Bold Sermon Denouncing “Tikkun Olam” Gets People Talking — And Thinking

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Rabbi Aaron Starr
Rabbi Aaron Starr

I am extremely humbled and honored there has been so much conversation surrounding my Rosh Hashanah sermon, “Time To Say Kaddish for Tikkun Olam.” I delivered it to my spiritual home, Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield, on Monday, the first day of Rosh Hashanah. I then posted it to my Times of Israel blog on Wednesday and shared that post on Facebook as well.

Since then, the article has gone viral. In addition to the lengthy discussions on Facebook, the Times of Israel blog was read and commented on so frequently that it quickly became one of the website’s “Top Ops.” I have received emails from Conservative, Reform and Orthodox Jews from all over the world. I even had one local rabbinic colleague jokingly lament that this past Shabbat they were talking more about my Rosh Hashanah sermon than his!

While certainly my first goal with a High Holiday sermon is to encourage teshuvah, repentance, another overarching goal for which I strive is to create community conversation. In this way, not only can we each as individuals better ourselves, but, as a synagogue family and as a Metro Detroit Jewish community, we can strengthen our commitment to Judaism and to our fellow Jews.

There was no single genesis point of the sermon. The Pew Study is regularly on my mind, indicating a national decline in synagogue affiliation and in Jewish practice.

This past spring, a member of my shul asked me why so many people use the phrase “tikkun olam” instead of “fulfilling mitzvot.” In addition, my family is a grateful recipient of the PJ Library book program, but I regularly change the words of some of the children’s books we receive when they translate “mitzvahas “good deed.” The final element came together when I read the Forward’s article, “Don’t Like Black Lives Matter? Get Ready To Lose Young Jews Like Us.”

Putting all these pieces together, I decided the time had come to denounce tikkun olam, which for 40 years has been considered Judaism’s most important teaching for today, and to replace it with another Jewish concept that is deeper spiritually and stronger communally: ma-alin b’kodesh, to seek to elevate one’s self in matters of holiness.

I am incredibly blessed to be part of a congregation that allows me to speak boldly and honestly, and that wants to be challenged intellectually and spiritually.

In my first Yom Kippur as spiritual leader of Shaarey Zedek, I invited the congregation to journey together on a path of gratitude, obligation and joy. Last year at Rosh Hashanah, I encouraged us as a community to seek inspiration and transformation.

This year’s sermon is the next step in that journey: for us together to seek a deeper sense of holiness by pursuing ethical and ritual mitzvot — by recognizing that God’s sacred obligations require us to do more to care for our own people first but not exclusively, to stand up for the State of Israel, and to lead Jewish lives of tradition and purpose.

I don’t believe the Jewish people ought to stop performing acts of tikkun olam. I do believe, however, that such acts are only one part of Jewish living and that only a holistic approach to Jewish life can perpetuate Judaism into the future.

By Rabbi Aaron Starr, Special to the Jewish News

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