From a Jewish perspective, this dissonance I experience makes a lot of sense. Afterall, we hang our שמע/Shema mantra stating that plurality is Oneness and that there is nothing apart from G-d on our doorposts and on our gates, on the frames that indicate a conceptual separation between our spaces and rooms, for a good reason. We even kiss מזוזות/mezuzot in acknowledgement as we pass by, reminding ourselves that while we externally experience a material world with delineated barriers, a higher reality is hidden underneath; things are not only as they appear to us.
With Gates & Doorposts, I hope to share my experiences and ideas at the threshold of my professional and spiritual lives, along with my various efforts to transcend them. I’ll perhaps touch upon everything from the awkwardness of maintaining shomer kashrus, negiah, and Shabbos while leading a secular nonprofit, to my gripes about what seems to pass for tzedakah these days.
I would like to begin this journey with my musings on an oft-cited Jewish concept that seems to have become controversial in recent years, and which often collides with my spiritual and secular lives in surprising ways.
There is a lot of impassioned debate between the Jewish movements around the notion of תיקון עולם/tikkun olam, and since I love getting myself in trouble, of course I am compelled to weigh in. Liberal Jewish movements have embraced the phrase — with its literal meaning being to “repair the world” — as a rallying cry for social justice.
Followers of more religiously traditional movements, such as myself, love to smugly point out that the phrase, in its context, refers to cleansing the world of idolatry — and then feel good about ourselves for thinking we know more stuff and that our emphasis on ritual הלכה/halacha will save the world.
From my point of view, both interpretations are right on target, and by no means contradictory. Our greatest idol is so often ourselves. With that comes the profoundly idolatrous belief that we are responsible for our own condition — that whatever wealth or comfort we enjoy comes only from our own hard work, our “self-sufficiency,” if you will.
We are so easily seduced into forgetting that our very capacity for פרנסה/parnassah (livelihood) is not self-generated, but gifted to us by G-d Himself. Why do you think we pray for פרנסה all the time? Why do you think He demands that we give צדקה/tzedakah? Why is perhaps our holiest act, described in תלמוד ירושלמי/Jerusalem Talmud as equivalent to all other מצוות/mitzvot, to give away our hard-earned money? And why is our word for doing so derived from "justice"?
Perhaps it is at least partially so we do not get confused and start embracing the dangerous and idolatrous belief that our material wealth is of our own making, that attributing power to anything but G-d is only idolatrous when applied to to everything but ourselves; and in letting go of this false belief, we might be a light unto the nations, with our holy inclination to advocate for a socially just world.
Consider all of the poverty we allow to continue in this world thanks to our idolatrous belief that any person can possibly be truly self-sufficient, and then tell me that social justice work is not an effort to cleanse the world of idolatry — an effort of תיקון עולם/tikkun olam.
Of course, our מסורה/masorah (Jewish tradition) teaches it is not strictly our social policies, but indeed G-d Himself who ultimately has the power to create a just world. But ask yourself, what do you honestly think He wants of us in this broken world — a world He continuously chooses to manifest for our benefit? It isn't as if He hasn't been hitting us over the head with it for a few millennia.
Yehudah Leyb Hertz, MSW serves as CEO at Lighthouse MI and was recently appointed by Governor Whitmer to serve on the Michigan Interagency Council on Homelessness. Yehudah lives in Huntington Woods with his wife Batyah and their two toddlers. He is a proud member of the Woodward Avenue Shul community and enjoys learning Chassidus.