The term tikkun olam nowadays generally refers to a perceived obligation for Jewish individuals, and the Jewish community, to actively contribute to the advance of justice. This mandatory contribution is in practice generally identified with one or more of a set of actions and causes favored by self-identified liberals in America, and indeed, tikkun olam is often cited as a spur to lobbying efforts for liberal causes. Wikipedia cites at least one example of an attempt at a politically conservative definition and program for tikkun olam, but this should be recognized as countercultural.
This definition of tikkun olam has at best weak roots in Jewish tradition. The Aleinu prayer includes the hope that G-d will be “metaken olam” via His Kingship, meaning that idolatry will be banished and all will worship Him(although a recent article argued that this is a typo for “letakhen olam”). Mishnah Gittin Chapter 4 includes a list of rabbinic decrees justified on the basis of tikkun haolam, and many of these seem aimed at preventing the exploitation of the weak. For example, there are decrees that prevent slaves or women from being placed in positions that compel celibacy. It would be incorrect, however, to generalize this; one of the decrees, for example, is a ban on paying more than the “market price” to ransom captive people or ritual objects.
Rather, the MIshnaic concept of Tikkun Olam relates to Rabbinic legislators, rather than on Jewish individuals, and it refers to an obligation to prevent the Law from generating perverse consequences as the result of human perversity, rather than an affirmative obligation to seek methods to improve society. Thus the rule about ransoming is to prevent captors from taking advantage of the law mandating the redemption of captives, and the laws relating to divorce are designed to prevent women from being trapped by technicalities in the divorce law.
Tikkun Olam plays a very different role in Lurianic Kabbalah, where it refers to an obligation to mystically undo the consequences of sin in the world. This vision as well has been adapted by moderns into an obligation to correct social injustice.
None of this is intended to suggest that Jewish tradition necessarily opposes any of the elements of the Tikkun Olam agenda, and of course politico-religious movements often coalesce around intellectually imprecise but emotionally powerful slogans.
“Tikkun Olam” is often a spur to mitzvot, especially for those Jews who have little direct access to the content of Jewish tradition. I tend to agree with its promotion of the anti-quietistic elements of that tradition. The risks posed by its popularization are that Jews with conservative political instincts will feel excluded, and that we will lose the capacity to authentically test whether particular policies, programs, or actions are in accord with Jewish values.
The best way to meet these risks is deep and substantive Jewish education. Tikkun Olam has its uses, and its dangers. I am happier to meet Jews who can cite it than Jews who cannot – but I would like going forward to meet fewer Jews for whom it constitutes their entire Hebrew vocabulary and Jewish conceptual framework.
The term tikkun olam is a deeply important Jewish concept and yet also commonly misunderstood. Tikkun olam is not a mitzvah to fulfill, but a term that generally refers to the Jewish impulse and commitment to perfect the world in accordance with God’s will through our own behavior, attitude, and action. Many scholarly critics point out that the term has been done an injustice by being flattened to simply refer to positive social involvement.
A quick survey of the term’s development may help to clarify its spirit and connotation. First, it is important to note that the earliest reference to tikkun olam is in the Mishnah, an authoritative Rabbinic work edited circa 200 CE. Such references are infrequent and, rather than any specific law or definitive legal category, it broadly signifies “promoting general welfare” (e.g., Mishnah, Gittin 4:2).
Another early Rabbinic reference appears in the Aleinu prayer, which originated in the Rosh Hashanah liturgy, but became a daily prayer around 1300 CE. In the second paragraph, it says: “We therefore place our hope in You, that we might see Your glorious power, sweeping the world of detestable things… l’takein olam b’malchut shaddai – often translated as, “perfecting the world by Your sovereignty.” Here we see by way of context and grammar that the repairing of the world is done by God rather than our own powers.
Isaac Luria, the 16th century kabbalist, emphasized the concept of tikkun olam in his theology. His concept, however, was mostly introspective. Luria taught that God emanates into the world through spiritual vessels called sefirot, which also have personality traits (e.g., compassion). By meditating upon each of these sefirot and their unification, one can help to heal what is a shattered spiritual world. In 1964, Chief Rabbi of Israel, Abraham Isaac Kook expanded Luria’s concept when he wrote that tikkun olam must not “fly about solely in the spiritual ether,” but must equitably bring together both spiritual and physical concerns (Orot Ha-Kodesh, sect. 3, pg. 180).
