Monday, October 19, 2009

Tikkun Olam

A number of readers have posted thoghtful questions over the past few weeks, to which I haven't related, mostly for lack of time. I have however made myself a list of comments I should respond to by and by. Here's one.

A reader asked me what my position is on Tikkun Olam, the Hebrew term which literally means "fixing the world", and which has become a recognized term in English, at least in broad circles of progressive thinkers in America but perhaps also beyond; I expect Richard Goldstone sooner or later will tell us he's engaging in Tikkun Olam.

Judaism is a very (very) old religion, and it pre-dates all the major ideological fault lines of the modern world by two or three millennia. So in that context, it's meaningless to speculate what "traditional Judaism" thought about the role of government in redressing the woes of society, for example. The Bible says nothing about health care one way or the other, and the Talmud has no position on international law. True, some of the most visionary and uplifting sentiments in human history come from the Bible - the aspiration to a world without war, and a world ruled by justice (until you begin to look closer and it turns out mercy may trump justice). Yet the same Bible - sometimes, the very same prophets - also contains some extraordinarily harsh sentiments about the fate of evil people and evil nations.

Anyway, traditional Judaism as developed by the Pharisees - the only group that culturally survived the cataclysm of the destructions of the first and third centuries - was a practical culture, and mostly shied away from visionary meta-schemes. Tikkun Olam is a perfect case. It's a Talmudic term, and as I've explained here, and also here, it doesn't mean what the English language thinks it means. Tikkun Olam in Talmudic tradition is a legal mechanism for resolving some kinds of complications which can arise from pedantic readings of the law.

So you've got some Biblical prophetic statements that contain a yearning for a theoretical perfected world (but no program to reach it). You've got the earthy rabbinic scholars who don't worry about perfection of the world and focus on the here and now. To be fair, in the middle ages there are once more Jewish voices that talk about perfecting the world, indeed, perfecting all of existence; some of those strains of thought then made their way into Hassidic Judaism, three hundred years ago - but I really don't think there's much affinity between those ideas and the ones of rabbi Lerner at Tikkun Magazine. The contemporary Tikkun Olam thinkers may not be earthy and pragmatic, but they're hardly religious mystics in the meaning of the Kabala.

Where did the modern usage of Tikkun Olam come from? I don't know. If any reader wishes to point us at some way of finding out, be my guest. I expect that if someone were to trace the lineage, it would be something like 18th century Enlightenment, French Revolution, then the more radical parts of the French Revolution, from there to the utopian strands of 19th century European thought -and about that time, newly enlightened Jews leaving their ghettos and joining the general European discussion, liking one of the camps and going back to their own sources to prove that Judaism said the same thing - which it probably didn't, but that was irrelevant.

This is a subject worthy of more than a blog post, but that's what I'm offering at the moment.


Menachem Mendel said...

I beg to disagree with some of your understanding of Tikkun Olam. I think that one can make a very good argument that the use found both in the Mishnah and the Talmud describes cases in which rabbis looked outside of the formalistic sources of the law and were influenced by what some of them felt was a better outcome for society. You wrote in another post that Tikkun Olam is "a mechanism for preventing very specific, though painful, complications." Why would any rabbi have tried to prevent something "painful" if they didn't think that it was bad for society or certain individuals? This does not mean that it is equal to the modern usage, but I do think that some rabbis were influenced by larger questions about how their decisions would influence society at large. Sagit Mor wrote a dissertation on Tikkun Olam in Tannaitic literature a number of years ago if you are interested in further reading.

Joe in Australia said...

How about from Aleinu? "Letaken olam bemalhhut Sha-dai".

Shalom, Cherry Hill said...

To Joe-- as you may know, that means 'To repair (or perfect) the world with the sovereignty of G-d'-- hardly the path to Tikkun Olam of the Progressives who misuse the term. Lets not forget the rest of the verse, which is 'and all people will call out Your name', again, not something that the Progressives seem interested in.

Anonymous said...

Now you taught us all the way from the early official understanding till now; actually I have asked you for YOUR understanding of it.So?Still curious.

Yaacov said...

Actually, I think my opinion shows thru, but if you insist, here it's spelled out:
Do I think the aspiration of a fixed world is positive? Yes.

Do I think Judaism rates such an aspiration high on its list of practical thngs that need to be done? No.

Do I think the Tikkun Olam camp are using Judaism's name in vain to give respectability to an unpractible political agenda which distracts from what needs to be aimed at in the real world? Yes, mostly, tho I can see where they're coming from.

Yaacov said...

That should have been "impractible", I expect.