Tikkun Olam

In contemporary Jewish thought.

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In contemporary parlance, “tikkun olam” (repairing the world) has come to connote social action and social justice work. In this article, the author surveys the use of this concept in the work of a number of Jewish writers and organizations in the past several decades, and explores some implications of the term’s wide-ranging use and development from its place in Lurianic Kabbalah. (He does not connect it with the use in classical rabbinic texts of the term “tikkun ha-olam,” referring to social legislation not strictly required but enacted because it was good public policy.) The following is reprinted with the author's permission from "Tikkun: A Lurianic Motif in Contemporary Jewish Thought," in From Ancient Israel to Modern Judaism: Intellect in Quest of Understanding--Essays in Honor of Marvin Fox, Vol. 4, ed. Jacob Neusner et al. (Scholars Press).

Bypassing Mystics for Scholars—or Ignoring Both

A philosophical thinker far removed from mystical interests such as Emil Fackenheim, an historian of modern Judaism such as Ismar Schorsch, [and] a rabbi/story teller such as Lawrence Kushner, find themselves drawing upon [scholar of Jewish mysticism Gershom] Scholem's expositions and formulations of esoteric materials in order to present their own creative views on a variety of questions.

heal the worldWhile these authors--scholars and teachers of Judaica in their own right--have adopted and adapted Lurianic ideas directly from Scholem (and from other scholarly expositions of the kabbalistic tradition), others, have clearly appropriated the notion of tikkun without recourse to Lurianism or Scholem.

Thus, for example, [editor-in-chief] Michael Lerner's original editorial statement in Tikkun Magazine makes absolutely no mention of and betrays no interest in the kabbalistic tradition which is the source of his journal's name. [Contemporary liberal Jewish thinker] Leonard Fein can write of tikkun as if it were a central conception of Judaism as a whole, one which any Jew should be able to recognize automatically. A middle-aged Jewish male searching for female companionship can place a personal ad in an Indianapolis magazine and identify himself as searching for a woman "committed to tikkun olam."

Different Organizations Adopt the Phrase

It seems clear that many who use this expression have derived it from sources other than the mystical tradition. As far as I am aware, the first use of the expression tikkun olam in [the United States] was by Shlomo Bardin, the founder of the Brandeis Camp Institute in California. Bardin focused on the notion of tikkun olam at least as early as the 1950's.

Bardin believed that the Aleinu prayer [which, among other things, refers to the restoration of God’s sovereignty] was the most important expression of Jewish values, particularly the expression le-taken olam be-malchut shaddai, typically translated as "when the world shall be perfected under the reign of the Almighty." While the Aleinu clearly has in mind the eradication of idolatry, and universal faith in the God of Israel, Bardin understood these words to refer to the obligation of Jews to work for a more perfect world.

By 1970, the expression “tikkun olam” was adopted by United Synagogue Youth, the national youth organization of the Conservative Movement. In that year it changed the title of its social action programs from "Building Spiritual Bridges" to “Tikkun Olam.” To this day United Synagogue Youth channels all of its social action activities and tzedakah programs through the Tikkun Olam project.

In the late 1970's, New Jewish Agenda,an organization devoted to progressive religious and social values, employed the slogan “Tikkun Olam” to capture the spirit of its ideology.

Tikkun Olam’s Journey

None of these institutions, however, appear to have been influenced by kabbalistic conceptions. However, by the late 1970s and early 1980s […], tikkun olam became identified with Kabbalah [Jewish mysticism]. It may be that this expression had become commonplace by the 1970's, in part through the influence of the language of Aleinu, and that authors familiar with Lurianic mysticism now began to identify it with that tradition.

No matter how tikkun olam came to be identified with Lurianism, it represents an amazing journey of ideas! The technical language of Lurianic Kabbalah, originating in a circle of contemplative mystics in the second half of the sixteenth century in Palestine, and representing what is arguably the most complex and esoteric literature in all of Judaism, is brought to contemporary attention through critical scholarship, only to resurface in a personal ad in the American Midwest in the second half of the twentieth century.

From Dissolving the World to Repairing It

What is most fascinating about this journey of ideas is the change of meaning which has taken place.[In] its original context, tikkunhad to do with the repair of divinity, and was part of an eschatological vision of things which anticipated the end of history and nature as we know it. The tikkun to be achieved involved the dissolution of the material world in favor of a purely spiritual existence, similar to that which existed before intra-divine catastrophe and before human sin.

This conception thus bears little similarity to the kind of "mending" which most contemporary exponents of tikkun have in mind. For the latter, tikkun is a byword for social, moral, or political activism of one sort or another. For some [as the author explores elsewhere in the longer article from which this is excerpted], it has deeper theological or spiritual meaning. But for all of the individuals whose ideas were discussed [in this article], tikkun clearly involves "repairing" the condition of this world, rather than the Lurianic mending of olam ha-tikkun, spiritual worlds beyond our normal experience.

Moreover, if there is still mythical thinking taking place here, it is operating at a rather weak level. The highly charged mystical symbolism of Lurianic literature, with its endless anthropomorphic description of God's inner life, its multiple levels of reality, its impressive convictions about the power of the contemplative imagination, has given way to the bare bones of "rupture" and "mending."

Both Uses Focus, Appealingly, on Human Responsibility

Despite these essential distinctions, there are important resemblances between Lurianic theology and contemporary thought […] These resemblances, in my view, help explain the attraction which Lurianic language has for contemporary Jewish thinking.

The notion of an ontological rupture and shattering--which stands at the heart of Lurianic mysticism--has the capacity to strike a deeply sympathetic chord in a generation which experienced the destruction of European Jewry, or for a generation confronted by the unprecedented danger of global nuclear calamity. Similarly, the focus on human power and human responsibility, in place of divine power and responsibility, which characterizes Lurianism, is a potent theological tool in confronting the dilemma of theodicy [explaining God’s justice in the face of the existence of evil] in our own time.

Some, like Ismar Schorsch, appear to recognize this in rather deliberate ways. But even for others, who do not draw such connections, the language of "mending," by its nature, implies the centrality of human responsibility for improving the condition of things. For a community which has serious questions--to put it gently--about the quality of Divine Providence and Omnipotence, a preoccupation with the resources of the human spirit may be more a theological necessity than most are likely to admit.

Tikkun is also useful because of its malleability; as the materials surveyed here demonstrate, it is a conception which can be used to justify the widest range of activities and views. We have also seen that it can easily be lifted out of its original context and transformed into a "normative" Jewish value. A contemporary idea is thus legitimated and rendered all the more significant by clothing it in the garb of tradition, a process as old as "tradition" itself.

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Dr. Lawrence Fine

Lawrence Fine, Ph.D., teaches Jewish studies at Mount Holyoke College. He is the author of Safed Spirituality (Paulist Press) and Physician of the Soul, Healer of the Cosmos: Isaac Luria and His Kabbalistic Fellowship (Stanford University Press).