Tikkun Olam

In contemporary Jewish thought.

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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.

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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).