With the beginning of summer comes a time of reflection. School’s out and summer break is starting, so now is a time when we look back at the past year. And this past year was difficult. It included major natural disasters (tornadoes in Oklahoma, Hurricane Sandy) and human tragedy (Boston Marathon bombing, the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary). We sense that our world is in need of repair. And those of us who think of ourselves as global citizens, as well as Jews, feel called to do something to counteract this chaos. Working to fix our broken world, in Jewish terms, is called tikkun olam.
The term tikkun olam comes from rabbinic literature. The Mishnah seems to use tikkun olam as a legislative principle correcting a flaw in the legal system that, if uncorrected, could lead to an injustice. The idea of tikkun also is found in the mystical traditions. According to Lurianic kabbalah, there was a problem with the creation process and thus the world requires tikkun – repair. This worldview acknowledges that creation is imperfect. The innovation of the kabbalists was to suggest that human actions can impact the Divine.
In our times, these two ideas are combined into the modern concept of tikkun olam. Literally translated as “repairing the world,” the term has been applied pretty much any time we act to affect the world beyond ourselves. It’s been used to describe both volunteering and advocacy. From feeding the hungry to signing a petition, those who engage in such activities are taught that their actions are cosmically important and that setting the world right is a Jewish imperative.
Critics fairly point out that the tikkun of the kabbalists meant fulfilling mitzvot (commandments), many of them ritual. To such kabbalists, every mitzvah performed helps to repair creation. That is why we have been accustomed to finding Chabbadniks on the street recruiting Jewish men to wear t’fillin or distributing Shabbat candles to women. They encourage more Jews to observe ritual mitzvot in order to hasten the coming of the messiah and the redemption of the world. To focus only on social concerns, while leaving ritual commandments unfulfilled, however, can feel, to some, as a betrayal of the intent of the kabbalistic concept of tikkun.
While I certainly uphold the religious importance of fulfilling ritual commandments, it seems far too simplistic to criticize proponents of tikkun olam for not engaging enough in mitzvot. For one thing, even if tikkun olam itself isn’t one of the 613 commandments, ethical mitzvot are mitzvot. Perhaps there is no categorical imperative to repair the world, but there are clear Jewish imperatives to feed the hungry.
Furthermore, engaging in social justice activities and fulfilling ritual mitzvot are not mutually exclusive. For many Jews, tikkun olam is the entry point into learning more about their heritage and taking on other obligations. For Jewish Americans who have a better sense of universal values than Jewish ones, connecting their general impulse to make a difference in the world to the relevant Jewish concepts can bring them closer to our tradition.
Those who are committed to what they call tikkun olam do it out of a strong sense of the traditional Jewish values of tzedek (justice) and chesed (kindness). Many in the Jewish social justice community take their observances even further, choosing to go above and beyond (lifnei meshurat hadin), seeking out extra opportunities to fulfill these mitzvot. Responding when you come across someone needing help is commendable, but seeking out such opportunities and dedicating time to community service must be even more praiseworthy (in rabbinic parlance, harei zeh meshubah).
One example of the importance of ethical mitzvot comes from the Talmud (Taanit 22a), which contains a story in which the prophet Elijah singles out two rather unremarkable looking men and indicates that they have a share in the world to come. In order to understand why, Rabbi Beroka asks them in what profession they work. They reply that they are jesters who cheer up men who are depressed, and that when they see two people arguing, they work hard to make peace between them. From the context of the story, it is unlikely that these two men are exemplars of ritual observance. The moral of the story is that these seemingly a-religious acts are supremely important. Living a life that includes the regular fulfillment of these mitzvot is enough to earn these performers a place in the world to come.
If a young professional chooses to spend her time after work helping to cheer up patients in the hospital, or a college student chooses to spend his summer vacation volunteering for a grassroots peace movement, we should applaud their commitment rather than scrutinize their levels of ritual observance as if helping others is no mitzvah at all. Another generation of Jews is taking on g’milut chasidim and giving tzedakah. Whether or not they call it tikkun olam, surely they are hastening the redemption of the world.