Tikkun Olam: A Defense and a Critique

Lately there seems to be a concerted attack on the idea of Tikkun Olam. Critics say Tikkun Olam is not a Jewish idea, but merely liberal politics masquerading as Jewish values.

Cross-posted at eJewish Philanthropy

Few Hebrew idioms are so well known in the American Jewish community as “Tikkun Olam”, “repair of the world.” The term is understood in modern America as the idea that Jews are called upon to make the world more just, peaceful,  tolerant, and equal, through acts of charity, kindness, and  political action. Tikkun Olam connects with a basic, timeless idea in Jewish theology: that human beings are responsible for completing God’s creation and improving the world. It also draws abundantly from Torah and prophetic visions of justice and peace that stress the human capacity of bringing them to fruition.

American Jews have widely adopted Tikkun Olam as a central tenet of their identities. Around 70% of Jews in America believe that “working for justice and equality” is a key part of what being Jewish is all about. They often equate it with “holding liberal values” broadly understood, and consider these values a key component of the American Jewish experience. They note, rightly, that there’s a big overlap between those liberal values and traditional Jewish ones.

However, lately there seems to be a concerted attack on the idea of Tikkun Olam. It’s not yet an all-out frontal assault, but it seems that right-wing pundits — Jewish and non-Jewish alike — are picking a fight with the idea. The most strident critics — and the most politically motivated — say that Tikkun Olam is not a Jewish idea at all, but merely liberal politics masquerading as Jewish values. In a slightly conspiratorial tone, they surmise that lefties hijack the communal agenda and make it subservient to progressive goals. For them, the “Tikkun Olam movement” makes a marginal idea of Judaism into its core value. Jews, they imply, have responsibility for themselves, not for the world. “True” Judaism is deeply conservative instead of liberal, and Jews should abandon their cosmopolitanism to go back to our tribalist roots. These critics accuse the left of taking an obscure mystical term, changing its meaning, and crowning it as the ruling principle of Jewish experience.

One can say a lot about our infatuation with Tikkun Olam, and I will. But let’s start with what the critics get wrong, which is most of it.

First, the phrase “Tikkun Olam” is at least as old as Rabbinic Judaism itself. It appears already in the Mishnah, where it refers to social policy legislation providing extra protection to those potentially at a disadvantage. The “Aleinu”, one of the oldest Jewish prayers, contains the phrase “repair the world” (letaken olam). Critics love to grouse that liberal Jews “forget” the context—Aleinu envisions that God (not us) will “repair the world in the Kingship of God”—but the more important point is that “Tikkun Olam” wasn’t some phrase invented in the 1970s by Rabbi Michael Lerner and other hippie Jews.

Nor are the concepts of Jewish social justice and universal morality, to which Tikkun Olam has come to refer. Virtually all the prophets talk tirelessly about the need to create a just and ethical society, many of their words sound pretty much like a 21st century Tikkun Olam manifesto. Needless to say, they draw from the Torah, which speaks endlessly about loving the stranger and the poor. The idea that Jews have a universal mission also appears insistently from the Torah onwards. When God blesses our patriarch Abraham, God states that “through you, all the Nations of the Earth will be blessed”. The prophets often focus on Israel, their purview also extends to all Peoples. This includes the prophet Jonah, whose story we read on Yom Kippur and whose mission was exclusively directed at the gentile city (an enemy city, in fact) of Nineveh.

 It would take gallons of ink to list all the traditional sources that encourage us to embark on what we call today Tikkun Olam. Considering how many of these sources are traditionally understood to be directly and authoritatively quoting God, whoever has an issue with Tikkun Olam needs to take it up with the Boss Himself. So no, it’s not a marginal idea that evil liberals brought to the forefront of the Jewish agenda; it’s been central to Judaism for millennia. And it’s not a perversion of a Kabbalistic term; if anything, the way in which we understand Tikkun Olam today is more faithful to the original mishnaic meaning of the term (pragmatic legislation to protect the vulnerable and preserve the integrity of society) than to the mystical interpretation of Lurianic Kabbalah, in which the world has lost its original harmony after the “breaking of the vessels”, and fulfilling mitzvot (whether ethical or purely ritual) can “repair the world” from its spiritual wounds.

