President Barack Obama often mentions tikkun olam when he talks to Jewish audiences.
At the 2012 AIPAC conference he referred to “the concept of tikkun olam that has enriched and guided my life.”
Many Jews welcome the fact that figures like the president connect with this Jewish concept, which many translate as “repairing the world.” For them, tikkun olam means performing community service and working for social justice. For them, the concept lies at the center of Judaism.
“Tikkun olam is at the very heart of what our congregation is,” said Rabbi Gary Pokras of Temple Beth Ami, a Reform synagogue in Rockville.
Others say that the ubiquity of the term and the way it’s given to any positive action distracts Jews from the particularity of Judaism, which includes following the commandments (or mitzvot). And they say it blurs the line between the Jewish community and the wider world.
This debate over tikkun olam, which began as a vague concept in the Aleinu prayer, raises central questions about what it means to be Jewish today.
Mark Joffe remembers Beth Ami’s then-rabbi, Jack Luxemburg, calling for congregants to invest time in tikkun olam projects. It was the 2004 High Holidays and the rabbi’s sermon motivated Joffe and others to form a tikkun olam committee within the synagogue. Today, the committee lists 20 projects on its website, ranging from feeding a Christmas dinner to the homeless to teaching English to Spanish-speaking immigrants.
Joffe said doing tikkun olam helps him feel connected to Judaism.
Joffe is not alone in recognizing the value of tikkun olam as a way to connect to Judaism. In 2013, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, wrote in Ha’aretz, “Tikkun olam is the gateway for most young Jews to live a life of Jewish commitment.”
Yet Jacobs has also warned that Jews should not focus solely on the social activism that tikkun olam can imply.
To a Reform audience of 5,000 people last year, he said that Jews must also engage with their tradition.
“Social justice not grounded in text and ritual is ephemeral and unsustainable,” said Jacobs. “Like a bouquet of fresh flowers, it is destined to dry up and wither. It cannot be easily passed down to the next generation.”
Rabbi Aaron Starr of the Congregation Shaarey Zedek, a Conservative synagogue in suburban Detroit, goes a step further. On Yom Kippur he gave a sermon called “Time to say Kaddish for ‘Tikkun Olam’” in which he argued that focus on tikkun olam distracts Jews from other important aspects of Judaism, such as performing the mitzvot.
“Tikkun olam has devolved today to mean anything that fits into the categories of community service or helping the underdog,” he said. “The focus on universalism has led to stripping the word ‘mitzvah’ of any divine obligation.”
Starr praised Jews who do community service. However, he also faulted those who apply tikkun olam outside the Jewish community in lieu of helping fellow Jews.
“Most problematic of all,” he said, “the teaching of tikkun olam as it has evolved over the last several decades places greater emphasis on valuing global human community over caring for our fellow Jews and the continuity of Judaism.” Among them, he said, were Jews who do not do enough to stand up for Israel, such as the left-wing activist group IfNotNow.
History of tikkun olam
The earliest occurrence of the term tikkun olam comes in the second paragraph of the Aleinu prayer, which some traditions date back to the Second Temple period, more than 2,000 years ago. The term is “rather ambiguous” and most likely involves “an uncompromising rejection of any religion that does not acknowledge the one deity,” scholar Levi Cooper of the Pardes Institute of Jerusalem argued in a 2013 essay.
Tikkun olam also appears in the Talmud, where it is associated with maintaining social order and basic fairness when it comes to divorce law and other matters.
The most well-known use of the term occurred in the work of 16th-century kabbalist Isaac Luria. According to the Lurianic account of creation, which influenced Jewish mysticism for centuries, God put divine light into vessels during the process of creation. These vessels then shattered, spreading fragments of light throughout the universe and creating evil in the world. The responsibility of humanity is to repair the vessels through contemplative religious acts.
The term fell into obscurity until the second half of the 20th century, when the Lurianic account was reinterpreted to include acts of social justice and community service in the repairing of the world.
As Jonathan Krasner wrote in his essay “The Place of Tikkun Olam in Jewish American Life,” the concept gained popularity in post-Holocaust thought because of how it acknowledges the brokenness of the world while also allowing for humanity to play an active role in fixing it.
Krasner described how Jewish educators played an important role in the expanded use of the term, particularly at Jewish summer camps. In fact, educators chose to popularize the term in part because they believed it could serve to keep Judaism current with social change of the 1960s.
Krasner quoted Rabbi Raphael Artz, director of Camp Ramah in New England, who argued in 1967 that one of the major challenges of the day was to find a way to “concretize Jewish values in a meaningful way in contemporary culture.” Artz provided the concept of tikkun olam as a way to do so.
According to Krasner, in the 1970s, Rabbi Gerald Serotta, the founding rabbi of Shirat HaNafesh in Chevy Chase, suggested tikkun olam as a “way of re-engaging young people in Judaism through their activism.”
More recently, the term became more closely associated with left-leaning politics. In 1986, Rabbi Michael Lerner founded Tikkun magazine, writing that “the world needs to be and can be transformed, that history is not meaningless but aimed at liberation.”
A magnetic concept
Rabbi Shneur Zalman Minkowitz of Chabad of Chevy Chase said that he and other Chabad rabbis don’t often use the term tikkun olam, but that its meaning is “a big part of Chabad’s mission statement” and that much of Chabad’s work embodies the concept — and had, even before the term became popular. Tikkun olam can apply to helping anyone, not just people who are socially disadvantaged, he said.
Cooper of the Pardes Institute of Jerusalem argues that tikkun olam has drifted from its traditional context.
“The Hebrew idiom lends a tenor of Jewish tradition to contemporary values: those who champion modern tikkun olam believe they are drawing from hallowed traditional Jewish sources, while at the same time advocating liberal values,” he wrote. “The marketing utility is clear, the end is laudable; alas, the authenticity is dubious.”
But for other Jews, like Rabbi Pokras of Beth Ami, tikkun olam is a critical way to bring people into Judaism. He identifies most strongly to the Lurianic image of tikkun olam.
“For many folks that feel like they’re on the fringe of the Jewish world, [tikkun olam] provides such powerful focus and meaning in their lives,” he said. “It’s really extraordinary to see.”
Ultimately, tikkun olam’s popularity is the result of basic human nature, Minkowitz said.
“People want to do good,” he said. “People naturally gravitate toward tikkun olam.”