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Tikkun Olam: A New, Old, and Renewed Term

Tikkun Olam is today associated with liberal Judaism, but its roots are deep in Biblical, Rabbinic and mystical texts
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

Note: This column and subsequent entries in this series are adapted and excerpted from Noam Zion’s Jewish Giving in Comparative Perspectives: History and Story, Law and Theology, Anthropology and Psychology, a three-volume set. For more on these books, click here.
Tikkun – to heal, repair, and transform the world. – Rabbi Michael Lerner, Tikkun Magazine
How lovely to think that no one need wait a moment before making the world better. We can start now slowly changing the world. You can always, always, always give something, even if it is only kindness. Give, give again, don’t lose courage. Keep it up and go on giving. – Anna Frank (Diaries, Amsterdam, 1944)
Rabbi Tarfon used to say: "The day is short, the work is great, the workmen are lazy, the reward is great, and the Master of the house puts on the pressure.  You are not obligated to complete the whole task, but neither are you exempt, so that you may neglect it entirely.” (Mishna Avot 2:20)  
Tikkun Olam is today generally associated with liberal Judaism, but its roots conceptually and terminologically are deep in Biblical, Rabbinic and mystical texts. In the contemporary American Jewish world, tikkun olam appears within the English discourse of Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, or Jewish Renewal synagogues, as well as Jewish Federations and even socially active but unaffiliated American Jews. The Hebrew term tikkun olam has even appeared in political speeches by non-Jews seeking to speak to Jews in their own value language. J.J. Schacter observes:
The New York Times reports that Madonna brings the Kabbalah center’s message of egoless dedication to tikkun olam (repairing the world) home to her fans both in her music and in personal appearances.
Then Sen. Barack Obama said to AIPAC in its 2008 convention:  
There is a commitment embedded in the Jewish faith and tradition to freedom and fairness, to social justice and equal opportunity – tikkun olam – the obligation to repair this world…. By the beginning of the 21st century in national polls most Jews place commitment to social equality above support for Israel or religious observance.  
However, seldom is the term used by Orthodox Jews in America or Israel. Social activism itself is much less prevalent in Orthodox Jewish circles, where they prefer terms like hesed or "doing a mitzvah" for rendering neighborly help. In Israel the Orthodox social activist Rabbi Yuval Sherlo observed that the overwhelming majority of leaders of Israeli hesed organizations providing material and emotional compassion for the needy, such as Yad Sarah for free medical equipment, were Orthodox Jews, while the overwhelming majority of leaders of Israeli tzedek / social justice organizations, such as the hotline for foreign workers, are secular Jews.
Orthodox religious Jewish identity values and institutionalizes the practice of compassion more than social justice, even though the Torah and the Talmud are filled with laws and appeals for social justice, no less than tzedakah and gemilut hesed.
But the rise of “tikkun olam,” now a defining virtue of Liberal Judaisms, is gradually penetrating liberal Orthodox circles as well: in Britain, Jonathan Sacks, outgoing chief Orthodox rabbi of Britain and author of best-selling books on these themes; in Israel – Rabbis Benny Lau and Yair Sherlo and Magalei Tzedek, an activist organization of young religious Zionists in Israel, and in the USA – Rabbi Avi Weiss and Chovevei Torah, a liberal Orthodox seminary in New York.
The popular usage of tikkun olam has lost its sharpness and often become just a synonym for any socially beneficial act, like giving tzedakah, visiting the sick, volunteering for the soup kitchen, or helping Africans to dig a well.
I would like to maintain a strict distinction between tzedakah, the maintenance of the poor within a system of social welfare, and tzedakah u’mishpat and tikkun olam, which seek to reform institutional practices in society. Tikkun Olam – "repairing the world" – less emphasizes making financial contributions (tzedakah) to the needy, and more hands-on activity in society, including collecting garbage and building homes for the indigent (Habitat for Humanity).
It usually refers not only to relief work such as gemilut hesed – emergency care for the ill and feeding the hungry after a hurricane – but also to fixing the socioeconomic system, often requiring sustained political and judicial activism. It clearly does not apply to supporting high culture, such as philanthropic contributions to the opera or museums or Torah education, nor to paying dues to synagogues or day school tuition. It includes the absorption of immigrants to Israel from Ethiopia or Russia. But the term “world” in tikkun olam implies that it is also a universal concern for human beings without regard to their religion or ethnicity.
Repairing the world implies the broadest stage of activity, yet it also involves personal tikkun. For example, those involved in ecological movements who warn of the destruction of the environment by human-generated pollution understand olam as the earth and tikkun as humans mending the damage they themselves have caused. For them the tikkun encompasses not only political action to reform economic policies and regulation of big industry through legislation (takkanot, rabbinic enactments), but also self-reformation of one’s personal habits.
Personal lifestyle may involve exploitative and wasteful use of the natural resources (such as eating beef, using non-recyclable plastic grocery bags, or consuming corn-based food). One’s lifestyle has a carbon footprint that directly endangers the world ecology. The left-wing social activist and rabbi, Arthur Waskow, speaks of "eco-kashrut" as a spiritual-ethical-halakhic discipline that regulates individual and communal lifestyle. Might my daily activities or my consumer spending, however small, contribute to a larger movement to fix the world – or to ruin it? Jill Jacobs, a rabbi who has led a Jewish organization for social justice shares this insight:
The popularity of the term tikkun olam, and the general emphasis on its mystical (Lurianic), rather than rabbinic, roots may indicate a desire to place one’s own work in a larger context of influencing the greater world. In an individual’s search for the meaning of his or her own life, it may be more compelling to think of one’s every action as contributing to the repair of the cosmos, than to think of the same actions as simply accomplishing a small fix to a much larger problem.
While the popularity of the term, tikkun olam, is recent, it is not a Hebrew neologism. It has connotations that predate its use to describe Jewish social action with its 20th century American resonances. It draws on very rich, but radically divergent, traditions of the Bible, the prayer book, the Mishna, and Kabbalah. By examining the evolution of the term tikkun olam in the following brief articles we hope to sharpen and enrich the understanding of this inspirational term, and develop a better conceptual bridge between ancient and modern notions of perfecting society.
Note: You also may order an ebook version of the entire trilogy on tzedakah published by Noam Zion at his website .

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