Social Justice (Tzedek Hevrati) in Tanakh
Emergence of Tikkun Olam
עַל כֵּן נְקַוֶּה לְּךָ יְיָ אֱלֹהֵֽינוּ לִרְאוֹת מְהֵרָה בְּתִפְאֶֽרֶ
עֻזֶּֽךָ לְהַעֲבִיר גִּלּוּלִים מִן הָאָֽרֶץ וְהָאֱלִילִים כָּרוֹת יִכָּרֵתוּן לְתַקֵּן עוֹלָם בְּמַלְכוּת שַׁדַּי: וְכָל בְּנֵי בָשָׂר יִקְרְאוּ בִשְׁמֶֽךָ לְהַפְנוֹת אֵלֶֽיךָ כָּל רִשְׁעֵי אָֽרֶץ: יַכִּֽירוּ וְיֵדְעוּ כָּל יוֹשְׁבֵי תֵבֵל כִּי לְךָ תִּכְרַע כָּל בֶּֽרֶךְ תִּשָּׁבַע כָּל לָשׁוֹן: לְפָנֶֽיךָ יְיָ אֱלֹהֵֽינוּ יִכְרְעוּ וְיִפּֽוֹלוּ וְלִכְבוֹד שִׁמְךָ יְקָר יִתֵּֽנוּ: וִיקַבְּלוּ כֻלָּם
Therefore we put our hope in You, Hashem our G-d, that we may soon see Your mighty splendor, removing detestable idolatry from the earth, and false gods will be utterly cut off, when the world will be perfected (l’takein olam) through the Almighty's sovereignty. Then all humanity will call upon Your Name, to turn all the earth's wicked toward you. All the world's inhabitants will recognize and know that to You every knee should bend, every tongue should swear.
-Aleinu (Second Paragraph)
In all of these Mishnaic cases, we might translate mipnei tikkun ha'olam as "for the sake of the preservation of the system as a whole." Within the Mishnah, this phrase is invoked in response to situations in which a particular legal detail threatens to cause the breakdown of an entire system. Divorces of uncertain status may lead to adulterous marriages or... celibacy......Paying too much for religious objects or for the redemption of captives will result in an overall increase in prices and perhaps a higher incidence of kidnapping. Ignoring the... challenges of debt forgiveness may lead to a wholesale disregard for the institution of shmittah. By invoking the concept of tikkun haolam, the Rabbis repair the flaw that endangers the stability of the system as a whole, and in doing so, they improve the system.
- R. Jill Jacobs, There Shall be No Needy (p. 35-36), 2009
For many modern Jews, the term tikkun olam (repairing the world) has become a code-phrase synonymous with social and environmental action... this idea is rooted in the last great myth infused into Jewish tradition... in the sixteenth century by... Rabbi Isaac Luria of Safed, known as the Ari (1534-1572)... [called] “The Shattering of the Vessels” (shevirat ha-kelim).
At the beginning of time, God’s presence filled the universe. When God decided to bring this world into being, to make room for creation, He first drew in His breath, contracting Himself. From that contraction darkness was created. And when God said, “Let there be light” (Gen. 1:3), the light that came into being filled the darkness, and ten holy vessels came forth, each filled with primordial light.
In this way God sent forth those ten vessels, like a fleet of ships, each carrying its cargo of light. Had they all arrived intact, the world would have been perfect. But the vessels were too fragile to contain such a powerful, divine light. They broke open, split asunder, and all the holy sparks were scattered like sand, like seeds, like stars. Those sparks fell everywhere, but more fell on the Holy Land than anywhere else.
That is why we were created — to gather the sparks, no matter where they are hidden. God created the world so that the descendents of Jacob could raise up the holy sparks. That is why there have been so many exiles — to release the holy sparks from the servitude of captivity. In this way the Jewish people will sift all the holy sparks from the four corners of the earth.
And when enough holy sparks have been gathered, the broken vessels will be restored, and tikkun olam,the repair of the world, awaited so long, will finally be complete. Therefore it should be the aim of everyone to raise these sparks from wherever they are imprisoned and to elevate them to holiness by the power of their soul.
...The Ari explained that whenever the Torah was studied or one of the commandments of the law fulfilled, some of the holy sparks were raised up... Now, for the first time, the Ari proposed that there was a purpose to the mitzvot, the commandments, beyond serving God’s will. Studying the Torah, observing the law, healing the ills of the world, or performing good deeds all made it possible to gather the sparks, and thus fulfill the great mitzvah of tikkun olam.
