Tikkun Olam: Repairing the World

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The "repair," that is needed, therefore, is two-fold: the gathering of light and of souls, to be achieved by human beings through the contemplative performance of religious acts. The goal of such repair, which can only be effected by humans, is to separate what is holy from the created world, thus depriving the physical world of its very existence—and causing all things return to a world before disaster within the Godhead and before human sin, thus ending history.

While contemporary activists also use the term "tikkun olam" to refer to acts of repair by human beings, they do not necessarily believe in or have a familiarity with the term’s cosmological associations. Their emphasis is on acts of social responsibility, not the larger realm of sacred acts--and on fixing, not undoing, the world as we know it.

The phrase "tikkun olam" was first used to refer to social action work in the 1950s. In subsequent decades, many other organizations and thinkers have used the term to refer to social action programs; tzedakah (charitable giving) and gemilut hasadim (acts of kindness); and progressive Jewish approaches to social issues. It eventually became re-associated with kabbalah, and thus for some with deeper theological meaning.

caring for others quizThus, over time tikkun olam went from being part of the religious technology of medieval mystics to a standard part of the vocabulary of contemporary North American Jews. Its goal shifted from dissolving history to advancing it. But the phrase “tikkun olam” remains connected with human responsibility for fixing what is wrong with the world. It also appears to respond to a profound sense of deep rupture in the universe, which speaks as much to the post-Holocaust era as it did in the wake of the expulsion from Spain and other medieval Jewish disasters.

Contemporary usage of the phrase shares with the rabbinic concept of "mipnei tikkun ha-olam" a concern with public policy and societal change, and with the kabbalistic notion of "tikkun" the idea that the world is profoundly broken and can be fixed only by human activity.

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