Repairing Tikkun Olam. (Current Theological Writing)

By Wolf, Arnold Jacob | Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought, Fall 2001 | Go to article overview

Repairing Tikkun Olam. (Current Theological Writing)


Wolf, Arnold Jacob, Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought


THE CAPTURE OF THE TALMUDIC-ZOHARIC NOTION OF Tikkun Olam (the correction or repair of the world) by liberal political circles is well-nigh complete. Few remember that the rabbis once meant by the doctrine not much more than fine tuning their construction of the mitzvaksystem so that it might be made feasible for obedience. The siddur, to be sure, contains the fine phrase "to correct the world under God's kingship," but the alenu prayer in which the phrase occurs is anything but universalistic in its original formulation.

In Lurianic Kabbalah, the term finds a far more esoteric significance, as we would expect. The fine anthology by Cohen and Mendes-Flohr states the Kabbalistic teaching simply and precisely:

Tikkun (pl. tikkunim; lit. "Restoration") Lurianic doctrine of the restoration of the flawed universe to its original design, or specific act which helps to effect this process. Renewed divine emanations and human religious and contemplative efforts are to eventually end the cosmic exile of the Shekhinah and the historic exile of the Jewish people. (1)

One hardly knows what to say about the ineffable hutzpah of the circle around the Ari, Isaac Luria, who presumed to plumb the very essence of the divine. They accepted a mythology of the creation of the world by God's tsimtsum, self-contraction, followed by the breaking of vessels and the repair of the world by human theurgic practice. How all of this rank superstition could be accepted with profound loyalty is a mystery to us of the mitnagid persuasion; we agree with Emmanuel Levinas, the great twentieth century Jewish philosopher who considered it also dangerous nonsense. But even more incredible is the manipulation of the esoteric doctrine to support political views of the soft left in our own time. Consider the sermonic version of Arthur Green:

Tikkun Olam

Tikkun Olam, which means "mending the world," is an ancient Hebrew phrase that has taken on new life in the past few decades. Its verbal form is found in the 'alenu prayer, which concludes every service in the traditional synagogue. There le-takken 'olam means "to establish the world in the kingdom of the Almighty (shaddai (*))," "or to bring about God's rule on earth. In contemporary usage it refers to the betterment of the world, including the relief of human suffering, the achievement of peace and mutual respect among peoples, and the protection of the planet itself from destruction.

While associating these ideals with tikkun olam may be a recent innovation, the values themselves are deeply rooted in Jewish tradition. Spreading our most basic moral message-that every person is the divine image (tselem elohim)-requires that Jews be concerned with the welfare, including the feeding housing, and health of it all. The Torah's call that we "pursue justice, only justice" (Deuteronomy 16:20) demands that we work toward closing the terrible gaps, especially in learning and opportunity, that exist within our society and undermine our moral right to relative wealth and comfort most of us enjoy. The very placing of humans on earth "to work and guard" (Genesis 2:15) God's garden as well as the halakhah forbidding wanton destruction of resources, tell us that protecting the natural order is part of that justice.

The rediscovery of ancient spiritual forms in recent decades has paralleled an age of activism for political and social change. In some cases these have been separate from, or even opposed to, one another. Many of those attracted to seeking spirituality have given up on the possibility of any serious improvements in the human condition altogether. In the case of Judaism, such a bifurcation of spiritual and sociopolitical concerns is hardly possible. Anyone who tries to undertake it ultimately has to deal with the prophets of ancient Israel, still the strongest and most uncompromising advocates for social justice our world has known. If you try to create a closed world of lovely Jewish piety and build it on foundations of injustice and degradation of others, Isaiah and Amos will not let you sleep.

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