Tikkun Olam


Mitzvah by Billy Dreskin

Tikkun [tee-koonolam [oh-lahm] (Hebrew: ‘repair of the world,’ alternatively, ‘construction for eternity’) as a concept in Judaism, is a subject of much debate, being interpreted by strict constructionists of Orthodox Judaism as the prospect of the Creator wiping out all forms of idolatry, and being interpreted by modern movements in Judaism as a commandment for created beings to behave and act constructively and beneficially.

Documented use of the term dates back the Mishnaic period (1-4 CE). Subsequently, in medieval times, kabbalistic literature (Jewish mysticism) began broadening use of the term. Modern movements of Judaism have expanded the terms to include ‘the thesis that Jews bear responsibility not only for their own moral, spiritual, and material welfare, but also for the welfare of society at large.’ To the ears of contemporary pluralistic Rabbis, the term connotes ‘the establishment of Godly qualities throughout the world.’

A variant of the term, ‘mip’nei tikkun ha-olam’ (‘for the sake of tikkun of the world’), is used in the Mishnah (Jewish commentary) as a justification for several Rabbinic decrees intended to prevent social disharmony: forbidding voiding of divorce documents; requiring all aliases on divorce documents; requiring a widow swear in order to collect her ketubah money; limiting payments to redeem captives; forbidding helping captives escape captivity; forbidding purchasing religious articles from non-Jews; allowing remarriage after divorcing due to a vow; requiring ‘First Fruit’ tithes for Jewish land purchased from non-Jews; exempting mortgaged property from other liens; exempting certain ‘good samaritans’ from specific oaths.

The phrase ‘tikkun olam’ is included in the ‘Aleinu,’ a Jewish prayer that is traditionally recited at least three times daily. The prayer, said to have been written by the prophet Joshua, beseeches God: ‘to speedily see Your mighty splendor, to remove detestable (idolatry) from the land, and the (false) gods will be utterly ‘cut off’, to ‘tahken olam’ in God’s kingdom.’ In other words, when all the people of the world abandon false gods and recognize God, the world will have been perfected.

Alternately, being that we share a partnership with God, humanity is instructed to take the steps towards improving the state of the world and helping others, which simultaneously brings more honor to God’s sovereignty. Some scholars, however, argue that the phrase in the ‘Aleinu’ prayer is actually not a valid source for the concept of ‘tikkun olam,’ and that the confusion arises because of the homonym ‘l’takken’ meaning ‘to establish’ rather than ‘to fix’ or ‘to repair.’

Jews believe that performing of ritual ‘mitzvot’ (good deeds, commandments, connections, or religious obligations) is a means of ‘tikkun olam,’ helping to perfect the world, and that the performance of more mitzvot will hasten the coming of the Messiah and the Messianic Age. This belief dates back at least to the early Talmudic period. According to Rabbi Yochanan, quoting Rabbi Shim’on bar Yochai, the Jewish people will be redeemed when every Jew observes Shabbat (the Sabbath) twice in all its details. Shabbat is said to help bring about the Messianic Age by energizing Jews to work hard during the coming week. Because the experience of Shabbat gives one a foretaste of the Messianic Age, observance of Shabbat also helps Jews renew their commitment to bring about a world where love and mercy will reign.

Kabbalah has also been used to explain the role of prayer and ritual action in ‘tikkun olam.’ According to this vision of the world, God contracted part of Himself into vessels of light to create the world. These vessels shattered and their shards became sparks of light trapped within the material of creation. Prayer, especially contemplation of various aspects of the divinity (sephirot), releases these sparks and allows them to reunite with God’s essence, bringing them closer to a fixed world. According to 18th century Jewish philosopher Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, in his book ‘Derech Hashem,’ the physical world is connected to spiritual realms above that influence the physical world, and furthermore, Jews have the ability, through physical deeds and free will, to direct and control these spiritual forces. God’s desire in creation is that His creations ultimately will recognize His unity and overcome evil; this will constitute the perfection (tikkun) of creation.

In Jewish thought ethical mitzvot as well as ritual mitzvot are important to the process of tikkun olam, Sephardic philosopher Maimonides wrote in the 12th century that tikkun olam requires efforts in all three of the great ‘pillars’ of Judaism: Torah study, acts of kindness, and the ritual commandments. Some Jews believe that performing mitzvot will create a model society among the Jewish people, which will in turn influence the rest of the world. By perfecting themselves, their local Jewish community or the state of Israel, the Jews set an example for the rest of the world.

According to the rationalist philosophy of German Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch and others, the social and ethical mitzvot have nearly self-explanatory purposes, while ritual mitzvot may serve functions such as educating people or developing relationships between people and God. As examples, prayer either inculcates a relationship between people and God or strengthens beliefs and faith of the one who prays, and keeping kosher or wearing tzitzit (ritual undergarments) serve as educational symbols of moral and religious values. Hirsch’s ‘Horeb’ is an especially important source, as his exposition of his philosophy of the mitzvot. He classifies the mitzvot into six categories: (1) toroth (philosophical doctrines); (2) mishpatim and (3) chukim (commandments of justice towards (living) people and the natural world (including the human body itself) respectively); (4) mitzvot (commandments of love); (5) edoth (educational symbolic commandments); and (6) avodah (commandments of direct service to God).

According to Jewish scholar Lawrence Fine, the first use of the phrase tikkun olam in modern Jewish history in the US was by Brandeis-Bardin Camp Institute founder Shlomo Bardin in the 1950s. Bardin interpreted the Aleinu prayer as a responsibility for Jewish people to work towards a better world. As left-leaning progressive Jewish organizations started entering the mainstream in the 1970s and 1980s, the phrase tikkun olam began to gain more traction, and has since been adopted by a variety of Jewish organizations, to mean anything from direct service to general philanthropy.


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