Second: it is true that Tikkun Olam is not all that Judaism is. Critics have a point there (more about that later). It is true that in emphasizing this idea, we may risk forgetting other, equally important ones. But we need to remember that Judaism has a history of emphasizing timely aspects of our tradition, even to the detriment of others. The Pharisees emphasized the Oral Tradition over literal interpretations of the Torah; the Mussar movement emphasized moral virtue; the rationalists emphasized the philosophical elements in Judaism; kabbalists, the mystical; Chasidim the emotional over the intellectual and misnagdim, learning and sternness over fervor. By stressing one particular aspect of Judaism (probably to the detriment of others), Tikkun Olam advocates are keeping in line with millennia of precedent. Critics will say that the emphasis is not really genuine but driven by external values. Nothing new there either; the Kabbalists were responding not only to internal Jewish dynamics but to the growth of mysticism in their time; the rationalists were influenced by the revival of Greek philosophy in the 12th century, and the Chasidim were responding partially to ecstatic movements in the Russian Orthodox Church. Nothing of this makes these movements illegitimate or “un-Jewish”; rather, the opposite. Jews have always combined the zeitgeist with the volkgeist (the spirit of the times with the spirit of the people). 

There is however, a much more nuanced — and accurate — critique that can be leveled at the Tikkun Olam movement. 

There is, indeed, a difference between emphasizing certain aspects of Judaism over others andoutright reductionism. Tikkun Olam is an important aspect of Judaism, but it’s not Judaism. And any attempt to reduce Judaism to one of its components is problematic, and ultimately self-defeating. Here, too, historical precedent can provide wisdom: Kabbalah highlighted the mystical elements of Judaism, but it didn’t abolish mitzvot. Chasidism put fervor ahead of learning, but it didn’t advocate ignorance. Today, those of us who believe in the importance of Tikkun Olam need to present it within the richness and complexity of Jewish tradition.

This also necessitates the courage to confront aspects of Judaism that are, to modern eyes, problematic. It’s easy to just cherry-pick those sources that sound good to 21st century ears, but it’s not fully honest. The Bible wasn’t very kind to, say, LGBT people. It didn’t particularly relate humanely to the Amalekites, and examples of misogyny abound. As liberals can point to biblical sources to beef up their case, so can conservatives. After all, aren’t “family values” Jewish values? Isn’t respect for tradition a Jewish obsession? Don’t biblical prophets rage against tolerance of some other religions (idolatry) just as they rage against oppressing the poor?

To be fair, there’s reductionism all around us. There are groups today that try to equate Jewish values with conservative values, and, needless to say, the tribal nationalists among us point to Jewish sources to justify their disdain for others or even domination of them. This is as reductionist (maybe more so) as Tikkun Olam, but this shouldn’t be an excuse.

So Tikkun Olam — as we use the term today — is a genuine Jewish idea and not some modern liberal graft. But it’s important to reflect on what makes Tikkun Olam Jewish, in the sense of being different from secular social justice activism. Charity is probably a universal value, but Tzedakah adds uniquely Jewish notions to it, like the Maimonidean hierarchy of how to give; rest from work is a universal thing, but Sunday doesn’t have Shabbat’s unique restrictions and rituals that keep observant communities physically close together and undistracted. There’s a difference between giving charity and doing Tzedakah; there’s a difference between not working and celebrating Shabbat. What is the difference between social activitism and Tikkun Olam? This is an important question for Tikkun Olam advocates to answer—not to appease critics, but to make sure that they are making a uniquely Jewish contribution.

Both conservatives and liberals need to look at Jewish sources with intellectual honesty. Jewish values are not conservative or liberal; they are, well, Jewish. They have evolved over millennia and are saddled with contradictions and intrinsic tensions. In fact, much of Judaism is the search for a balance between conflicting, equally important values. We all need to resist the temptation of reducing Judaism to our favorite political or social ideas. Precisely the richness of Judaism is that it offers “a house of many rooms” where people of different persuasions can find inspiration and wisdom. It’s true that over centuries, there’s been such a thing as a mainstream, and certain values have been consistently more prominent than others. But confronting the parts of Judaism that don’t sit well with our political and social ideas is part of having an adult relationship with our tradition. We are Israel, “the one who wrestles with God” and part of our amazing creativity as a people comes from our permanent wrestling with our sources, not ignoring but struggling with the bits that challenge us.

None of us can, let alone should, stop bringing our ideologies to bear in our Judaism. No human tradition exists in any “pure,” Platonic form outside its community’s lives. Neither, on the other hand, can we just read whatever values and conclusions we want into our sources, which do have meaningful content. In between those extremes lives the vibrant community in which most of us already live, a community in which our sources both comfort and challenge Jews of many different beliefs. No matter what the Tikkun Olam haters or the Tikkun Olam reductionists may say, that complex tension is the best of the Jewish tradition.

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