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Tikkun Olam as the Mastery of Nature: Rabbi J. B. Soloveitchik

Tikkun Olam through Rabbi J.B. Soleveitchik`s lens
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 his career as an educator at SHI, he led the Tichon program for North American Jewish educators and he taught in Hartman Institute


The Orthodox Talmudist and existential philosopher Rabbi J. B. Soloveitchik classifies tikkun olam as a task related to Creation and human civilization’s struggle to master nature for the sake of human dignity. 
Men of old who could not fight disease and succumbed in multi­tudes to yellow fever or any other plague with degrading helplessness could not lay claim to dignity. Only the man who builds hospitals, discovers therapeutic techniques, and saves lives is blessed with dignity . . . The brute is helpless, and therefore not dig­nified. Civilized man has gained limited control of nature and has become in certain respects her master, and with his mastery he has attained dignity as well. His mastery has made it possible for him to act in accordance with his responsibility. (Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, The Lonely Man of Faith) 
Gerald Blidstein describes his teacher’s views on the Jewish solidarity with all humanity in the process of perfecting the world: 
Rabbi Soloveitchik in his essay, ‘Confrontation,’ declared … that the people Israel must take part in the ‘uni­versal confrontation’ of man with the cosmos. … Indeed, the Rav asserts that "the limited role" heretofore played by the Jewish people in that universal confron­tation was a function of historical reality, not ideological choice; and he suggests that this phenomenon has been reversed in modern times.
The Rav unambiguously asserted that the Jew was to participate fully in the civilizing efforts of humanity: ‘Created in the image of God, we are charged with responsibility for the great confrontation of man with the cosmos;’ we are ‘involved with the rest of mankind’ in that con­frontation; we ‘co-ordinate our efforts;’ ‘we stand shoulder to shoulder with mankind … for the welfare of all. 
The above notions are consistent with Maimonides who deeply informs all of Rav J. B. Soloveitchik’s thought. In his article, “Halakhic Man,” Rav Soloveitchik speaks with pathos of how a man of theoretical law like his father could also be said to shape the categories by which the social world is repaired: 

Halakhic man is a man who longs to create, to bring into being something new, something original. The study of Torah, by definition, means gleaning new, creative insights from the Torah (hiddushei Torah). … This notion of hiddush, of creative interpretation, is not limited solely to the theoretical domain but extends as well into the practical domain, into the real world. The most fervent desire of halakhic man is to behold the replenishment of the deficiency in creation, when the real world will conform to the ideal world and the most exalted and glorious of creations, the ideal Halakhah, will be actualized in its midst. The dream of creation is the central idea in the halakhic consciousness – the idea of the importance of man as a partner of the Almighty in the act of creation, man as creator of worlds. This longing for creation and the renewal of the cosmos is embodied in all of Judaism’s goals. 
But Rav Soloveitchik’s notion of tikkun is also shaped by kabbalist theological metaphors which he may have first learned from his Habad tutor when he was a child. The early mystical work, the Book of Yetzira, and later Lurianic Kabbalah emphasize the human role in redemption as well as the Divine role of tzimzum, self-withdrawl from the world, both echoed in Rav Soloveitchik’s rendition of the rabbinic notion of “partners in the creation of the world”: 
The peak of religious ethical perfection to which Judaism aspires is man as creator. When God created the world, he provided an opportunity for the work of His hands – man – to participate in His crea­tion. The Creator, as it were, impaired reality in order that mortal man could repair its flaws and perfect it. .. Man’s task is to ‘fashion, engrave, attach, and create’ (Book of Yetzira), and transform the emptiness in being into a perfect and holy existence, bearing the imprint of the divine name… Repentance is an act of self-creation. 
Rav Soloveitchik would likely have concurred with this tale from his grandfather: 
When the disciples of the greatest Talmudist of the late nineteenth century, Reb Hayyim of Brisk (1853-1918), asked him to define the task of a rabbi, he replied: `To redress the grievances of those who are aban­doned and alone, to protect the dignity of the poor, and to save the oppressed from the hands of his oppressor.’
Constantly in debt, he gave most of his salary to the poor. In the winter he would leave his wood store unlocked so that the poor of the town could take the fuel they needed, without the embarrassment of having to ask. When the lay-leaders of the town complained that this was costing them money, he replied that he was saving them medical expenses, since otherwise he would be forced to sit in the cold and catch pneumonia. It was impossible, he said, for him to light a fire in his own home if he knew that, in other homes, the poor were freezing. 
Yet for Rav Soloveitchik human responsibility goes far beyond solidarity with suffering and it becomes essential for the Divine plan of redemption. A human individual is the messiah who will be a partner with God in the Divine mission to bring liberation: 
History, Judaism says, cannot move or progress without the individual. God waits for man if there is something to be done. He does nothing until man initiates action. God waits for man, for a single person, to accept responsibility and initiate the process of redemption. It is strange. On the one hand, God is the Goel Yisrael, our redeemer and liberator; however, God wills man to become His shaliah [his messenger or representative or missionary] in the drama of redemption, the personalistic shaliah [missionary] with whom God will walk.
God will not desert him, but God alone does not want to take the initiative. The Jewish people have been waiting a long time for the Messiah – a human being like us who will initiate the process of redemption.
God wants an individual great in knowledge, in morality, in prophecy, to be a participant in the drama of redemption (ge’ulah). God wills man to emerge as a great being through his acceptance of the shelihut, – mission. Not the collective, but the individual, seizes the initiative. God was ready, the people
were ready, the time had passed, redemption ge’ulah was possible, and God could have taken them out in a split second [from Egyptian bondage]. But God had to wait for someone. Immediately, Moses is mentioned: "Now Moses kept the flock of Jethro" (Exodus 3:1). 

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