The Rabbinic text on tikkun olam most accessible to 20th C. liberal Jews is Aleinu, the ancient prayer recited at the end of each service. In its original liturgical context Aleinu is triumphantly sung with majestic cantorial music in the most attended services of the Jewish year, the High Holidays. Tikkun olam appears in the Aleinu prayer (as early as 5th C. CE and maybe earlier) in the Rosh Hashanah liturgy of malkhuyot, where all the creatures of the earth reaffirm God’s coronation or kingship. The first section of the Aleinu prayer speaks of Israel’s loyalty to God’s reign and in traditional synagogues all the congregants bow and even prostrate themselves, kneeling on the ground before the King of kings when reciting this prayer on the High Holidays. The second section envisions the whole world accepting Divine sovereignty. The pregnant phrase “l’takein olam b’malkhut Shaddai” – “to establish the world under the kingdom of God” appears here. The hope is for monotheism to replace paganism, for “they bow to nothingness and emptiness, to a god that cannot save.”
“Therefore we hope and trust in you Adonai our God, expecting to see soon your great power in removing idolatry from the earth, and idols will be cut off, and [You will] repair the world by establishing the [direct] rule of God’s kingdom (l’takenin olam b’malkhut Shadai). .. All the wicked will turn to You. All the residents of the world (tevel) will acknowledge and know that all must bow to you their knee and swear [to You their loyalty] in every language …Then all will accept the yoke of your kingdom and You will soon reign over them forever.” (Aleinu, Rosh HaShanah Prayerbook, Amidah, Coronation Ceremony)
While most traditional Jewish liturgy focuses on the people of Israel’s welfare alone, like the prayer for peace at the end of the Amidah and at the end of the Kaddish, Aleinu explicitly encompasses all humankind in its messianic vision. Appropriately, Rosh Hashana celebrates both the creation of the whole world (Rabbi Eliezer) and the coronation of God as king of the whole world (melekh ha-olam). Thus it provides a natural bridge to the ideas of world government, a world court, and world peace in the modern era. The prophetic verse, It will be on that day that Adonai will be monarch over the whole earth and on that day Adonai will be one and his name one (Zecharia 14:9), concludes the Aleinu and echoes the most universalist visions of the Biblical tradition.
Aleinu’s liturgical vision of cosmic monarchy is given halakhic authority in Maimonides. For him tikkun olam refers to the acceptance of God’s sovereign kingship in a messianic universal monotheistic world order. For Maimonides this is mediated through a messianic but human king. This is a unique aspect of the messianic king’s calling. The Jewish messiah is not only a scholar of Torah, a son of David’s dynasty, who successfully gathers in the exiles, fights God’s wars, and rebuilds the Temple, but also prepares (l’takein) the whole world to serve God together as prophesied, Then I will transform the language of the peoples into pure speech, so that all of them may call on the name of Adonai to serve him shoulder to shoulder (Zephania 3:9). The great historical false messiahs, according to Maimonides, also contributed to the Divine plan to fix the world by spreading monotheism:
Maimonides fleshes out his messianic vision with Biblical proof-texts, but he also invents his own terminological innovation, the messianic goal “to elevate the true religion.” He interprets monarchial tikkun as part of a historic Divine calling to which Christianity and Islam have already contributed by spreading the knowledge of God (Laws of Kings 11:4). For Maimonides tikkun olam is primarily a universal religious mission to spread monotheism through the establishment of worldwide government headed by a king who is also a scholar of Torah. That fits as well the original meaning of Aleinu as a proclamation of God as king of the whole earth.
However Liberal Jews cannot easily identify with Aleinu’s emphasis on true religious belief, rather than pluralism, on state coercion to achieve religious unity, on religious loyalty without tolerance for non-monotheistic religions. As Jill Jacobs comments, “Most contemporary Jews who extol the value of tikkun olam certainly do not understand this term as a mandate to impose worship of the Jewish God on all other peoples.” However they would be amenable to a process of tikkun olam that favors voluntary acceptance of a world court, a world government and the universalization of the ethical laws of the Torah and the prophetic vision of world peace as inscribed on the UN building:
Both the author of Aleinu and Maimonides held that the belief in God was necessary to a just world order.