imbedded in Judaism and Jewish history. But it is hardly a coincidence that activists’ interpretation of that concept seems to be identical to 21st-century left-wing politics on a host of issues, whether health care, immigration, the environment or the welfare state. The new holiday is virtue signaling run amuck. Like the old joke about Reform Judaism being a faith defined by the Democratic Party platform with holidays thrown in, Yom HaTzedek activists seem determined not so much to be politically liberal Jews, but to ground the theorem that liberalism equals Judaism equals liberalism in the Jewish calendar.
At the root of this notion is the way that the concept of tikkun olam (or the “repair of the world”) has become the sum total of Judaism for political liberals. The phrase, which is part of the “Aleinu” prayer in the daily Jewish liturgy, has, as writer Hillel Halkin noted as far back as 2008 in a Commentary magazine article, become a useful tool to shoe-horn liberal politics into a Jewish context. As Halkin wrote of those who invoke tikkun olam whenever they wish to cloak their politics in faith, “Judaism has value to such Jews to the extent that it is useful, and it is useful to the extent that it can be made to conform to whatever beliefs and opinions they would have even if Judaism had never existed.”
Moreover, as Halkin also pointed out, those most involved in defining Judaism as one big social-justice project—in line with the “Day of Justice” concept—is a lack of understanding of the complexity of the way the concept is used in Jewish law. It ignores the fact “that repairing almost anything can involve breaking something else.” As he added, “Yes, it is possible to reduce global warming significantly—but only at the cost of reducing standards of living around the world, including those of the poor.”
The good intentions of those who want to promote liberal political concepts about social justice as indistinguishable from Judaism shouldn’t be questioned. But their cavalier attitude towards politicizing Judaism is ill-advised, not least because it promotes one of the most unfortunate aspects of contemporary public debate: a willingness to demonize opponents as not merely wrong, but as bad or even evil. It’s one thing to argue that a particular program is reminiscent of some aspect of Jewish religious law. It’s quite another to garb your partisanship in the appearance of righteousness—and to damn those on the other side as opponents of Divine justice.
Nor is this a recipe for promoting Jewish identity. To the contrary, as author Jonathan Neumann noted in his insightful book To Heal the World, the problem with social-justice Judaism is that tips the balance between universal and parochial values within Jewish traditions aggressively towards the former in such a way as to cast the latter in a decidedly negative light.
Indeed, the liberal culture of contemporary America has already created an environment in which all sectarian interests and loyalties, such as prioritizing Jewish identity and nationalism to encourage endogamy and Zionism, can be falsely painted as inherently racist. When a decidedly secular interpretation of tikkun olam becomes the sum total of Judaism, it is hardly surprising when growing numbers on the left—as is the case with groups like Jewish Voice for Peace and IfNotNow—think that social justice should impel them to oppose the existence of Israel or as in the advocacy of novelist Michael Chabon, who argues against any sort of boundaries for Israel or Jewish families.
There are already a great many reasons and days for Jews to give back to their community, and to perform acts of tzedakah and gemilut chasadim—to do justice and to bestow lovingkindness in the existing Jewish calendar. For all of the good intentions behind the effort to promote a Yom HaTzedek, its creation marks another step in the direction of both the politicization of American Judaism and the polarization of an already deeply divided Jewish people.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.