It is hard to escape the ubiquity of the term tikkun olam in contemporary American Judaism. Translated as "repairing the world," it has the power to galvanize people of all ages into action on issues as diverse as gay rights and preventing the release of fossil fuels into the atmosphere. Nearly every synagogue has a committee or teen group dedicated to the practice of tikkun olam, and the term, now practically synonymous with "social action," has crept into mainstream intelligentsia parlance: As a candidate, President Barack Obama used it to win over the crowd at the 2008 AIPAC conference, and Princeton professor Cornel West has been quoted as saying, "Tikkun olam all the way." Its powerful imagery has been absorbed into American pop culture: In the 2008 movie Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist, Norah says, "There's this part of Judaism that I like. Tikkun olam. It said that the world is broken into pieces and everyone has to find them and put them back together." Nick responds, "Maybe we don't have to find it. Maybe we are the pieces."
So omnipresent is the term, it would be logical to assume it's a deeply rooted tenet of the Jewish faith. Yet until the 20th century, its place in Jewish discourse was minimal: Tikkun olam is neither a Torah commandment nor a dictum of the Prophets. It makes its first significant appearance in the Mishnah, the work of oral traditions and laws compiled by rabbis in 200 CE. Here it conies up 15 times, mostly surrounding the tricky issues of divorce and slavery. In one example, a man sends his wife a writ of divorce and then changes his mind. If he gets to his wife before the writ and declares the divorce is cancelled, then it is; if he doesn't make it in time the divorce stands. This rule--a change from the previous tradition in which a man could declare his change of heart anytime, even without his wife's knowledge--was put in place by Rabbi Gamaliel the Elder for the sake of tikkun olam. Tikkun olam is used here as a call for public policy to guard social order, not for social justice. Rabbi Gamaliel wants a society where it is clear who is divorced and who isn't.
Tikkun olam also pops up in the 3rd century Aleinu prayer that is still recited daily. The line le-taken olam be malkhut Shaddai, to fix the world under the Kingdom of the Almighty] is surrounded by verses describing a time when idolatry will be abolished and all will call upon God's name. In this case, tikkun olam is a Messianic cry in which God is the one doing the perfecting, not humans.
The derivation of today's meaning of tikkun olam largely conies from the ideas of famed 16th century Tsfat mystic and Kabbalist, Rabbi Isaac Luria. As Luria tells it, God contracts himself to make room for the world to be created, pouring part of Himself into vessels of Divine light. The vessels shatter and their fragments--holv sparks--scatter, leaving the Jews with the task of collecting them, and in doing so, repairing the world. For Luria, the way to repair the world was through prayer, Torah study and the performance of mitzvot. Mitzvot--the doing of good deeds--did not necessarily mean social action.
The Lurianic view marked a sharp change in Jewish theology; whereas before, God was doing the repairing, Jews are now God's partners. "In a sense, tikkun olam expands God's original covenant with the Jews at Sinai by adding a metaphysical and spiritual dimension to our ethical and moral obligations," says Howard Schwartz, a scholar of Jewish folklore and mythology at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
Lima's interpretation of tikkun olam brought him new followers throughout the Kabbalistic era. "After the 16th century, however, the term tikkun olam disappears from popular usage," says Rabbi Matthew Durbin of Temple Bedi El in Glens Falls, New York. …