It is hard to escape the ubiquity of the term “tikkun olam” in contemporary American Judaism. Translated as “repairing the world,” it has the power to galvanize people of all ages into action on issues as diverse as gay rights and preventing the release of fossil fuels into the atmosphere. Nearly every synagogue has a committee or teen group dedicated to the practice of tikkun olam, and the term, now practically synonymous with “social action,” has crept into mainstream intelligentsia parlance. As a candidate, President Barack Obama used it to win over the crowd at the 2008 AIPAC conference, and Princeton professor Cornel West has been quoted as saying, “Tikkun olam all the way.” Its powerful imagery has been absorbed into American pop culture. In the 2008 movie Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, Norah says, “There’s this part of Judaism that I like. Tikkun olam. It said that the world is broken into pieces and everyone has to find them and put them back together.” Nick responds, “Maybe we don’t have to find it. Maybe we are the pieces.”
So omnipresent is the term, it would be logical to assume it’s a deeply rooted tenet of the Jewish faith. Yet until the 20th century, its place in Jewish discourse was minimal. Tikkun olam is neither a Torah commandment nor a dictum of the Prophets. It makes its first significant appearance in the Mishnah, the work of oral traditions and laws compiled by rabbis in 200 CE. Here it comes up 15 times, mostly surrounding the tricky issues of divorce and slavery. In one example, a man sends his wife a writ of divorce and then changes his mind. If he gets to his wife before the writ and declares the divorce is cancelled, then it is; if he doesn’t make it in time, the divorce stands. This rule—a change from the previous tradition in which a man could declare his change of heart anytime, even without his wife’s knowledge—was put in place by Rabbi Gamaliel the Elder for the sake of tikkun olam. Tikkun olam is used here as a call for public policy to guard social order, not for social justice. Rabbi Gamaliel wants a society where it is clear who is divorced and who isn’t.
Tikkun olam also pops up in the 3rd century Aleinu prayer that is still recited daily. The line le-taken olam be-malkhut Shaddai, [to fix the world under the Kingdom of the Almighty] is surrounded by verses describing a time when idolatry will be abolished and all will call upon God’s name. In this case, tikkun olam is a Messianic cry in which God is the one doing the perfecting, not humans.
The derivation of today’s meaning of tikkun olam largely comes from the ideas of famed 16th century Tsfat mystic and Kabbalist, Rabbi Isaac Luria. As Luria tells it, God contracts himself to make room for the world to be created, pouring part of Himself into vessels of Divine light. The vessels shatter and their fragments—holy sparks—scatter, leaving the Jews with the task of collecting them, and in doing so, repairing the world. For Luria, the way to repair the world was through prayer, Torah study and the performance of mitzvot. Mitzvot—the doing of good deeds—did not necessarily mean social action.
The Lurianic view marked a sharp change in Jewish theology; whereas before, God was doing the repairing, Jews are now God’s partners. “In a sense, tikkun olam expands God’s original covenant with the Jews at Sinai by adding a metaphysical and spiritual dimension to our ethical and moral obligations,” says Howard Schwartz, a scholar of Jewish folklore and mythology at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
Luria’s interpretation of tikkun olam brought him new followers throughout the Kabbalistic era. “After the 16th century, however, the term tikkun olam disappears from popular usage,” says Rabbi Matthew Durbin of Temple Beth El in Glens Falls, New York. It reemerged in the second half of the 20th century with its social justice connotation, influenced by popular Jewish philosophers like Hermann Cohen. Cohen’s postulation that Judaism’s universal ethics could better the entire world made it possible for Jews, religious and not, to find a place in mainstream American society, says Durbin. That American Protestantism had begun to stress the moral and ethical aspects of theology also had a profound effect on laying the groundwork for tikkun olam to become a pillar of contemporary Judaism.
It didn’t take long for tikkun olam to become as recognizable to the Jewish American identity as Israel and the Holocaust. In the 1950s, Shlomo Bardin, the founder of the Brandeis Camp Institute (BCI) in California, was the first to use the term in the United States, according to Lawrence Fine, author of Physician of the Soul, Healer of the Cosmos: Isaac Luria and His Kabbalistic Fellowship. By 1970, the Conservative movement named its youth social action program “Tikkun Olam,” and in 1988 included the doctrine of tikkun olam in its statement of principles.
Tikkun olam took off because “it is so aligned with the cultural values of American Jews,” says Rabbi Sidney Schwarz, author of Judaism and Justice: The Jewish Passion to Repair the World. At the same time, it also took on political connotations. In 1986, when Michael Lerner founded the bimonthly Jewish magazine Tikkun, tikkun olam took a step toward becoming a universal rallying cry for change that transcends Judaism and includes all of humanity.
The term is not exclusively American. When describing the recent efforts by Israeli relief workers in Haiti, Asaf Shariv, the consul general of Israel in New York, called them tikkun olam. And Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi of England, calls tikkun olam a “majestic aspiration” that can be reached through the kindness found in day-to-day interactions. Yet only in America does tikkun olam serve as the most significant connection of many Jews to Judaism, and, for some, even a religion unto itself.
Predictably, its use as a metonym for social action draws ire from those who view it as a case of liberals co-opting Judaism for their purposes. “Health care, labor unions, public-school education, feminism, abortion rights, gay marriage, globalization, U.S. foreign policy, Darfur: on everything Judaism has a position—and, wondrously, this position just happens to coincide with that of the American liberal Left,” Hillel Halkin complained in a 2008 Commentary harangue. Even among liberals there is concern that overuse has stripped the term of meaning. The late Chicago rabbi and activist Arnold J. Wolf criticized those who use the term as a catch-all. “This strange and half-understood notion becomes a huge umbrella under which our petty moral concerns and political panaceas can come in out of the rain,” he wrote in 2001.
Others argue that with limited time and resources, tikkun olam should be limited to helping fellow Jews. “Until a few years ago, social justice within an Orthodox context was largely focused on issues pertaining to the immediate community,” said Ruth Balinsky, the director of education for the three-year-old Orthodox social justice organization Uri L’Tzedek. This outlook has begun to change in the Orthodox world: Like members of other denominations, young Orthodox Jews have begun to turn attention more frequently to issues facing the wider global community, considering this an essential part of their Judaism.
Despite detractors, few other phrases today inspire or rally so many—Jewish or not. Writer Cynthia Ozick once said, “universalism is the parochialism of the Jews.” This may be the power, magic and beauty of tikkun olam. —Sarah Breger