The original posting of this column is from Sightings, a project of the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
David Gottlieb is a PhD student in the History of Judaism at the Divinity School. He is also co-founder and executive director of Full Circle Communities, Inc., a philanthropic nonprofit developer of affordable housing and provider of supportive services. Additionally, David is a board member of Synagogue 3000.
In an attempt to address the well-documented and growing gulf between the economic fortunes of the rich and poor–and almost in tandem with the onset of the recession and the collapse of the housing market–Rabbi Jill Jacobs published a book on the Jewish imperative to practice tikkun olam, or repairing the world, as seen through both rabbinic and contemporary activist perspectives. The book, There Shall Be No Needy: Pursuing Social Justice through Jewish Law & Tradition, affords an intimate look at what Rabbi Jacobs calls “a de facto pillar of progressive Judaism.” In this book and other writings, by unfolding some of the phrase’s shades of meaning, Rabbi Jacobs works to reveal how tikkun olam refers not only to our relationship to the physical world but also to establishing an unceasing commitment to spiritual sensitivity and religiously-based moral and ethical development. Although it may be too late to rescue the term tikkun olam from overuse, it is still valuable to begin to understand its many and nuanced meanings.
Rabbi Jacobs is rabbi-in-residence at Jewish Funds for Justice (JFJ), a progressive organization dedicated to “build[ing] a resurgent movement for justice with a significant Jewish presence at its center.” JFJ is part of a broad movement in contemporary American Judaism, in which tikkun olam takes on the practical tasks and commitments of social action. The Jewish social justice movement, of which JFJ is at the vanguard, sees the pursuit of economic justice as a contemporary articulation of the rabbinic imperative to go beyond the letter of Choshen Mishpat, or Jewish civil law, in working in partnership with God to repair Creation. Jacobs believes that “Jews should openly bring Jewish text and experience into public policy discussions.” Doing so is a means of upholding a central covenantal commitment while expressing Jewish identity in a modern manner.
The term tikkun olam was used by the rabbis who compiled the Mishnah (the comprehensive compendium of rabbinic teaching compiled circa 200 C.E. and comprising a major portion of the Talmud). It refers to laws designed to afford extra protection to the disadvantaged. The term took on a different meaning in the Jewish mystical tradition of Kabbalah: the followers of the sixteenth-century Kabbalist Rabbi Isaac Luria saw tikkun olam as a kind of cosmic repair of God’s fractured creation. In Lurianic Kabbalah, to which Rabbi Jacobs refers, the shards from shattered vessels of creation have trapped divine energy and human souls which must be restored to their divine Source through prescribed mystical and contemplative acts.
In its contemporary context, tikkun olam is often used as an umbrella term for any form of Jewish social action. The Kabbalistic imperative to address mystical imbalance is either folded into the work that seeks to address social imbalance, or elided altogether. This has led to a kind of “tikkun olam fatigue,” tempting many Jews to retire the term from both the activist and mystical lexicons.
In an article on the history of the term, Rabbi Jacobs notes its ubiquity and its concomitant devaluation: “I have come across puzzling references to the ‘prophetic value of tikkun olam’ or ‘the commandment of tikkun olam.’ As a post-biblical term, tikkun olam neither appears in a prophetic book nor constitutes one of the mitzvot. However, as this concept has come to be equated both with a general call to justice, and with specific philanthropic and volunteer activities, the definition of tikkun olam has been merged with those of tzedakah (financial support of the poor), g’milut hasadim (acts of loving kindness), and tzedek (justice).”
Rather than advocating tikkun olam’s retirement, Rabbi Jacobs promotes a diverse and sustainable four-fold definition: “the anticipation of the divine kingdom in the Aleynu prayer; the midrashic (homiletic or interpretive) call to preserve the physical world; the rabbinic desire to sustain the social order; and the Lurianic belief in our power to restore divine perfection.” Such a definition would inform the Jewish social justice movement with both social and spiritual goals, encouraging the practice of world-healing in as inclusive and just a manner as possible.
Jill Jacobs, There Shall Be No Needy: Pursuing Social Justice through Jewish Law & Tradition (Woodstock, Vermont: Jewish Lights Press, 2009).
—. “The History of ‘Tikkun Olam’,” Zeek, June 2007.