- Prof. Howard Schwartz, "How the Ari Created a Myth and Transformed Judaism", Tikkun Magazine, 2011 http://www.tikkun.org/nextgen/how-the-ari-created-a-myth-and-transformed-judaism
…[Tikkun Olam also appeared in Orthodox rhetoric: in the 1930s two books, each titled Tikkun Olam, were published in Europe, respectively supporting and attacking the religious anti-Zionist Agudath Israel party.]
...[Two American rabbinic thinkers to invoke and popularize Tikkun Olam in the 1960s were Harold Schulweis and Irving Greenberg, who saw tikkun olam as a response to God's absence during the Holocaust and to a world] “created imperfect and incomplete.” Humanity was tasked with being “an ally of God in perfecting and repairing the incomplete world (tikkun olam).” In North America, tikkun olam... made its debut around 1940... Jewish educator Alexander Dushkin invoked tikkun olam during World War II. Dushkin... insisted that the “inalienable rights” of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” had their analogy in the Torah’s description of God’s attributes... He added that while democracy “based its social relationships on the dignity of the individual” and envisioned an engaged citizenry pursuing the common good through “social service,” Jewish tradition was based upon “the conception of Man as both the child of God and the partner of the Almighty in tikkun ha-olam—the continuous task of reconstructing the world.” [In 1945,] Dushkin, the executive director of the Jewish Education Committee of New York, included [tikkun olam] among seven “Common Elements” that should be taught in Jewish schools of all denominations.
… [In early twentieth-century Palestine, the term] was adopted... to describe the most utopian manifestations of the Zionist project. To be a metaken olam, a perfecter of the world, was to embrace radical change. For example, during the Second Aliyah (1904–1914), tikkun ha-olam was used to articulate the motivations of the members of the earliest cooperative settlements. Later, it became an important [concept in the thought of] Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook… Kook declined to see a binary opposition between the material and the spiritual worlds or between Israel and the other nations, teaching that there was holiness in all of creation. Furthermore, he regarded penitence as a means to tikkun, and a reunification with God
... By the 1970s and 1980s leading agencies were responding to criticism by intensifying their efforts to transmit Jewish values, particularly by increasing support for educational and cultural endeavors. They were also articulating their social welfare and social justice agenda using terms of Jewish values… In teaching “an entire generation of federation activists to think and visualize themselves in more Judaic terms,” Greenberg helped introduce and popularize a “vocabulary” of Jewish value-concepts...Thus, by the 1980s and 90s Hebrew terms such as tzedakah and tikkun olam began to appear in federation slogans, resolutions and promotional materials.
… Shlomo Bardin... founder of the Brandeis Camp Institute [also] played an important role in reintroducing tikkun olam. [One Jewish leader recalled that during summer 1960, Bardin taught] campers that “the purpose of Judaism” could be found in four words of the second paragraph of the Aleinu prayer: l’takeyn olam b’malkhut Shaddai. Bardin insisted that it was their “task” as Jews to “fix the world.”
... Tikkun olam remained a fairly obscure term throughout the early 1960s... In 1970, determined to place greater emphasis on tzedakah and social justice, USY [the Conservative Youth movement] leaders revamped and expanded its Building Spiritual Bridges program and renamed it Tikun Olam. All of its social action and tzedakah programs were coordinated through this project, and, in 1975, an accompanying educational guide was published with the same title.
… In the 1980s, tikkun olam also began to appear in the curricula of the Reform movement. As in the Conservative movement, the discussion of tikkun olam often occurred within the context of values and character education or was linked to social action and social justice programming… An article in The Jewish Catalog, however, was most important in spreading the idea of tikkun olam throughout North America. [Historians argue that one ... major achievements of the Catalog was popularizing the] language of the havurah movement, including words like tzedakah, kavanah (intentionality) and tikkun olam.
...In 1975,... [newly-ordained Rabbi Gerald] Serotta became interested in the derivation and meaning of [tikkun olam]. Eager to find a term that could express what he believed were the core Jewish values that infused social justice activism, Serotta approached one of his teachers, Eugene Borowitz, about tracing the application of tikkun olam in rabbinic literature. He was surprised to learn that the majority of cases where tikkun olam was mentioned were associated with divorce law. This led Borowitz to suggest that he would find another rabbinic idiom, “mipnei darkhei shalom,” for the sake of social peace, more useful for his purposes. Serotta, however, was intrigued by the Talmudic passages in which tikkun olam was associated with economic justice…Tikkun olam remained an important motif for [politically liberal Jewish organizations] throughout the 1980s…
The most important figures [shaping Jewish politics around tikkun olam in the 1990s] were Leonard Fein and Michael Lerner…Fein strongly maintained that far from endangering Jewish survival by making Judaism indistinguishable from liberalism or secular humanism, tikkun olam gave purpose and meaning to Jewish survival… Michael Lerner... co-founded TIKKUN, a political and cultural journal... to help keep “the Prophetic tradition alive.”… Lerner was instrumental in stimulating a wider communal conversation about social justice in Jewish life... Liberal rabbis and other Jewish thinkers increasingly sought the paradigm of tikkun when discussing challenges that were either universal or particular to the Jewish community. The rhetoric of repair was especially well suited to the [time], as people became increasingly focused on personal meaning and spiritual seeking.
