‘Tikkun olam’: A return to our true mission

There is no concept in Judaism of “social justice,” but there is indeed one of “justice” (tzedek). The word does not merely indicate legal rights but also compassion and humanity, and is the root of the word for “charity” (tzedakah).

Lee Bender and Naphtali Perlberger

We live in a world that is increasingly chaotic and divisive. The polarization that has inundated our world pits conservatives against liberals; traditionalists against progressives; nationalists against globalists; and often less observant Jews against more observant Jews. These divergent groups of people are engaging in tribalism, which is spiraling into violent rhetoric and action. Many are yearning for a way to make sense of the world, bring it together, and fix it.

For nearly a generation, some Jewish leaders and congregations have turned to the concept of tikkun olam, often contorting the term into something far from its actual meaning and purpose.

Tikkun olam is a deep Kabbalistic concept, but it has become a Hebrew catch phrase generally translated as “repairing the world.” Today, it is used to encourage social activism, improving society and “social justice” as together these goals have become elevated into a prominent pillar of Judaism. In some corners, they seem to have become Judaism’s central purpose.

“Tikkun olam” has now become almost a cliché, co-opted by many leftists/secular Jews who seek to ground and justify their political positions and viewpoints (i.e., abortion rights; gun control; unlimited immigration; welfare; free college and health care for all; racial justice; that law enforcement is inherently unjust and racist; end mass incarceration, Israel is an aggressor, colonialist and racist because it proclaims national rights; etc.) with biblical/talmudic force and persuasion. It has morphed into its own religion, tikkun olamism. This is deeply troubling, and can have negative implications for support for Israel and the Jewish people.

Some examples: “Tikkun Olam, repair the world, is simple, powerful, to the point and professional sounding.” (Christine Lavin, folk singer-songwriter). “The Jewish concept of tikkun olam: The Jewish people have a responsibility to work for the healing of the world.” (Interfaith Youth Core and Interfaith Leadership Institute). “You call it ‘social justice warrior,’ I call it ‘sacred Jewish wisdom.’ It’s called ‘tikkun olam’ (repairing the world).” (someecards).

At Shir Hadash in Wheeling, Ill., its website notes that the congregation “recently launched its new Tikkun Olam initiative, designed to encourage families and our congregation as a whole to participate together in social action.” Projects include a soup kitchen and creating care packages for women and children at domestic-violence shelters.

At Adath Emanu-El in Mount Laurel, N.J., its website notes: “Whether it’s MLK Day/Mitzvah Day, a holiday Food Drive or volunteering at a homeless shelter … Tikkun Olam is a wonderful opportunity for parents to teach their children the meaning of tzedakah … for older children to fulfill their community service obligation … for all Adath Emanu-El members to get involved.”

These are all admirable projects to help their community and indeed the world, but they are not actually tikkun olam.

Not all tikkun olam projects are admirable, however. At the Tikkun Olam Chavurah in Philadelphia, its website announces that the group is “an HP Free Zone in support of the global Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) campaign targeting Hewlett Packard for their complicity in profiting from abuse of Palestinian human rights by Israel. This decision is based on our principle to uphold human rights and international law for Palestinians. Chavurah participants can support this campaign by boycotting HP products in their offices, homes, and other spaces.”

The problem with the contemporary usage of the phrase tikkun olam is that it has come to mean so many different things that we can hardly be sure it truly means anything at all.

As with many things “modern,” the roots go back to classical and biblical times. This is not surprising, as King Solomon said in Ecclesiastes/Koheles: “Nothing is new under the sun.” So, much of what we are seeing is the metastatic mutation of a term known as “tikkun ha-olam.” The term has its origins in classical rabbinic literature and in Jewish mysticism, primarily in the works of Rabbi Isaac Luria, known as the “Ari.” Tikkun ha-olam became the abbreviated use of a phrase found in the Mishnah, codified about 2,000 years ago, “mipnei-tikkun-haolam” (“for the sake of the preservation of the system as a whole”).

This concept was linked to the Lurianic account of Creation, which involved the concepts of tzimtzum (“contraction of Divine Light”) and kelim (“spiritual vessels”), and the impact on and shattering that spread shards throughout the world. These shards of “darkness” are the basis for the material world, and the confusion of Good and Evil in its midst.

Tikkun ha-Olam embodied the most distinctively Jewish, as well as the single most important, ethical injunction of the Kabbalah: The command that humanity must restore and redeem a broken and fallen world. According to these classical and rabbinic sources, the “repair” becomes the mission and mandate of Torah Jews to be a “Light Unto the Nations,” i.e., to illuminate Darkness and extinguish Evil through the performance of religious acts prescribed by the Creator, known as mitzvot.

In the post-talmudic period, the implications of tikkun ha-olam were applied to conditions for the writing of divorce decrees, freeing of slaves and extending the term of debts arising under contract, and as such was viewed as a form of social-policy legislation—limited in scope and relegated to the authority of the rabbinic sages who were universally accepted as posskim, i.e., recognized scholars having judicial authority and whose rulings were deemed binding upon that generation, and in many cases, all future generations. The emphasis here is that such rabbinic and authoritative rulings were extremely limited, both in scope and origin.

Tikkun ha-olam has a biblical source from one of the names of G-d, Shaddai, which was first revealed to our forefathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. This name then was linked to the notion of “repair” in our liturgy and found in a prayer known as the Aleinu.

In its concluding paragraph, which comes at the end of the daily prayers, worshippers express the hopes that the Almighty’s mighty splendor and the removal of detestable idolatry from the earth be enabled: “takkein olam b’malkhut Shaddai,” i.e. “to perfect the world beneath the sovereignty of Shaddai.”

