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The History of the Term Tikkun Olam in 20th Century America

The progression of the term Tikkun Olam, from its original source to its contemporary uses
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

“The term tikkun olam more or less disappeared from popular usage between the sixteenth century and the 1950s, when the concept reemerged as the new shorthand for ‘social justice.’ The term gained currency in the 1970s and 1980s, as the progressive Jewish world began to emerge as an entity separate from the so-called ‘mainstream’ organizational world. The New Jewish Agenda, a 1980s attempt to create an alternative Jewish voice, used the term tikkun as a rallying cry, as do contemporary local Jewish social justice organizations, such as the Progressive Jewish Alliance in California and Jews United for Justice in Washington, DC.” – Jill Jacobs, “The History of Tikkun Olam”
The first use of the expression tikkun olam in (the United States) was by Shlomo Bardin, the founder of the Brandeis Camp Institute in California in 1941 with the support of Justice Brandeis, the Zionist leader. Bardin focused on the notion of tikkun olam at least as early as the 1950s. Bardin believed that the Aleinu prayer (which, among other things, refers to the restoration of God’s sovereignty) was the most important expression of Jewish values, particularly the expression le-taken olam be-malchut shaddai, typically translated as “when the world shall be perfected under the reign of the Almighty.”
While the Aleinu clearly has in mind the eradication of idolatry, and universal faith in the God of Israel, Bardin understood these words to refer to the obligation of Jews to work for a more perfect world.
By 1970, the expression “tikkun olam” was adopted by United Synagogue Youth, the national youth organization of the Conservative Movement, as well as by the Reconstructionist social action program. In that year it changed the title of its social action programs from "Building Spiritual Bridges" to “Tikkun Olam” and used it in 1988 in the Conservative Movement’s principles of social justice.
None of these institutions, however, appear to have been influenced by kabbalistic conceptions. However, by the late 1970s and early 1980s…tikkun olam became identified with Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism).” – Lawrence Fine, “Tikkun Olam in Contemporary Jewish Thought”

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