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Four Lessons Learned about Tikkun Olam

Noam Zion is a Senior Fellow Emeritus of the Kogod Research Center at the Shalom Hartman Institute since 1978. He studied philosophy and holds degrees from Columbia University and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He studied bible and rabbinics at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and the Hartman Beit Midrash. In the past, he led the Tichon program for North American Jewish educators and he teaches in Hartman Institute rabbinic programs: the Be’eri program


What have I learned from my study of Tikkun Olam in its modern rebirth? These are my practical take-home lessons:
(1) Think big, you can make a difference. “Thinking big” means considering how each individual act must fit into a fragile system – natural, legal, social, cosmic or Divine. Imagine a better a world by which to evaluate the existing one for what is possible transcends what is. One function of Tikkun Olam as an overall approach to tzedakah and social action may be comparable to utopian thinking. Imagination opens up new alternatives or a call to radical revolution or a conservative move to restore what humans have ruined. For example, Avi Sagi cites the role of social imagination in human activism:   
Tikkun olam is a sublime notion expressing key features of human existence. The leading one is freedom. The amendment of reality necessarily assumes the ability to transcend factuality and be free to shape the world. Tikkun olam attests also to human creativity—we envisage how the world should be. Human beings are free creatures, capable of transcending their actual being and pursuing the possible, anticipated through imagination.
Social imagination’ or ‘cultural imagination’ is in a key position, both as a deconstructive element that criticizes the extant social order and as a constructive element representing alternative options for the organization of social life. Utopia or, more precisely, “the utopian mood” or the ‘utopian spirit,’ fill the important role of social imagination:
From this ‘no place,’ an exterior glance is cast on our reality, which suddenly looks strange, nothing more being taken for granted. The field of the possible is now opened beyond that of the actual, a field for alternative ways of living.
  (2) The existing distribution of wealth is not a Divine fiat, so the prophetic dream of social justice makes us alive to what the social world could become. Beyond maintenance of the needy, there is a real possibility for rehabilitation and elimination of poverty.
The need for rethinking theological axioms that block movements of social reform is made clear by the French philosophe Condorcet, He had to assault the then dominant notion of original sin that was invoked to affirm that poverty is an immutable facet of God’s plan. He also needed to deny conservative Christian religious thinkers who maintained that society could not be restructured because human perfectibility is impossible after the Fall. Amazingly Antoine-Nicolas de Condorcet made his most optimistic claims in his Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind written at a a time of personal despair. He completed it while in hiding from the Jacobin authorities at the beginning of the Terror in 1793 and it was pub­lished after Condorcet’s death in a prison cell in 1794. Despite everything, he still proclaimed: “Everything tells us that we are now close upon one of the great revolutions of the human race.”
G.S. Jones elaborates on Condorcet notion of eliminating poverty:  
Against those who maintained that the gulf between rich and poor was an inescapable part of `civilization.’ Con­dorcet argued that inequality was largely to be ascribed to ‘the present imperfections of the social art.’ ‘The final end of the social art’ would be ‘real equality – the abolition of ine­quality between nations’ and ‘the progress of equality within each nation: Ultimately, this progress would lead to ‘the true perfection of mankind’: Apart from the natural differences between men; the only kind of inequality to persist would be ‘that which is in the interests of all and which favours the progress of civilisation, of education and of industry, without entailing either poverty, humiliation or depend­ence.’ That would be in a world in which ‘everyone will have the knowledge necessary to conduct himself in the ordinary affairs of life, according to the light of his own reason; where ‘everyone will become able, through the development of his faculties, to find the means of providing for his needs’; and where, at last, ‘misery and folly will be the exception, and no longer the habitual lot of a section of society.’   
(3) You can make a difference. As the kabbalists highlighted, each individual affects the system and each individual can cumulatively redeem the world, restore it, perfect it without awaiting Divine intervention. So, too, politically in a democratic society each individual’s voice is crucial.
(4) And yet be realistic. Systems interact with the real world in less than ideal ways. Laws can produce unintended consequences that undermine their ideal. Hence political leaders (like Maimonides’ just monarch and the Mishna’s Rabbis) must constantly readjust the system to fit the world, just as they sought to mend the world to fit the ideal – where possible. Tzedakah, redemption of captives and interest-free loans must function within the economic rationale of human beings concerned with the community, with the scarcity of the community chest, and with counterproductive though idealistic schemes that make things in effect worse for the people in need. Irving (Yitz) Greenberg makes a central theological virtue out of his this-worldly interpretation of tikkun olam which is founded on Maimonides’ messianic world in which paradise on earth must be achieved without human nature or physical nature being transformed miraculously. Therefore realism is the premise of tikkun olam.
For me Yitz Greenberg has naturalized the most modern-sounding notion of tikkun olam in its broadest sense and rooted firmly into the most ancient and central of Jewish theo-poltical notions – the political-spiritual covenant and the Divine-human partnership:
The promise that universal peace can be reached and the earth turned into paradise is astounding. The demand to overcome sickness and poverty is revolutionary. Yet Judaism not only insists that these breakthroughs are possible but that they will develop in the context of normal human life. There will be a final redemption within human history – not beyond it. Judaism is not content to be a mega-vision of historical transformation. Nor would it simply deliver some cosmic revelation that dwarfs humans into insignificance with its gigantic purposes. The final perfection will come through humanity, not by re­jection of or total transcendence of humanness. It follows that humans are the carriers of the divine message; the secular is the theater of religious action.
In pledging a covenantal partnership, the Infinite Source of Life has accepted humans, in all their finite and flawed nature, as the medium of divine activity. Human capacities will set the parameters and pace of tikkun olam. Human limitations are allowed for and human needs are met in the structure of Israel’s redeeming faith. The Divine illuminates, orients, and instructs humans, but God does not and will not over­whelm them or destroy their dignity or integrity-not even to save them.
What constitutes an act of tikkun olam? How much achievement makes a human being a partner in creation? In essence, the answer is each "bit" of constructive work is as significant as a divine creative act. Each and every act upgrading the universe is of cosmic signifi­cance because, bit by bit, is how the mosaic of perfection will be accomplished. (The Jewish Way, 161)  

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