It has taken me a while to share my correspondence with Rabbi Michael Lerner, I was initially so angry at his reply to an email I sent him I didn’t want to reread it. My email was a response to an article Lerner wrote that appeared in his magazine, ‘Tikkun’ a title taken from the Jewish term, “tikkun olam.”
Rabbi Lerner translates the term ‘tikkun olam’ as ‘heal and transform the world’ and claims his magazine Tikkun is a "prophetic voice for peace, love, environmental sanity, social transformation, and unabashedly utopian aspirations for the world that can be.”
Adam Kirsch, of Columbia University, explains the interpretation of tikkun olam differently: “We have interpreted ‘the betterment of the world’ to mean the improvement of society in the name of social justice … I don’t mean to disparage this idea … but there is no doubt that this is not what our ancestors meant..[by]..the words tikkun olam.”
Rabbi Jeremy Schwartz in ‘Reconstructing Judaism’ gives the phrase a more prosaic definition, unrelated to social justice. He writes the phrase “tikkun olam” originated among the early rabbis and was “applied to rules that were meant to avoid social confusion, especially with regard to various forms of personal status” most often used for divorce or the treatment of slaves.
Chabad, an organization dedicated to the “welfare of the Jewish people worldwide” goes with a more artistic interpretation, stating: “Each act of tikkun olam is a fine-tuning of our world’s voices. With each tikkun, we are creating meaning out of confusion, harmony from noise, revealing the unique part each creation plays in a universal symphony that sings of its Creator."
It seems the more observant branches of Judaism apply the term tikkun olam to Jews rather than to all.
Last Christmas, Lerner addressed an article to “Christian Friends, Partners and Allies” complaining of the commercialization of Christmas and delivering a sermon on the true meaning of Christmas. Lerner claimed that Jesus, taken from Old Testament Isaiah, intended to ‘liberate the world’ and that Christmas ought to be spent in contemplation of how to accomplish such liberation today. But, of course, to Christians, the true meaning of Christmas is religious. Christmas marks the birth of the son of God. I had thought this well known by anyone with even the vaguest knowledge of Christianity and this was the primary point of my letter to Lerner.
I also noted, citing the Wall Street Journal, that the sins Lerner sees in the gross commercialization of Christmas stem in part from Hollywood movies largely created by Jewish immigrants.
As you will see, my e mail inspired a vicious reply in which Lerner blames “The blood of millions of women (called witches), "pagans," Jews, Muslims, Central and South American native populations and many more are on the hands of the Catholic Church, and later, various forms of Protestantism.” Throughout this time Lerner holds Jews blameless, claiming “Jews have had little power in the 1700 years between the time Christians became the dominant power in the West.” This claim is belied by the presence of the newly minted Jewish state and by the many powerful Jews, at least in the United States, in the 20th and 21st centuries.
I am not disputing that many Christians, whether under the guise of religion or not, have committed many crimes, but this has nothing at all to do with my letter or Lerner’s original article.
Lerner contends “that there has always been a struggle in Judaism between the voices of love and generosity and the voices of domination and "power over," and this same struggle exists in every religion and every non-religion from psychoanalysis to Marxism to contemporary feminism.” I find this claim neither relevant nor accurate but it is interesting. Is contemporary feminism a religion or a desire for equal pay and is Lerner even familiar, as he seems to claim, with every religion? Is Lerner attempting to describe something deeper than the old ‘good v. evil’ thing?
The remainder of his reply is mundane enough, but I wonder what part of tikkun olam explains his thinly disguised hatred of Christianity. I am left thinking- Don’t lecture on the true meaning of Christianity and - liberating the world might be well and good, although I for one, would not like to live in a world imagined by Lerner.
Taking Christmas Back from the Capitalist Marketplace
By Rabbi Michael Lerner
note: I have excerpted Lerner’s article here, follow link for full text
Many years ago one of Tikkun’s allies and authors asked me to ask fellow Jews to NOT celebrate Christmas. His reasoning…: “Christmas is a Christian holiday. But increasingly in our society the Christian message is buried and it becomes a holiday of family gift-giving, which was never what Christmas was supposed to be. When Jews celebrate Christmas they accentuate this dynamic, since they are not celebrating the religious holiday but instead insisting that it is not religious, but a national holiday of family togetherness and appreciations expressed through buying.”
Note: the original request to Lerner was about Jews celebrating Christmas, but Lerner uses this to launch into a critique of Christians.
Another way of putting it: the way Christmas is celebrated in much of the Western world, Christians are affirming the victory of the materialist ethos of capitalism over the deeper spiritual message that Christmas proclaimed: “in the darkness of darkest time of the year, we affirm that goodness and light will shine through, defeating all the forces of evil in the world.’
Note: I am not sure who he is quoting here, but his quote resembles words scribed by Walt Whitman, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Madeleine L’Engle, all of whom are worthy of quotation but hardly relevant. It is, of course, deceptive to quote without attribution, the context implies Lerner is quoting from the New Testament but I was unable to find these words.