...Tikkun olam promises much and demands comparatively little in the way of sacrifice. This is its greatest strength and, perhaps, its major weakness.
- Dr. Jonathan Krasner, "The Place of Tikkun Olam in American Jewish Life", Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, 2014. http://jcpa.org/article/place-tikkun-olam-american-jewish-life1/
When G-d first summons Abraham and Sarah to set out on the journey that becomes Jewish history, [he makes them three promises: go to the land I will give you, and I will make you a nation, but]... what is the third promise?The third promise is v’nivrichu b’cha kol mispacha ha’adama (Gen 12:3) – through you all the families of the earth shall be blessed. Abraham, at the end of his life, having all that time living apart from his environment, nonetheless had a level of influence such that his neighbors turn to him and say – we recognize the Prince of G-d in our midst...
Or, [as said] in the aleinu prayer, it is the promise and the challenge l’takayn olam b’malchut Sha-dai – to perfect the world under the sovereignty of G-d. It is the last task of Jewish history, and it is the hardest task.
...The Torah is a book about us, yet it doesn’t begin with the Jewish people... [Instead, it starts as] a story about humanity as a whole. It tells a story of two orders of civilizations [Adam, and later, Noah] which began as covenants with all of mankind and how they failed... Both are explicitly founded on the concept of humanity as betzelem Elokim, ‘in the image of G-d.’ Both fail.
...The Almighty tried twice to teach humanity universal rules... They failed; because the most powerful way to teach is by particular example. If you want to instruct someone on how to be good, identify a role model and let him see how that person lives... That became the Jewish vocation; not to stand for some universal truth but to be a particular, specific living example of how to live...
...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 true to ourselves that we can be true to other people... 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.
... We have the chance today of shaping a society built on justice and compassion... If we do it the world will be a better place; if we do it, we will be better Jews.
- R. Jonathan Sacks, "Tikkun Olam: Orthodoxy's Responsibility to Perfect G-d's World", Orthodox Union West Coast Convention Speech, 1997 http://advocacy.ou.org/tikkun-olam-orthodoxys-responsibility-to-perfect-g-ds-world/
Once the halakhic system mandated a serious social responsibility, but the [authoritative] nature of Jewish law has given way to... aimless or haphazard performance of whatever the person of our time considers important to do. Accordingly, the Reform movement will suggest or even instruct its adherents what political measures to support, while hardly requiring any ritual obedience...
[On many] issues, we are told that solidarity with the easy left is our Jewish duty under God. But there is no coherent standard for changing Jewish law except the spirit of the times, an epoch that is hardly worthy of emulation...
We want Jews to line up with all the smug and self-confident liberals rather than stake out original and dangerous alternatives.... All this begins, I believe, with distorting tikkun olam. A teaching about compromise, sharpening, trimming and humanizing rabbinic law, a mystical doctrine about putting God's world back together again, this strange and half-understood notion becomes a huge umbrella under which our petty moral concerns and political panaceas can come in out of the rain....Our world does need repair. So do we. Our much-vaunted "spirituality" will be tested in our politics.
- R. Arnold Jacob Wolf, "Repairing Tikkun Olam," Judaism Journal, 2001.
It is... unbearable, to sit silently by while Jews, and now the general religious and secular communities, completely misuse and distort the term Tikkun Olam-- certainly not... out of any malice, but rather out of ignorance in the pursuit of virtuous goals and principles which may be applicable to general society and civilization but which have tragically become a poor substitute for authentic religious observance. This repair rhetoric has become an obsession, a catch-all credo. Everything today is Tikkun Olam... It is a senseless and meaningless misconception, its true meaning nothing like it is commonly used and purported to be.
It is not at all a centuries-old tradition, it is not a call to action, and it is not a commandment...Tikkun Olam does not even mean repairing the world in the sense of social justice. Nor in traditional sources is Tikkun Olam... even a direct human imperative or action, but rather one that is left in G-d’s hands.
