Tikkun Olam Is an Authentic Jewish Value

Maurice Harris argues that liberal Jewish communities have the full right to use tikkun olam as an umbrella term, despite opposition voiced by conservative critics. The spiritual significance of the term is not undervalued, he writes, by the use of it.

Recently, a growing number of politically and religiously conservative (small-c) Jewish thought leaders have taken to bashing the way that liberal Jewish communities use the term tikkun olam to mean “repairing the world by means of social justice activism and charitable work.” What do Jews like me, who see tikkun olam as a vital part of contemporary liberal Judaism, have to say in response?

One of the critics’ arguments is that the way liberal Jewish organizations use tikkun olam ignores the traditional religious contexts that the term has been tied to for centuries. For example, the sages of the Mishnah give us our oldest examples of the term in Jewish sacred texts. They used the term in situations in which rabbis opted to make halakhic (legal) decisions they might not have otherwise made out of concern for the needs of people in vulnerable or difficult circumstances. To rule a certain way for the sake of “repairing the world” sometimes meant reducing heavy burdens that might fall upon community members should they rule otherwise. Rather than a catch-phrase for marching on Washington for human rights, the tikkun olam of the Mishnah took place within a framework of rigorous observance of all the mitzvot, and it referred to an element of rabbinic legal reasoning.

The Aleinu prayer, which is where we next meet the term in Jewish sacred literature, talks about “repairing the world under the sovereignty of the Almighty,” and again, the critique is that Jews who drive on Shabbat, don’t keep kosher, and don’t think of God as the literal author of the mitzvot (commandments) have no business borrowing from the spiritual lexicon of traditional Judaism and repurposing its concepts for other agendas.

The most recent, and best known, traditional religious use of the notion of tikkun olam comes from Lurianic kabbalah. The website My Jewish Learning has a good summary of how the term fits into this form of Jewish mysticism:

. . . God contracted the divine self to make room for creation. Divine light became contained in special vessels, or kelim, some of which shattered and scattered. While most of the light returned to its divine source, some light attached itself to the broken shards. These shards constitute evil and are the basis for the material world; their trapped sparks of light give them power.

. . . the first man, Adam, was intended to restore the divine sparks through mystical exercises, but his sin interfered. As a result, good and evil remained thoroughly mixed in the created world, and human souls (previously contained within Adam’s) also became imprisoned within the shards.

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 to return to a world before disaster within the Godhead and before human sin, thus ending history .

It’s fair to say that many traditionally observant Jews who devote themselves seriously to studying Lurianic kabbalah might see liberal Jewish use of the term to mean social justice work as a watering down of a powerful Jewish spiritual and mythic concept.

For Reconstructionists, of course, our entire approach to Judaism is premised on the belief that Judaism has evolved from era to era precisely because previous generations of Jews have been willing to reconceive of and repurpose the rituals, holidays, sacred texts, and sacred objects of Judaism in order to keep the religion relevant and alive. One of the key insights of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionism, is that Judaism has always been an evolving religious civilization, and that the (sometimes radical) changes that Judaism has embraced were often met with resistance and accusations of inauthenticity by some in the community.

This brings me to my first response to the critics of a contemporary, reconstructed, living and energized notion of tikkun olam: one of their mains arguments is really just the same objection that Orthodoxy has about liberal Judaism in general. Either you can authentically use un-Orthodox methods to repurpose Jewish sacred concepts or you can’t. Most Orthodox Jews would say you can’t, and liberal Jews would say you can and must, if meaningful, relevant Judaism is to have a future. This isn’t the place to put forward the full justification of all non-Orthodox forms of Judaism, but suffice it to say that if the basis for condemning the way tikkun olam is used in liberal Judaism is the claim that liberal Judaism is illegitimate, then there’s nothing for liberal Jews to learn from the critique that could potentially be useful.

A more useful critique would be to claim that there are many different kinds of reconstructions of Jewish concepts in the liberal Jewish world, and that some are better than others. This line of argument would try to convince us that there are criteria we should use to evaluate changes to the way Jews define and work with centuries-old concepts, and that it’s possible to assess specific changes in terms of how good they are as contemporary expressions of Judaism. Then one would have to make the case for how contemporary tikkun olam fails to meet the criteria for a “good” reconstruction of an element of Judaism.

That’s a difficult kind of argument to make in part because it would be impossible for a group of thoughtful Jews to agree on what those criteria should be or who should have the authority to decide. If I was asked to forget my personal views for a moment and make this kind of argument, I would assert that a reconstruction of a long-standing Jewish concept is better if it includes a serious effort to educate people about the history and evolution of the concept so that most people engaging with it know something about its history. I would then argue that there’s nothing inauthentic about tikkun olam being repurposed in a contemporary Jewish context, but that liberal Jewish leaders and organizations have done a poor job of educating the Jewish masses about the history of the term and why it makes sense to reconstruct it in this manner today. A better reconstruction of tikkun olam, I would claim, would involve liberal Jewish leaders working hard to make sure people know that tikkun olam has a long history that has included both concern for the needs of the most vulnerable people in society and the longing for the spiritual repair of broken aspects of the world, and that that is why it makes sense that in our time and place, we consciously reconstruct the term to refer to our collective efforts to do social justice work.

