January 31, 2019
by Lee Bender and Naphtali Perlberger
We live in a world that is increasingly chaotic and divisive. Polarization pits conservatives against liberals, traditionalists against progressives, nationalists against globalists, and often less observant Jews against more observant Jews. These competing categories of people are resulting in tribalism, which is spiraling into combative rhetoric and occasionally, violence. Among them, many are yearning for a way to make sense of the world, bring it together, and fix it.
Tikkun olam has deep Kabbalistic roots, yet recently it has become a cliché-like Hebrew catch phrase generally translated as “repairing the world,” and co-opted by many leftists/secular Jews, that covers myriad politically charged interests under the “social justice” umbrella.
With claims by some connecting these issues to the Tanakh and Talmud, it has morphed into its own religion: tikkun olamism. This is deeply troubling, and can have negative implications for support for Israel and the Jewish people.
Many American Jews sincerely want to heal the world, and they are simply doing what appeals to their hearts and seems to be correct in their eyes. But the Torah demands more, that the Jewish people stay loyal to the covenant with Hashem and obey His commandments.
Much of what we are seeing is the metastatic mutation of a term known as tikkun ha’olam. The term has its origins in classical rabbinic literature and in Jewish mysticism — primarily in the works of Rabbi Isaac Luria. Tikkun ha’olam became the abbreviated use of a phrase found in the Mishnah: mipnei tikkun ha’olam, “for the sake of the preservation of the system as a whole.”
Tikkun ha’olam embodied the most distinctively Jewish, as well as the single most important, ethical injunction of Kabbalah, the command that humanity must restore and redeem a broken and fallen world. According to classical and rabbinic sources, the “repair” becomes the mission and mandate of Torah Jews to be as the Prophet Isaiah proclaimed, a “light onto the nations,” i.e., to illuminate darkness and extinguish evil through the performance of religious acts prescribed by the Creator, known as mitzvot.
Tikkun ha’olam has a biblical source from one of the names of G-d, Shaddai, which was first revealed to our forefathers. This name then was linked to the notion of “repair” in our liturgy and found in the Aleinu prayer said three times a day. In its concluding paragraph, we express the hopes that the Almighty’s splendor and the removal of detestable idolatry from the earth be enabled: takkein olam b’malkhut Shaddai, i.e. “to perfect the world beneath the sovereignty of Hashem.” This is a key element of the ultimate vision of Messianic fulfillment. In short, tikkun ha’olam holds that the human spirit is in partnership with G-d to help finish the work of creation.
With the Age of Enlightenment, progressive and liberal ideas seeped into our religious institutions. With each permutation, tikkun ha’olam lost its original meaning.
But especially among ultraliberal Jews, the New Agey tikkun olam has become a political motivator for acts of social justice which are done in the name of fixing what its proponents see as the ills in the world.
Sometimes infused with anti-Semitism and anti-Jewish propaganda, instead of it being a benevolent, inspiring and uniquely Jewish mission, today’s tikkun olam has actually become (ironically) one that pits whole segments of the world against Jews, Zionism and our nation-state.
There is no concept in Judaism of “social justice,” but there is undeniably one of justice, tzedek. Tzedek does not merely indicate legal rights but also compassion and humanity, and is the root of the word for charity, tzedakah. Indeed, the Jewish state is the embodiment of tzedek and tzedakah, as it strives to be a “light onto the nations”: an open democracy that respects the rights of all its citizens, an innovator in high-technology, agriculture and medicine it shares with the world, and a humanitarian first responder.
Yet despite being surrounded by enemies who are sworn to its destruction, including its so-called “peace partner” (the Palestinian Authority), Israel upholds the dearest of “progressive” values that include respecting women’s rights, minority rights, a robust free press, an independent judiciary, first-class education, health care and economic opportunities for all of its citizens, including its Arab citizens. No doubt it is not perfect, but Israel continues to strive under difficult circumstances.
But Israel also clearly espouses its “national rights,” which goes against the leftist post-nation-state paradigm. And that, it seems, is Israel’s latest sin. Feelings rule over facts. Thus, Israelis are deemed aggressive and bad, and Palestinians are good, poor, defenseless and not responsible for their actions. That Hamas, which rules Gaza, is a genocidal entity whose charter calls for the destruction of Israel and the Jewish people, is irrelevant and ignored. The same goes for the Palestinian Authority.
Israel cannot be expected to engage in the tikkun olam of the left with people sworn to its eradication. Israel wants peace, but its rights and security come first. Apparently, this is painful for leftists to digest. It was internal dissension and baseless hatred by our own people that the rabbis say caused the destruction of the Second Temple and will prevent the coming of the Messiah.
We are fighting for nothing less than the soul of the Jewish people and community. This strand of secular Judaism, tikkun olamism, is a new creed. In being caught up in the smokescreen of tikkun olam, we embolden our enemies and weaken our resolve.
If Jews want to engage in tikkun olam, the only faithful and trustworthy way to do that is to promote observance of the Torah across the entire spectrum of the Jewish community — not cherry-picking concepts to suit agendas. A compromise has to be found between the universalistic and the particularistic, so we can strive to perfect the world under Hashem’s sovereignty and dominion. l
Lee Bender is co-president of the Zionist Organization of America’s Greater Philadelphia chapter. Naphtali Perlberger is a chapter vice president. Chapter Executive Director Steve Feldman contributed to this op-ed.