We cannot, and are not instructed to, save the world, or even to repair it. Judaism teaches no such thing. Rather, we are instructed to conduct ourselves properly, to observe the Mitzvos... and in that way to contribute to society and civilization both by example and through practice and action.
For Jews those Mitzvos include not simply socially or politically correct precepts such as giving charity and engaging in political action, but also observance of the Sabbath, dietary restrictions (Kashrus), daily prayer, and other commandments... [some Jews] substitute the false panacea of... Tikkun Olam for the authenticity of true Judaism... to avoid their actual responsibilities as Jews to observe the Torah and the commandments.
... The only honest and authentic Jewish way to [engage in Tikkun Olam] is to encourage observance of the Torah across the entire spectrum of the Jewish Community. That in fact is actually what our responsibility is, nothing more and nothing less, and the rest is up to G-d...
- R. Yitzhak Aharon Korff, (Zvhil-Mezbuz Rebbe of Boston) "The fallacy, delusion and myth of Tikkun Olam,"Jewish Advocate of Boston, 2013 http://www.jns.org/latest-articles/2013/6/3/the-fallacy-delusion-and-myth-of-tikkun-olam
The term “tikkun olam” has become the shibboleth of American Jewry, and like other Jewish words such as “chutzpah” it has entered English vocabulary without translation. American politicians [such as Obama and Romney]... readily invoke it...
In medieval Jewish philosophy, probably under the influence of Arabic language and philosophy, “tikkun” was often applied to human self-development, and to the quest for human “perfection,” self-actualization or moral/spiritual improvement...
[While] tikkun is a central concept in the history of Kabbalah, [for] the kabbalists, the subject of “olam” is primarily “olam ha-sefirot,” “olam ha-elyon,” the upper world... The focus of the kabbalistic view is not primarily the social sphere, the terrestrial realm, but the divine realm...
Although he was no stranger to social action or to the teachings of the biblical prophets, Abraham Joshua Heschel did not use the term “tikkun olam” to describe either of them... Heschel advocated the application of a particularly and authentically Jewish way of thinking both to Jewish and universal social, ethical and spiritual issues. Unlike contemporary views of tikkun olam that begin with universalism drawn from non-Jewish ideologies, Heschel advocated the application of particularly Jewish... ideas to universalistic issues.
- R. Byron Sherwin, "Tikkun Olam: A Case of Semantic Displacement", Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, 2014
Experimentation and Adjustment
There may be no other term that is simultaneously as beloved and as reviled in Jewish progressive circles as the phrase “tikkun olam.” For some people, this concept, generally translated as “repairing the world,” offers the motivation for involvement in social justice work; for others, the term has become so overused and so little understood as to be meaningless.
[While some have suggested a] hiatus on the term tikkun olam, ... [many] people – both inside and outside of the Jewish community – find the term tikkun olam extraordinarily compelling, even more so than other Hebrew terms such as tzedek or g’milut chasadim, which have not gained the same traction in the general discourse. The popularity of the term tikkun olam, and the general emphasis on its Lurianic, rather than rabbinic, roots may indicate a desire to place one’s own work in a larger context of influencing the greater world. In an individual’s search for the meaning of his or her own life, it may be more compelling to think of one’s every action as contributing to the repair of the cosmos, than to think of the same actions as simply accomplishing a small fix to a much larger problem.
Rather than reject the term altogether as meaningless, I suggest a re-imagining of tikkun olam that combines the four understandings of the term that we have seen in traditional text: 1) the Aleynu’s concept of tikkun as the destruction of any impurities that impede the full manifestation of the divine presence; 2) the literalist midrashic understanding of tikkun olam as the establishment of a sustainable world; 3) the rabbinic willingness to invoke tikkun ha’olam as a justification for changing untenable laws; and 4) the Lurianic belief that individual actions can affect the fate of the world as a whole.
- R. Jill Jacobs, "The History of 'Tikkun Olam'", Zeek Magazine, 2007. http://www.zeek.net/706tohu/
[These are] seven Jewish values... at the core of Jewish teachings about social justice:
- Chesed: Lovingkindness... The rabbinic view [is] that, just as God extends compassion to all humanity, so, too, must Jews practice chesed in every human interaction.
- Kavod Habriot: Dignity of All Creatures... Jews must carry themselves in a dignified way and society must never... deny a person's dignity... [Berachot 19b] teaches that any rabbinic ordinance may be set aside... for preserving kavod habriot... It is intended to guide the behavior of Jews not only with other human beings, but also with animals and the natural world.
- Bakesh Shalom: Seek Peace... For thousands of years... the pursuit of peace has been one of Judaism's core principles.
