Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Meet the Shondes: an essay on Tikkun Olam

I like a good parody, but sometimes one finds a real-life story that is so way beyond parody that even if someone would have invented such an over-the-top character, no one would have found it believable enough to be humorous:
The Shondes, a four-piece political post-punk band from New York City, are the outsiders' outsiders, but they wear that badge with pride.

This queer political band, heavily influenced by riot grrrl and queercore as well as traditional Jewish music, gets its name from the Yiddish word for “shame” or “disgrace.” Three-quarters of the band are Jewish and three-quarters are trans.

The band's in-your-face, dramatic debut album, The Red Sea, has created comparisons to the now defunct all-girl rock trio Sleater-Kinney as well as political punk Patti Smith.

Windy City Times spoke with drummer Temim Fruchter right after they kicked off their long, fall tour.

WCT: I noticed that several of you are involved in Jews Against the Occupation ( an anti-Zionist organization ) . How much would you say Judaism influences your music, your sound? Obviously, it influences your life.

TF: I would say just as much as any aspect of our lives influences our music. For the three of us, Judaism is pretty central to who we are. So, we sort of bring that to the table as much as our activism, as much as the other stuff and components we bring to the music.

WCT: And all of your either identify as queer or trans, as well, so I'm sure it's just as important as that aspect of your life.

TF: Exactly.

WCT: Since many of your are involved in both Jewish activism, as well as the queer community, I was wondering if you ever receive any negative feedback from the Jewish community, or for the most part, are most people really progressive and welcoming?

TF: We definitely encountered people in various communities who have been challenged by some of views, particularly about Israel-Palestine, and those are some of the conversations with more mainstream Jewish outlets, so that isn't part of the subject. But we've mostly just had productive and interesting conversations. Definitely, overall, we constantly have supportive audiences—people who are really interested in the music, but people who are also interested in the content and are either challenged by it and talk about it, or support it and are excited that there is music that is affirming that content.

It always fascinated me that "Jewish activists" have completely disregarded Judaism for activism, and instead use Judaism as an excuse to justify their causes. They usually use the words "Tikkun Olam," or "perfecting the world."

That term has been mostly popularized by Tikkun Magazine, the far-left, pro-Arab magazine founded by fake rabbi and Friend of Hillary Michael Lerner.

The tikkunolam.com site says:
Tikkun Olam, healing and repairing the world, is a primary mission of the Jewish people.

Other recent citations of the phrase can be seen at the Rabbis for Obama site:
Some of us know Senator Obama personally, and we recognize that he has been inspired by Jewish values such as Tikkun Olam and the pursuit of justice, and he is deeply committed as well to a civil discourse between opposing arguments.
One could be excused if one thinks that Tikkun Olam as activism for social issues is a great mitzvah, one of the commandments given by G-d to Jews (or perhaps mankind).

The source for the phrase Tikkun Olam is not the Torah, though, but the Talmud. Many examples of Tikkun Olam are given in Tractate Gittin, but they generally are meant to stop people from doing various sins. None of the Talmudic examples have anything remotely close to what the current users of the phrase have in mind.

Another prominent example is found in the thrice-daily Aleinu prayer, where Jews ask G-d "to perfect the world under God's sovereignty" -- a purely spiritual quest. Later, Kabbalists expanded the concept somewhat but it is still oriented towards Jews doing their own mitzvot, to perfect themselves and thereby helping to repair the world, in a more mystical sense.

Either way, the concept is clearly not biblical and not nearly as expansive as many people assume. The idea has been changed into an amorphous concept that molds to whatever preconceived notions one has about the environment, or justice, or politics, or really any subject one wants. Today, we have a strange situation where the phrase is used to apply to people like the Shondes, who are the antithesis of the concept (and whose name, while meant to be ironic, ends up being anything but.)

This is not to say that the idea of Tikkun Olam is irrelevant. However, if a Jew wants to apply Tikkun Olam to today, he or she needs to increase spirituality, not decrease it; to inspire by adhering to the religion, not by replacing it with some sort of wishy-washy universalist message that has nothing to do with Judaism. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks summed it up nicely:
Our task is to become a particular living example of a set of universal truths, and therefore the conflict between the universal and the particular in Judaism is not a conflict at all because it is only by being Orthodox Jews that we are able to mitaken ha’olam - it is only by being true to ourselves that we can be true to other people. Only if we preserve the sanctity of Jewish family can we talk with authority about the sanctity of the family to the world. Only by studying Torah can we speak compellingly about the value of education and human dignity. Only by having the courage to be different can we be role models to the dignity of difference. That is why Tikkun Olam in my view is the special responsibility of we who are the guardians of Torah.
This is a univeralist goal that can only come about from a particularist application of real Jewish laws and ideas, and this is the real meaning behind Tikkun Olam.

UPDATE: Hillel Halkin at Commentary apparently made a similar point last month (full article not online.) h/t EBOZ

EBoZ emailed me the article; it makes many of the points I made but in the context of "40 short essays by a group of American Jewish intellectuals and social activists, all on the Left, appearing in a new book called Righteous Indignation." Many of those essays invoked Tikkun Olam, and, as Halkin writes, almost all of them get it wrong:
And so it goes. Health care, labor unions, public-school education, feminism, abortion rights, gay marriage, globalization, U.S. foreign policy, Darfur: on everything Judaism has a position—and, wondrously, this position just happens to coincide with that of the American liberal Left.

If it is easy to caricature most of the essays in Righteous Indignation, this is because so many of them caricature themselves. They represent the ultimate in that self-indulgent approach, so common in non-Orthodox Jewish circles in the United States today, that treats Jewish tradition not as a body of teachings to be learned from but as one needing to be taught what it is about by those who know better than it does what it should be about. 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.

...The Jewish public interest is not a concept that plays a role in any of the 40 essays in Righteous Indignation. Just as the authors of these essays take almost no interest in the state of Israel, apart from chiding it for its various alleged faults of racism, religious intolerance, militarism, and so forth, so they take almost no interest in the American Jewish community except insofar as it is prepared to act outside of itself. They want world repair—and they want it now. An end to environmental exploitation! An end to economic injustice! An end to sexual inequality! An end to war! And since the end will not come of itself, let Jews go out into the world and force it.

What is entirely missing from the book and its righteously indignant authors is the slightest sense of the world’s complexity or of the fact that repairing almost anything can involve breaking something else. 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. It is possible to let homosexuals marry and raise children like heterosexuals—but only by making heterosexuals wonder what is the point of marrying and raising children. It is possible not to go to war—but only by condemning the people of Iraq to life under a barbaric and aggressive dictatorship, and by continuing to condemn the people of Darfur to an indescribable misery that only military force can put an end to. There are few cost-free solutions to anything.

This is something that those who bandy the phrase tikkun olam might be expected to be aware of.
It is a very nice essay, but only available for subscribers to Commentary.