This prayer may be traced as far back as the Second Temple in Jerusalem and the Men of the Great Assembly. It is in this prayer that the concept of tikkun olam finds expression (in the verbal formulation l’takkein olam), as a key element of the ultimate vision of Messianic fulfillment.

With the Age of Enlightenment, progressive and liberal ideas seeped into our religious institutions. From them arose, first in Germany, and then spreading out and reaching these shores, Reform Judaism and later Conservative Judaism. Other denominations or offshoots may be found in groups, such as the Reconstructionist, Liberal and Jewish Renewal movements. As each permutation, departing further and further away from what may be generically called, “Orthodox Judaism” (a term that the authors do not embrace), the definition and application of tikkun ha-olam lost its original meaning and mission. The term itself was revised into a vernacular term, “tikkun olam.

As Benjamin Blech wrote in his essay, “The Biblical Source for Tikkun Olam”:

Whereas the modern understanding of tikkun olam has to do with the idea of changing the world at large, the earlier medieval mystics had understood it as charging humankind with the primary mission of spiritually changing itself. The difference of emphasis may well hinge on an ancient philosophic question that remains to be resolved: is our quest for universal improvement better served by concentrating on the individual, or on humanity as a whole?

In short, tikkun ha’olam holds that the human spirit is in partnership with G-d to help finish the work of creation.

However, tikkun olam has morphed into something it was never meant to be, especially among ultra-liberal Jews, both affiliated and unaffiliated. Losing its religious and fundamentally linked association with the “holy,” proponents find in its calling the justification of global, social responsibility,  which are done in the name of fixing what is wrong with the world.

Sometimes infused with anti-Semitism and anti-Jewish propaganda, instead of it being a benevolent, inspiring and uniquely Jewish mission, it has actually become (ironically) one that pits whole majorities of the world against Jews.

Tikkun, a quarterly interfaith Jewish left-progressive magazine and website published in the United States, analyzes American and Israeli culture, politics, religion and history in the English language. While peppered with book, music and poetry reviews, the magazine has consistently published the works of Israeli and Palestinian-Arab left-wing intellectuals. Much of what is publicized in this social-action vehicle is anti-Israel and critical of the adherence to Torah principles. Sadly, like so much that is found in social media and the world press, the Jewish faith and Israel advocacy are disregarded and attacked.

There is no concept in Judaism of “social justice,” but there is indeed one of “justice” (tzedek). The word does not merely indicate legal rights, but also compassion and humanity, and is the root of the word for “charity” (tzedakah).

The Jewish state is the embodiment of tzedek and tzedakah, as it strives to be a “light onto the nations:” An open democracy that respects the rights of all its citizens, an innovator in high-technology, agriculture and medicine that shares with the world, and is a humanitarian first responder. However, to hold it to impossible standards to which no country can achieve is duplicitous.

Yet despite being surrounded by enemies who are sworn to its destruction including its so-called “peace partner” (the Palestinian Authority), Israel upholds the dearest of progressive values that include respecting women’s rights, minority rights, a robust free press, an independent judiciary, first-class education, health care and economic opportunities all of its citizens enjoy, including its Arab citizens (who have more rights than they have in any Arab country). This should be applauded and not vilified.

But Israel also clearly espouses its “national rights,” which goes against the leftist post-nation-state conception. And that, it seems, is Israel’s latest sin.

Leftism cannot distinguish between good and evil, and in fact rejects calling out authentic evil. It conflates the arsonist with the firefighter. To the left, it is all about moral triumphalism. The opposition is no longer merely wrong, they are morally suspect.

Feelings rule over facts, and “victims” are heroes, no matter what. Thus, they believe Israelis are aggressive and bad, and Palestinian Arabs are good, poor, defenseless and not responsible for their aggressive actions. That Hamas, which rules Gaza, is a genocidal entity whose own charter calls for the destruction of Israel and the Jewish people, is irrelevant and ignored. The same goes for the Palestinian Authority, which incites hatred of Jews and calls for violence.

Israel cannot be expected to engage in this type of tikkun olam with people sworn to its eradication. Israel indeed wants peace, but its rights and security come first. Apparently, this is painful for leftists to digest. It was internal dissension and baseless hatred by our own people that the rabbis say caused the destruction of the Second Temple and will prevent the coming of the Messiah.

We are fighting for nothing less than the soul of the Jewish people and community. There are certainly kernels and cherry-picked elements of these ideals in Jewish tradition, but it is being stretched to a whole new level that is now completely out of balance and consequently putting our community in dire straits. This strand of secular Judaism, tikkun olamism, is a new religion. It is vital that, in its name, we do not plunge deeper into darkness and destruction. In being caught up in the smokescreen of tikkun olam, we embolden our enemies and weaken our resolve.

It is time that the role of the Jewish people, in being the “Light unto the Nations” for which tikkun ha-olam was envisioned, be restored to our language, our mission and our unified efforts. If Jews truly want to engage in tikkun olam, the only faithful and trustworthy way to do that is to promote observance of the Torah across the entire spectrum of the Jewish community—not cherry-picking concepts to suit agendas. Only then may peace come speedily in our times.

Lee Bender is the co-author of the book, “Pressing Israel: Media Bias Exposed From A-Z;” author of dozens of published articles; co-founder of the website www.factsonisrael.com; and co-president of the Zionist Organization of America-Philadelphia Chapter.

Naphtali Perlberger, who serves as a vice president of ZOA-Philadelphia, is an author of several books and numerous articles, and a motivational and spiritual speaker.

Executive director of ZOA-Philadelphia Steve Feldman contributed to this article.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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