Rather than reject the term altogether as meaningless, I suggest a re-imagining of tikkun olam that combines the four understandings of the term that we have seen in traditional text: 1) the Aleynu’s concept of tikkun as the destruction of any impurities that impede the full manifestation of the divine presence; 2) the literalist midrashic understanding of tikkun olam as the establishment of a sustainable world; 3) the rabbinic willingness to invoke tikkun ha’olam as a justification for changing untenable laws; and 4) the Lurianic belief that individual actions can affect the fate of the world as a whole.If we each ask these questions of ourselves, we can help to ensure that our work is worthy of being deemed tikkun olam.
These four strands, though complementary in some ways, also remain in tension with one another in some other important ways. The Aleynu prayer has the potential to direct Jews toward an inward focus on connecting with God and on spreading divinity through less tangible means, such as prayer or basic kindness, rather than through attention to more concrete human needs. The midrashic focus on the physical maintenance of the world might lead to an emphasis only on issues that affect the physical world – such as global warming, deforestation, or the extinction of animal species—and a concurrent disregard for human problems, such as poverty and health concerns. The rabbinic attention to fixing loopholes that disrupt the legal and social system may limit the definition of tikkun olam to issues that are understood to interfere with the large-scale functioning of society to the exclusion of issues that primarily affect a certain segment of the population. The Lurianic emphasis on the restoration of divine wholeness easily leads to an otherworldly focus, and a minimization of one’s sense of obligation toward the here and now.
- From the Aleynu conception, our understanding of tikkun olam will include an emphasis on the elimination of evil and the restoration of the world to a perfected divine state.
- The midrashic emphasis on the physical maintenance of creation reminds us of the need to work to preserve the world at a time when human behavior is having a negative impact on global temperatures, hurricane systems, and other natural phenomena
- The rabbinic understanding of tikkun ha’olam as the creation of a workable social and religious system leads to a definition of tikkun olam as a mandate to correct the systems that make our own society dysfunctional.
- Finally, the Lurianic belief that individual actions can have a permanent effect on the cosmos offers hope that our efforts toward tikkun will succeed.
By combining the major themes of these four strands, we come to a definition of tikkun olam as the process of fixing large societal problems, while maintaining a belief that our actions can have a positive effect on the greater human and divine world. When I think about my own tikkun olam commitments, I ask myself whether the work I am doing makes our society, as a whole function in a more positive way; whether the work allows even the most vulnerable members of society to live fully realized lives; and whether the work contributes to establishing a world in which the divine presence is more readily apparent. If we each ask these questions of ourselves, we can help to ensure that our work is worthy of being deemed tikkun olam.
One of the articles on the sidebar was "Why I Study Sabbateanism." In discussing Jacob Frank, the author writes: "If you see a boundary, cross it - that's the view, because it's what God did, mixing Godself with the impurity of the material world." I was a little thrown to hear a Jewish writer saying this, because hello Christian Incarnationalism, but of course the God of Abraham has been coming down and dwelling amidst God's people since Creation.