Tikkun Olam is often associated today with realizing a perfect world, as if one could start over or revolutionize the world. But “repairing” implies tinkering with an existing sytem which provides order and many benefits but also some dysfunctional laws and practices. To be repariman requires both humility and yet ingenuity. That is the characteristics of the first legal uses of tikkun olam in the Mishna. For example, the Mishna uses the concept of Tikkun Olam to explain the cap on ransoms to be paid for the redemption of captives (Mishna Gittin 4:6). Why a cap? Isn’t liberating captives considered “a great mitzvah” (mitzvah rabbah)” (TB Baba Batra 8b)? Isn’t captivity worse in some ways than starvation and death?
Maimonides rules that he who ignores ransoming a captive is guilty of transgressing commandments such as you shall not harden your heart” (Deut. 15:7); you shall not stand idly by the blood of your brother (Lev. 19:16); and you shall love your neighbor as yourself (Lev. 19:18) (Gifts to the Poor 8:10). One who delays in ransoming a captive, is considered like a murderer. Indeed, Maimonides himself wrote letters exhorting his fellow Jews to redeem captives and the Cairo Geniza contains receipts to Jews who donated funds for that purpose written by Maimonides himself!” In the modern context of politically motivated kidnappings, the Israeli government has had to struggle with the limits of its concern for the life of the captives against concerns for national security.
Yet the Mishna restricts the performance of this “great mitzvah” in the name of Tikkun Olam, though those captives will suffer and perhaps be murdered or sold as slaves:
“One does not ransom captives for more than their [market] value because of tikkun olam and one does not help captives escape because of tikkun olam.” (Mishna Gittin 4:6 = Bavli Gittin 45a)
The Babylonian Talmud gives two different explanations for this takkanah (Rabbinic enactment):
(1) “because of the [financial] burden on the community,”
(2) “so that they [=t he robbers] should not seize more captives,” i.e., paying a higher than normal ransom for captives which will encourage kidnappers to capture more Jews and demand still higher ransoms. (TB Gittin 45a)
On the first rationale, any private individual is permitted to spend as much as is necessary to redeem their captive, since the ransom costs do not come out of the public coffers. On the second rationale the Mishna demands individuals hold the line of the community’s policy to get tough with kidnappers. A loving and rich parent would then be prohibited from paying an exorbitant ransom for their own child. One must then sacrifice one’s own child’s best interests and perhaps their life for the long term policy interest of getting tough in negotiations with kidnappers.
A famous case of refusing to be ransomed for the sake of tikkun olam is the Maharam of Rothenburg (1220-1293), Rabbi Meir ben Baruch, a great Talmudist in Germany. To escape the persecution of Jewry in Germany, Rabbi Meir took his entire family in 1286 and set out for the Land of Israel. However, while passing through Lombardy, Rabbi Meir was recognized by an apostate Jew who was accompanying the archbishop of Mainz. The archbishop had Rabbi Meir arrested and taken back to Germany. There by order of King Rudolph, Rabbi Meir was imprisoned in the fortress of Ensisheim and held for ransom. A sum of 20,000 marks was raised for Rabbi Meir’s freedom, however, he forbade his friends and followers to pay any ransom for him. For he believed that once ransom were paid for him, every noted rabbi in Germany would be arrested and held for ransom by the various German rulers. He preferred to die there, in order to save many others from a similar fate by creating a dangerous precedent. For seven years Rabbi Meir remained a prisoner in that fortress, until his death in 1293. After he died, his body was not surrendered until 14 years later, when a heavy ransom was paid.
Similarly many in the Israeli government and military intelligence opposed the campaign for the release of Gilad Shalit, the kidnapped Israeli soldier held by Hamas in the Gaza strip for five years incommunicado. The family campaigned that almost any price be paid and finally the government in 2011 capitulated releasing over 1000 convicted Hamas terrorists who had murdered Israeli civilians and who had shown no remorse and whose organization, Hamas, had not changed its policy and ideology of destroying Israel by military and terrorist means. Did the exchange of prisoners constitute a mitzvah or a violation of tikkun olam that will make the next kidnapping happen sooner and the exchange price be set even higher?
Jill Jacobs summarizes succinctly the generalized legal function of Tikkun Olam that takes into account both the concern for a realistic functioning system and the needs of the most vulnerable:
For the sake of tikkun ha’olam – for the sake of the repair of the world – justifies forbidding a practice that, while technically legal, threatens to disrupt the system as a whole. …In all of these mishnaic cases, we might translate mipnei tikkun ha’olam as ‘for the sake of the preservation of the system as a whole.’ Within the Mishna, this phrase is invoked in response to situations in which a particular legal detail threatens to overturn an entire system. That is: gittin [writs of divorce] of uncertain status may lead to adulterous marriages or to unnecessary celibacy; allowing individuals to be half free and half enslaved will prevent some people from fulfilling the biblical mandate to marry and procreate; and ignoring the inherent challenges of debt-forgiveness may lead to a wholesale disregard for the institution of sh’mitta. By invoking the concept of tikkun ha’olam, the rabbis fix the flaw that endangers the stability of the system as a whole….These tikkun ha’olam fixes all ensure that those who are most vulnerable are able to live full lives, rather than be restrained by a system that favors the more powerful.
Paradoxically, Tikkun Olam for the Rabbis begins with the humble recognition that the social, political, economic world as it exists will not allow for the implementation of the ideals of the Torah. Law will have to be adjusted to reality, so that some social improvement can be achieved. Perhaps limiting the ransoms will moderate the plague of captives taken for ransom and circumventing the Sabbatical cancelation of debts will making interest free loans to the needy attractive enough for private lenders. Those who are “broke” will not get a Divinely mandated “break” that cancels their outstanding loans (as bankruptcy laws do today) and those whose relatives or communities are willing to pay any sum to save the lives and liberties of the victims of economically motivated kidnapping may rot indefinitely in their captors’ hands or worse.
Overall, one may say that halakha displays a uniquely non-utopian ethos and a modest legal notion of tikkun olam. Avi Sagi makes this point as follows:
The olam in this halakhic concept denotes the actual social reality within which human beings function, and the tikkun relates to the amendment of distortions or injustices in this context; tikkun olam is not the repair of the entire cosmos. In halakhic literature, tikkun olam denotes a concrete action meant to correct a specific wrong, not a comprehensive reorganization of reality by placing another, perfect world as an alternative to it. The act of correction reaffirms the concrete, routine social order; the act of correcting a specific wrong relates to one or another aspect of life that is reaffirmed through the limited character of the act of amendment, not to the whole of life. In sum, for Halakhah as the mainstream Jewish tradition, the constitutive assumption of its meaning structure is a critical, non-utopian perception of tikkun olam and a system of norms meant to attain it.
In modern Jewish thought my teacher and mentor, the Jewish philosopher David Hartman has developed such a non-utopian view of halakhic tradition:
The covenant does not suggest any promise of resolution for the finite human condition. Rather, it teaches the community how to be responsible for its social and political existence even within the uncertain and possibly tragic conditions of history and even though many events are beyond human control.