Today, the term tikkun olam is best represented by the spirit in which Rabbi Kook expressed it, and at worst, it is tossed around as a vague justification for participating in social action and to broadly emphasize human power in changing the world.
Tikkun olam is ultimately the beautiful idea that we – as human beings – are a critical part of the unfolding of God’s creation and will. When we balance ourselves through meditation and spiritual practice, and when we further align and apply our internal spiritual clarity to how we relate and treat others and the world, we can help to affect and heal brokenness. We see tikkun olam in acts that balance the traits of compassion and justice, of lovingkindess and strength.
Where does the concept of tikkun olam (repairing the world) originate, and is it a mitzvah (commandment) or does it hold the same level of importance as a mitzvah?
Tikkun olam, which translates as repairing the world, is the concept that we are God’s partners in perfecting the world and by being engaged in social action we can repair and transform a broken world. However, the phrase dates back to the early days of Rabbinic Judaism and was employed in a number of different ways. Its earliest use is in the Aleinu prayer, which may originate early as the second century CE. It appears in the line, “l’taken olam b’malchut shaddai” and means “to perfect the world under the kingdom of God,” but in this context, the transformation is by divine means rather human.
Tikkun olam is also found in the Mishnah (ca. 200 CE) where it refers to taking the unusual legal decision of forbidding a man from overturning a get (Jewish divorce certificate) he had granted, in order to preserve his ex-wife’s second marriage and her new child’s legal standing. Here, tikkun olam, refers to the protection of society from an ex-husband’s capricious act. Tikkun olam can even be found in the midrashim (sacred Jewish stories) where it refers to the literal stabilizing of the earth on the second day of creation, when tradition holds that it was almost torn apart.
A fourth meaning of the phrase comes from the sixteenth century mystic, Rabbi Isaac Luria, who taught that God emanated Godself into the world through clay vessels that were unable to contain the divine light and shattered. The repair of these vessels, and with it the elimination of evil, can only be done through the personal practice of mitzvoth, or traditional Jewish commandments, both ritual and ethical. In other words, personal Jewish practice can actually transform God’s heavenly kingdom.
The modern conception of tikkun olam has its origins in a new reading of the phrase from the Aleinu prayer, which was then combined with a radical reinterpretation of Lurianic mysticism. In the early 1950’s Shlomo Bardin, the director of Brandeis Camp Institute in California, taught that tikkun olam, as used in the Aleinu, referred to the obligation of Jews to work for a more perfect world. This interpretation had an enormous impact on American Jewish youth movements, and by 1970 had been adopted by Conservative Judaism’s United Synagogue Youth, as the moniker for their social action activities. Over the next decades, tikkun olam became the catch phrase for Jewish social action, that is to say, efforts to affect public policy and to be involved with a range of tzedakah (charitable activities) and gimilut chasadim (acts of compassion.)
During the next decades, as interest in Jewish mysticism grew, an association between tikkun olam as social action, and the Lurianic sense of that there were human actions that could actually perfect God’s world, began to develop. Today this is certainly the strongest sense of tikkun olam, that we are God’s partners in perfecting the world and by being engaged in social action we can repair and transform a broken world. Ironically, it is the Aleinu that cautions us to be tempered in our belief that our choices are the only way to proceed. The perfection of the world referred to in the Aleinu only comes through God’s hand. It is fine to be inspired by tikkun olam but we should be cautious, especially in political matters, about thinking that it is one’s own definition of tikkun olam, of what constitutes repairing the world, which deserves a hechsher (a Jewish/divine seal of approval.)
Is Tikkun olam a mitzvah? Certainly not in the sense of being a specific commandment, or even series of commandments, that an individual is Jewishly required to do. Tikkun olam, defined as the repair of the world through lobbying, charitable acts, or contributions, is more akin to a motivating concept than a concrete, Jewish, act. But if we use mitzvah in a less formal sense, as a good deed rather than a commandment, than tikkun olam definitely qualifies. It is a mitzvah for Jews to be engaged in trying to bring, if not repair, at least a little healing, to an often broken world.
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