[It] was meant to be a political as well as a spiritual message (in Judaism, there is no such separation, nor was there for our great Jewish prophet Jesus). Long after Jesus’ death … Christians put together four “Gospels” proclaiming the “good news” that the messiah has come. But what is this messiah that the early Christians sought to find in Jesus by connecting his birth to the prophecies of Isaiah… that a child would be born to us who would bring a world of peace and justice, and the people of Israel would be redeemed from the oppression under which it lived because of being conquered by various imperial forces…
Lerner calls Jesus the ‘great Jewish prophet’ a questionable claim since Jesus attempted to change Judaism, and contrary to Lerner’s declaration on Jesus’ teachings, Jesus instructed his followers to “render unto Caesar” as a way to separate the political from the spiritual.
Like Chanukah, which also had that message that the weak could triumph over the power of the strong, that “the empire” (really every empire) could be defeated, because the power of the people was greater than the power of the oppressor, so too Christmas became a message of hope and affirmation that transformation was possible. God is with us not for the purpose of becoming a new force of domination, but as the power to resist…
the real task of saving Christmas from the capitalist marketplace has to fall on believing Christians. You need to use this Christmas…, to raise these issues… and resolve not to buy gifts for Christmas... talk about what kind of liberation you imagine Jesus or the messiah would want for the world right now, and what you are going to be doing starting in the New Year to make that happen…, next Christmas you could be bringing back the spiritual depth of Christmas and illuminating an important Christian message for the world.
And for my fellow Jews, all this goes for Chanukah too—lets stop trying to “compensate through buying” for the feeling our children have of being left out of Christmas. There are so many other rich gifts our Judaism can offer. Lets find ways to affirm the Jewish message of hope and see ourselves as allies and partners with Christian in tikkun olam, the healing and repair of our world.
My e mail:
Dear Rabbi Learner,
I am writing in reply to your letter to your Christian friends, etc. I fully appreciate that at Christmas time, if you are not a Christian, you might well find Christmas confusing. In your letter you note that the gospels were written after Christ’s death and proceed to explain Christianity as follows: “But what is this messiah that the early Christians sought to find in Jesus …. The little helpless baby Jesus became the symbol of a new beginning for the world, a time that would come with peace and kindness. Emanuel, a word Christians took from the prophets, means “God is with us.” So even if momentarily things look bleak, this too can and will change.”
But for Christians, Christ is not a symbol, he is the son of God, whom God sacrificed so that believers could gain eternal life. God saw that mere obedience to His laws did not cleanse us of sin, we had missed the spirit of the laws that is: love your God with all your might and love and treat your neighbor as you would want to be treated. God loves us, and allows us to enter heaven through belief in the sacrifice of his son. Belief in Christ’s divinity is at the heart of almost every Christian celebration.
Christmas Day may or may not have been Jesus’s birthday, it is the day we celebrate his birth. Children and loved ones are given presents and extra attention, both because we love them and because we want them to relate the joy of Christmas to the joy we feel in Christ. Easter and not Christmas is generally considered the most important Christian holiday and it marks an event that is totally incompatible with your ‘explanation’ of Christianity. Easter celebrates the resurrection of Christ, not a ‘triumph of marketing' or whatever, it is a celebration of the miracle at the heart of faith.
I have little doubt that you have observed the failings to be found in Christmas celebrations. Perhaps, as you complain, Christmas has become a victim of the “capitalist marketplace,’ for Christians that means that we must use Christmas to get closer to our faith. You accuse Christians of “affirming the victory of the material ethos of capitalism over the deeper spiritual message [of] Christmas.” May I suggest that one source of that ‘victory’ as noted in the Wall Street Journal were the Jewish immigrants who made movies in Hollywood that marketed the vision of Christmas as a holiday merely for gift-giving among perfect families. Instead of complaining about our holiday and explaining it to us, may I suggest, that you note your own flock’s tendency to a celebration of ‘marketing over values.”
Apparently I hit a nerve.
The blood of millions of women (called witches), "pagans," Jews, Muslims, Central and South American native populations and many more are on the hands of the Catholic Church, and later, various forms of Protestantism. I join many Christians in recognizing this sad history which most churches fail to teach their own parishioners. Jews have had little power in the 1700 years between the time Christians became the dominant power in the West, but now, like many Christians, they have sought to accommodate to the values of the capitalist marketplace. I'm hardly the person to be told to challenge that accommodation in the Jewish world, since Tikkun is the loudest anti-capitalist voice in the Jewish world, as well as one of the many voices critiquing Israel's policies toward Palestinians. And if you read my book Jewish Renewal, you will see that I contend that there has always been a struggle in Judaism between the voices of love and generosity and the voices of domination and "power over," and this same struggle exists in every religion and every non-religion from psychoanalysis to Marxism to contemporary feminism. I write to rally the voices in all of these and many other traditions that seek to publicly critique the dominators and support the love-oriented forces, and that was my intent in arguing that those love-oriented Christians should try to separate Christmas from the dynamics of the capitalist marketplace.
Rabbi Michael Lerner