In reality, do I think this line of argument has merit? Partly. But I also bring some skepticism to this particular critique. I think that many liberal Jews have more knowledge about tikkun olam than their critics give them credit for, and I have a healthy respect for the ways that Jewish concepts, rituals, holidays, and sacred objects evolve organically, which is what I think has happened with tikkun olam.

The Reconstructionist in me believes that it makes sense that the Judaism we partake of is participatory, not passive, and that its sacred symbols and memes have always been in motion, not static. Somewhere around the middle of the 20th century, tikkun olam as a Jewish concept came into contact with living American matters of justice and sparked a reframing and re-contextualizing of the term among some Jewish thought leaders, and the reconstructed idea caught on and spread – ultimately even beyond the Jewish community. When former New York Governor Mario Cuomo started using the term in public, explaining what he found inspiring about it, so began a string of non-Jewish public figures referencing tikkun olam in a positive light, culminating most recently in President Obama’s repeated use of the term. Perhaps this is a tremendous Jewish (and Reconstructionist) success story – a decidedly Jewish concept evolved, spread throughout much of the American Jewish community, and then made its way into the wider American discourse. Maybe the most authentically Jewish thing to do is to give that phenomenon the respect it deserves as the most recent, and current, evolution of tikkun olam.   

As with any discourse of critique, there is a range of voices and arguments among the critics of liberal Judaism’s tikkun olam. Some are thoughtful and respectfully presented, but some are little more than screeds of contempt for all things progressive – political, religious, and otherwise. The current Jewish media landscape includes a lot of vicious and uncivil attacks on tikkun olam. Headlines in publications like the Jerusalem Post and the New York Post read, respectively: “Judaism under attack: The Orwellian hijack of Tikkun Olam” and “Liberal Jews are destroying their own religion.”

Employing the kinds of rhetoric used by the xenophobic right wing in America, these essays go beyond the limits of respectful, civil discourse, instead describing their opponents as threats to Judaism and as the dupes of Marxists who’ve cleverly replaced “real” tikkun olam with unquestioned leftist politics. Many of these op-eds are blatantly partisan, and they display an utter lack of desire to understand the thinking and beliefs of liberal Jews who embrace a reconstructed notion of tikkun olam as an important framework for helping to repair some of the brokenness in this world.

A final thought to share: earlier I wrote that the present day popular concept of tikkun olam evolved out of the creative synthesis that took place when the traditional religious concepts underlying the term came into contact with contemporary American justice issues. But in truth I think another important set of elements entered the mix that combined to give birth to liberal Judaism’s tikkun olam, and it’s a set of elements that I think the harshest critics of tikkun olam fail to consider.

Simply put, I’m talking about the overwhelming abundance of Jewish sacred texts and traditions that insist that Jews advocate for the stranger, the orphan, the downtrodden, the misunderstood, the suffering, and the refugee. If liberal Jews hadn’t found in tikkun olam an umbrella term for expressing the deep social justice commitments of the Torah, the Prophets, and the Sages, then they would have advocated on behalf of these deeply Jewish values with different language.

The loudest critics of contemporary tikkun olam hope to discredit the idea that there’s anything authentically Jewish about fighting for the rights of vulnerable immigrants, mistreated workers, oppressed peoples, and the sustainability of our environment, and they’ve picked a fight over the legitimacy of the use of this particular term for this particular set of moral commitments. But the fight they’ve picked misses the point; namely, that Judaism has been from its beginnings a faith tradition with a profound commitment to social justice.  

Perhaps the ferocity of the critique is an indicator of the depth of the fear behind it – the fear that what’s unfolding before all of us is the great success of a progressive Jewish concept, energizing millions of liberal (and some Orthodox) Jews to make a positive difference under the banner of a Hebrew term now familiar to many non-Jews, and part of an understanding of Judaism as a religion of service to others. Tikkun olam is exciting and inspiring, and a lot of North American Jews and non-Jews relate to it. In this cynical, meme-saturated age, that’s a considerable achievement for a Hebrew phrase.

For those who want Judaism to represent a different set of values and priorities, it’s reasonable to seek out discussion and debate with tikkun olam’s advocates. Unfortunately, the tendency has been instead for those who feel threatened by this phenomenon to demonize and discredit the Jews and the approaches to Judaism that have given life to this reconstructed concept. In my view, there’s so much to celebrate about tikkun olam. It’s an emergent, contemporary Jewish value that is grounded in the belief that the Torah challenges us to advocate for those most in need. It views our God as a God of liberation, redemption, and compassion, and it views us as partners with God in the effort to repair the brokenness of our world as best we know how.        

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