No, I haven’t had the honor of Marty Peretz attacking this blog yet. But he has gone after J Street, Ezra Klein and the misuse (to his feeble Jewish mind) of the term tikun olam. I knew the attacks on J Street would come fast and furious, so I’m not surprised that Peretz has jumped into the fray. I am a bit taken aback that he has widened the attack with a vicious and ignorant assault on both Ezra Klein–for invoking Heschel in his support for J Street–and that long-standing Jewish phrase. Thanks to Gershom Gorenberg, who has weighed in on the debate himself, for bringing the interesting story to my attention:
If you suspect you see a charlatan in a Jew wait for him to utter the words, “tikun olam.” “Repair of the world.” Big idea, revolutionary, utopian, progressive. In the mishna torah where the phrase first appears it really means tweaking, at best, adjustment. Imagine how many silly sermons and speeches have been given with this deliberately falsified phrase as their text.
First, you’ll notice that Reb Marty has somehow secured smicha and is opining on Jewish mysteries about whose meaning he has no special interpretive aptitude. Tikun does not mean “tweaking” or “adjustment.” It means mending or repairing. And as Gershom Gorenberg, a Jew well-versed in traditional texts, points out the term doesn’t appear first in the “mishnah torah,” but rather in the Mishnah. That little mistake makes Marty off by only 1,000 years give or take a decade or two since the Mishnah Torah was written by Rambam a thousand years after the Mishnah was compiled. Marty–before you try commenting on Jewish tradition you might want to take a few adult education Talmud courses with your local rav. I’d also urge him to read Rabbi Elliot Dorff’s seminal work on this issue of tikun olam.
I’ve always thought Marty was an intellectually coarse individual. But in the following passage he shows that he is just plain coarse. In fact, this is language I’d expect to find at Masada2000 and not in the pages of The New Republic:
Heschel marched with Dr. King…But, believe me, he had his standards, and he wouldn’t have marched with the two-bit Jewish leaders [those uttering the phrase tikun olam] who are still excited to utter Arafat’s name. (In 1993, they were so were so excited to see him at the White House that they almost pissed in their pants…and in their panties.)
I don’t know many Jewish leaders, two-bit or otherwise who “are still excited to utter Arafat’s name.” I suspect this is a bit of Marty’s typically overblown and nonsensical politically incendiary rhetoric. I do know many people, Jews, non-Jews, a president, cabinet secretaries and members of Congress who were quite excited to see Yitzhak Rabin and Yaser Arafat shake hands at the White House. Maybe those are the people he’s referring to who were pissing in their pants and panties??
All of us who write blogs sometimes write infelicitous, awkward phrases which we edit when we notice them. Marty has done this in spades but hasn’t noticed what a mess he’s made of the English language here:
It isn’t as if Heschel hadn’t written of the Israel that is a Jewish sovereign state and which sovereignty, it is my guess, that truly troubles Klein…
If you try you can sort of follow Marty’s meandering mind, but he sure makes it hard.
With the remainder of the above quoted passage, Peretz in his typically pugilistic way accuses J Street board members Ezra Klein, Matt Ygleisias and others of being anti-Zionists. Can anyone take this idiot seriously:
…and Matthew Yglesias and many of the other cold Jews or almost Jews or non-Jews who cannot stomach Zionism because it is of this world.
J Street is actually a group that is pro-Israel. Says so all over its website. But Marty doesn’t let that stop him. He uses the anti-Zionism trope as a sword to slay a dragon that isn’t even there. Typical.
I also take strong exception to Peretz’s distortion of Heschel’s notion of the impermissibility of neutrality in the face of moral evil. The former, in this quotation, seems to believe that Heschel would be as coarsely pro-Israel in the current iteration of the conflict as Peretz himself:
Having wrestled Heschel’s idea of neutrality out of context, Klein wants his Jews and others not to be neutral towards Israel. Klein wants them to feel anger towards Israel, while Heschel wanted them to love the land as the people, the miracle as the commonplace…
Of course Heschel would take sides in the conflict. He would take Israel’s side…and the Palestinian’s side. He would be critical not of Israel, but of Israeli policy. He would advocate for peace, for tolerance; against bloodshed, against hatred. Any Jewish simpleton with the faintest idea of Heschel would know this. But not the morally blind and obtuse like Peretz. For him, Heschel would be roaring like Jabotinsky for Jewish victory in its war against the Palestinian people.
If we need any further proof of where A.J. Heschel would stand on this issue we have only to look to his daughter, Susannah Heschel, his familial and spiritual heir. Her commitment to Jewish social justice and Israeli-Palestinian peace speaks volumes about where her father would come down on the issue.
Marty–go hang your head in shame. You’re the one who’s the “charlatan.” You don’t know Jewish tradition. You don’t know your Heschel. What do you know?
Returning to the phrase tikun olam, Gershom correctly notes that the phrase in the Zohar and Kabbalah connotes the Jew’s yearning to perfect the world and bring messianic redemption by performing mitzvot. There has always been an element of social justice involved in the performance of certain mitzvot. Indeed, the social justice imperative is at the heart of Judaism going all the way back to our Prophets and farther.
Contemporary Jews have adapted this ancient phrase for today and used it as shorthand to denote the Jewish commitment to perfecting the world through acts of justice and lovingkindness. For right-wing Jews like Marty who are deeply offended by such perversion (in their eyes) of an ancient tradition–all I can say is that even God is not on their side. In the Talmud, there is a debate between a rabbi and his colleagues about a particular point of halacha. The rabbi says God is on my side and summons a bat kol (“heavenly voice”) to confirm this. His fellow rabbis are not impressed. The law sides with them. Even God, who should know what his original intention was regarding halacha, is bested when the rabbis innovate.
Innovation is allowed in Jewish tradition. Consider Rabbenu Tam, prozbul and scores of other innovative halachic concepts which rabbis devised to deal with new social and economic conditions. At the time doubtless there were rabbinic figures who objected to what they saw perhaps as creating legal fictions. But in time, the new interpretations were accepted, even embraced. Jewish law is not immutable as Antonin Scalia would have you believe the U.S. constitution is. It is an ever-changing set of concepts always firmly rooted in the text but never frozen in time.
Tikun Olam is a phrase we can be proud of and our use of it is fully within our tradition’s legacy of both change and continuity.