To live the life of faith is to hear the cry of the afflicted, the lonely and marginal, the poor, the sick and disempowered, and to respond. For the world is not yet mended, there is work still to do, and God has empowered us to do it – with Him, for Him and for His faith in us. – Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Orthodox Rabbi of Great Britain
[The American Jew] must be willing to live up to a program that spells nothing less than a maximum of Jewishness. True to his historic tradition he should throw in his lot with all movements to further social justice and universal peace, and bring to bear upon them the inspiration of his history and religion. – Mordecai Kaplan (Judaism as a Civilization, 521)
In the Western world of the late 19th and 20th centuries, Jews began to participate fully in democratic processes of reform in their societies. They were motivated by both individual and communal self-interest to remove prejudicial barriers and inspired by ethical idealism to re-imagine a society that was more inclusive, scientifically progressive and just. They contributed to the innovative thought and political organization of these reform and revolutionary movements. In that sense Tikkun Olam became their ideology and felt-experience even before the term became popular. The work of modern Jewish thinkers has made the fit between their modern views and their classic tradition more continuous. Any number of thinkers could be chosen to illustrate the process, including members of the 19th C. Reform movement, the philosophers Herman Cohen and Emil Fackenheim, and various representatives of modern Orthodoxy like Rabbi S. R. Hirsch. Most of them are inspired by a pragimatic understanding of messianism as a this-worldly transformation fueled by human effort. My favorite is Irving Greenberg:
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. .. 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.
Judaism’s central tactic to achieve tikkun olam is to create an experimental community – the children of Israel – seeking to care for its own. This would show an example, a human model, of how to move toward the final goal, step by step, without destroying the good that exists.In the following selections we will listen to a wide variety of such voices. One is Orthodox, Rav Joseph Soloveitchik, and he emphasizes the contribution of human beings to civilization and conquest of human vulnerability to the ravages of nature – floods and disease. Thus a natural scientist or a hospital administrator becomes a prime example of repairing the world. Another pair are Reform, Leonard Fein and Eugene Borowtiz. Two Zionists, both named “Moses” were socialists – one secular and one religious, one, the first socialist Zionist, Moses Hess, a close associate of Karl Marx, and one a Religious Zionist and Kibbutznik, Moshe Una.Finally there is the humanist Zionist, Martin Buber, for whom attempts to perfect the world were always “a shot in the dark,” an act of faith without any guarantee of success.