- Lo Ta'amod: You Shall Not Stand Idly By... Jews bear the responsibility to protect other people's right to live free of aggression and injustice.
- Darchei Shalom: The Ways of Peace... Jews try to avoid shameful behavior and the trouble that might result... On another level... it can be read as a sincere desire to create harmonious relations with other... groups.
- Ahavat Ger: Loving the Stranger... No commandment is repeated as often in the Torah as that of protecting the stranger... It is easy to act with sympathy to the outsider when [you are one, too]... It it much harder when you begin to have a taste of privilege.
- Emet: Truth... Emet mandates an attitude of moral honesty and spiritual integrity. Truth... is not merely what is false. It is what we know on the deepest level to be ethically correct.
- R. Sidney Schwarz, Judaism and Justice: The Jewish Passion to Repair the World, 2006.
Is Tikkun Olam effective as a Jewish connection-- or motivator?
[When 13,000 "highly-engaged" Jews were] asked if working to make the world a better place—a translation of the Jewish imperative of tikkun olam—is a Jewish value, the response was overwhelmingly positive... [However,] when highly affiliated Jews are asked if the civic engagement they clearly value deeply is one way for them to live out their Jewish lives, the response is tepid...
[When studying the reasons] participants give for [volunteering], we cannot but note that personal choice and existential meaning... overwhelms any other rationale. Even those most affiliated with the Jewish community eschew the two obligation categories: that doing good in the world is compelled as a way to live out one’s Jewish life, and that working to make the world a better place is a religious obligation for Jews... it has been more than a generation that Jewish educators, rabbis, and communal leaders have been teaching that tikkun olam, repairing a hemorrhaging world, is a core Jewish way to engage the world. Yet volunteering as one way to live out a Jewish life is not a particularly significant motivator for this group, being cited as a very important reason by just over one third of the respondents in each group.
- "Generations and Regeneration: Engagement and Fidelity in 21st Century American Jewish Life", Survey from B3 - The Jewish Boomer Platform, 2013 http://www.jewishdatabank.org/Studies/details.cfm?StudyID=757
Back to Tzedek Hevrati
In the summer of 2011 Israeli young people began a protest movement for greater social justice and the renewal of a social welfare state (with quality public education, improved medical care and affordable housing), and controlled prices on basic foods like cottage cheese. In seven weeks the demonstrations – without any political parties or parliamentarians involved – grew to about 450,000 on Sept 3, 2011. This number represented 10% of Israeli voters, mainly below 35 – 40, led by twenties-something students, who gained them 85% approval ratings in opinion polls. They refused to limit their protest to one sector or to make it a political campaign to change the coalition in power. Rather, they demanded that civil society become active and that the government respond by changing its priorities, in order to give greater social justice rather than greater capitalist development. In short, the movement was an example of making a dream of tikkun olam central, though that term was not in their vocabulary. Their watch word was “social justice (tzedek hevrati), not charity (tzedakah)”...
[Protest leader and future Knesset member] Daphne Leef's speech... touches on the dream and the hope at the root of tikkun olam as well as of the original Herzilian project:
“We’ve created a new discourse here. This is the new discourse: We’ve replaced the word pity with the word compassion. We’ve replaced the word charity (tzedakah) with the word justice (tzedek). We’ve replaced the word donation with the word welfare. We’ve replaced the word consumer with the word citizen. We’ve replaced the verb ‘to wait’ with the verb ‘to change’. We’ve replaced the word alone with the word together. This is the greatest thing that we’ve done this summer. I don’t know about you, friends, but it’s already irreversible. We’ll not agree to go backwards! We are striding forwards, to a better future, to a more just country. Social Justice (tzedek hevrati)!"
- R. Noam Zion, "Tikkun Olam: A New Terminology for Social and Economic Reform and its Biblical, Rabbinic and Mystical Roots", from Jewish Giving in Comparative Perspectives: History and Story, Law and Theology, Anthropology and Psychology, 2013. http://www.bjpa.org/publications/details.cfm?PublicationID=16002
• Is there anything about the usage, critique, or history of Tikkun Olam that intrigues/surprises you?
• How distinctively Jewish must a cause or activity be to be considered "Tikkun Olam?" Do you see specific advantages or disadvantages for either the particular or universal models?
• What are your thoughts about the claim that the term "Tikkun Olam" is over- or misused?
• Should Diaspora communities (particularly in North America) keep emphasizing Tikkun Olam as a major pillar of Jewish values? Should specific efforts be made to further develop this idea in Israel?
• The survey suggests many highly-affiliated Jews believe in volunteerism and social justice, but do not see them as specifically Jewish values or as central to Jewish identity. Should this be concerning?