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Martin Buber: Tikkun Olam as a Shot in the Dark

Tikkun Olam learned from prophets who connect divine decree to human responsibility
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


Repairing the world may be portrayed as a perennial task of fixing and adjusting and reforming which depends wholly on human effort. This picture is uplifting and morally meaningful, but it does not call for an all-out fateful effort. Unless we realize that the world may be destroyed if it is not repaired and that the clock is ticking and time may be running out, the urgency is lost. The prophets as reformers always had that sense of urgency, as Martin Buber shows. Their society hangs on a thread between catastrophe and a turning to renewal that may or may not evoke God’s mercy and a change of history’s dire direction. The task of Jonah was to give the city of Nineveh one more chance by letting them know the destruction of their great metropolis had already been decided: In forty days Nineveh will be turned upside down (Jonah 3:4).
But, as Buber explained, prophecy is not about prophesying. Prophets do not reveal the inevitable nor do they wish to be proven right (except for Jonah, the anti-prophet, who is the exception that proves the rule).  
The true prophet does not announce an immutable decree. He speaks into the power of decision lying in the moment, in such a way that his message of disaster just touches this power.  
The prophetic element is to connect the historic moment to the perspective of the future that makes a demand and also a promise. This is unique to the Jewish people among all the ancient nations. The prophet distinguishes clearly two possibilities in the developments hidden in the historical moment which are opposed. One is the divine goal and the other opposed to it. The prophet places in the hands of the human the decision whether this moment will help fulfill the divine goal or delay it. … There is no other people in the world that believes in the great value of the act of each and every person in humanity [to shape] the future so that the Creation will be fixed (takana) and redeemed by virtue of the will and the actions of humanity. ..Moses Hess called that the spiritual act that prepares the fulfillment of the unity [of humanity] in the socialist society of the future.
Prophets wish to energize the people to try to change, while giving them no guarantees. Ehud Luz summarizes Buber’s view of freedom and determinism:   
In The Prophetic Faith, Martin Buber shows the Prophets assuming a dialectical relationship, not accessible to rational understanding, between the divine decree and human responsibility. From God’s point of view, the future is already determined; but human beings must make decisions afresh every day as if the future were in their hands, knowing that, in the last analysis, they are subject to transcendent forces.  
For Buber, this was the lesson God taught the prophet Jonah, who had thought the course of history was predetermined and could not be diverted. The Book of Jonah sets out to destroy the belief in historical determinism and assert that anything is possible, both complete destruction and redemption. It is on this assumption that the prophetic notion of teshuvah (repentance, turn­ing, or return) is predicated. If we do not repent, we shall certainly be lost; if we do repent, perhaps God will have pity on us and we shall not perish," but "who knows whether God will change His mind? (Jonah 1:6,3:9). ‘Perhaps’ and ‘who knows’ are key terms in this tale of repentance.’  
Martin Buber writes of the human choice to turn in repentance and God’s choice to turn aside from the catastrophic course of history. As the Bible scholar who first identified formally the literary mechanism of repeated roots called “leitmotif words,” Buber noticed how the Bible applies the same verb – “turn” – both to human and Divine change of mind:  
Human turning and divine turning correspond the one to the other; not as if it were in the power of the first to bring about the second, such ethical magic being far removed from biblical thought – but ‘who knows?’  
In uncertainty one may be paralyzed or despair of action, unless one is forced to decided now – “if not now, when?” That is the springboard for radical action in history, but it too relies upon faith in an interpretation of the world made in the dark without sure knowledge:  
What is possible in a certain hour and what is impossible cannot be adequately ascertained by any foreknowledge. It goes without saying that, in the one sphere as in the other, one must start at any given time from the nature of the situation insofar as it is at all recognizable. But one does not learn the measure and limit of what is attainable in a desired direction otherwise than through going in this direc­tion.   
The prophets functioned in a fateful period and spoke for the urgency of historic times, but that pathos for each individual’s act in all periods was generated by the Rabbis with their image of the individual and therefore the whole world being swinging either way in the balance:  
Since the world is judged according to most [of its behavior], and the individual is judged according to most [of his behavior], a person is fortunate if he can fulfill even one commandment, for [by doing so] he may tilt the balance for himself and for the entire world to the side of merit. But woe to him if he commits even a single transgression, for [by doing so] he may tilt the balance for himself and for the entire world to the side of blame. (TB Kiddushin 40b)  
In that Rabbinic spirit, Martin Buber translates the urgency of the prophetic faith in tikkun into the infinite responsibility of each individual for personal teshuvah and for tikkun olam:  
Each person determines the fate of the world with his whole being and all his acts to a degree that neither he nor anyone else knows; for whatever causality we perceive is only a tiny part of the totality of invisible, infinitely varied action of all upon all.

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