Academic journal article Canadian Social Work Review

TIKKUN OLAM: COLLECTIVITY, RESPONSIBILITY, HISTORY: A Qualitative Study of Tikkun Olam among Jewish Community Workers in Greater Vancouver

Academic journal article Canadian Social Work Review

TIKKUN OLAM: COLLECTIVITY, RESPONSIBILITY, HISTORY: A Qualitative Study of Tikkun Olam among Jewish Community Workers in Greater Vancouver

Article excerpt

If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?

-Hillel (Pirkei Avot 1:14)

THIS STUDY FOCUSES ONTHE JEWISH PRINCIPLE of tikkun olam, aJewish principle of spiritual repair and social justice meaning "repair of the world" in Hebrew. In Vancouver, many diverse Jewish community groups, ranging from synagogue committees to Jewish social service agencies, cite tikkun olam as a core principle. In spite of its pervasiveness, there is a dearth of literature on how tikkun olam is understood and carried out by Jewish community workers in both secular and Jewish contexts.

In his essay "Tikkun ha-Olam: The Metamorphosis of a Concept," Gilbert S. Rosenthal (2005) presents a historical review of tikkun olam, stating that, currently, the "term has become synonymous with social activism" (p. 214). Rosenthal begins his historical review with the verb "t-k-n" which appears in the book Koholet (Ecclesiastes), a verb that means "to straighten, to repair, to fashion" and which in rabbinic Hebrew "assumes many meanings and, in fact, becomes one of the most flexible verbs in the language" (p. 215, my emphasis). Tikkun olam next appears in the 'Aleinu prayer in third century CE, the prayer recited three times daily by Orthodox Jewish people. Rosenthal identifies the 'Aleinu prayer as crucial to the evolution of tikkun olam because it invests the principle with divine action rather than human action. In her essay "Repairing the World from the Perspective ofJewish Tradition," Lee (1990) cites the centrality of the 'Aleinu prayer in Jewish religious life, writing that "the idea of 'repair of the world' is an ever present notion for Jews since they conclude every worship service with the 'Alenu' prayer" (p. 402).

Tikkun olam next appears in the Kabbalah, also known as "the Secret Wisdom," also known as Qabbalah or Cabbalah, Hebrew for "that which has been received" and is said to have been brought to Earth by the prophet Elijah (Unterman, 2008, xxv). In his essay "Tikkun: A Lurianic Motif in ContemporaryJewish Thought," Fine (1989) writes that in diverse ways, from popular piety to the arena of theological speculation, Lurianic Kabbalah greatly impacted Judaism in the 17th century and well into the 18th century among Eastern European Jewry. The popular website My Jewish Learning offers this standard condensed version of Luria's teaching of tikkun olam, the version often taught to Jewish children: "Divine light became contained [by G-d] in special vessels, or kelim, some of which shattered and scattered. While most of the light returned to its divine source, some light attached itself to the broken shards. These shards constitute evil and are the basis for the material world; their trapped sparks light give them power."

In her essay about the role of Judaism in her social work practice, Dalhousie social work professor Merlinda Weinberg (2010) summarizes Lurianic Kabbalism without naming Luria or the Kabbalah:

In Jewish mysticism, there is a story that G-d attempted to fill a vessel (which represented order in the universe) with celestial light. The vessel shattered so that humans entered a broken world in which sparks of the divine were present. An essential responsibility is to use our own G-d-given radiance to gather up the broken bits through Tikkun Olam or repair of the world (p. 134).

The commonalities in synopses of the story of tikkun olam are of searching out dispersed light, the coexistence of light and dark, and the human work of correcting for disruption in the world.

The tikkun olam of 'Aleinu and the Kabbalah share the importance of daily acts of spiritual devotion in the pursuit of repair. Lee (1990) writes of 'Aleinu that "humans advance the cause of restoration through daily acts of study, prayer, and the performance of commandments" (p. 406). This focus on the ability of individuals to perform broader spiritual repair could account for the popularity of tikkun olam following the Shoah, the Hebrew word for the Holocaust. …

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