Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Tikkun Olam, Zionism, History, and the Jewish Problem

A reader ("nycerbarb") sent me to this fine article by one Rabbi Jill Jacobs. Jacobs tells the history of the Tikkun Olam idea from its earliest appearance in Second Temple times - i.e, post-Biblical - and shows how it has meant different things at different times. She is unabashed in saying the present term stands for an American ideal, first used in the 1950s. She likes this usage, and shows that the four main earlier meanings can, if you wish, be understood as contributing to the present one.

Her history is fine, so far as I can judge. Her reasoning is, well, reasonable. A bit contrived at times, for my taste, but most peoples' reasoning is a bit contrived from time to time. Having Googled a bit I get the feeling Rabbi Jacobs and I might not agree on some things, including some rather important things, but I have real respect for her ability to make her case from a position of serious learning and knowing.

Then there's the matter of universality. American Jews - like European Jews a century earlier - are into it. They'd like to do things that may make the world fixed. Some of the prophets looked forward to the world one day being all fixed, and their formulations count as the most rousing ever, though their avenue to perfection ran along a religious path quite different from their modern disciples'. Since then, however, Jews have mostly concentrated on the same things other people focused on: doing their best in the world they lived in. Sometime in the 18th century some Jews began setting aside the communal and national frameworks (the prophets had never done that) so as to focus mainly on the universal. Moses Mendelsohn was an early proponent, Rosa Luxemburg was an extreme one, and Leon (Bronstein) Trotsky was an extreme example of how wishing to force the matter leads to mass death.

Still, for all the examples we'd prefer to forget, American Jewry can be said, by in large, to be informed by a version of this impetus, this wish to fix the world; nor is there anything intrinsically wrong with it. Israel is informed by a different vision, the one that recognized in the late 19th century that new world orders were all well and fine but the Jews wouldn't be allowed to fit into them, or in the case of the early socialist Zionists, the Jews might be allowed, but only if they came to the table as a viable nation, like everybody else.

As a committed Zionist myself, I can see that both visions of society have roots in Jewish history and thought; it seems to me that the one that aims at the Jews being actors in history is more compelling than the one that would have history become something else. This seems to me closer to the essence of Judaism, but also to the reality of the human condition. Jill Jacobs might think otherwise, and we could have a good argument about it - nothing is more Jewish than that, after all.


Barry Meislin said...

A few thoughts:

1. Zionism was, among several things, an attempt to channel Jews away from the pied-piper-type messianic movement of Communism (and what a splendid success that attempt at Tikkun Olam was!) towards Jewish national self-actualization and rebirth through a melange of Tolstoyanism and Jewish nation building. If one thinks long and hard enough (as some are wont to do), Zionism may also be said to have had, among other things, world-saving intentions simply by attempting to remove Jews from (European, initially) countries that really didn't want them (in a serious way), thus attempting to solve the "Jewish Problem" and its world-wide (i.e., European-wide) dimensions.

2. Like telling others how to behave and what to do, Tikkun Olam is much easier than Tikkun Yisrael (pace a well-worn parable).

3. For many, Tikkun Olam means a world without the State of Israel, so that just as originally, Zionism tried to help the world by removing Jews from it (and bringing them to the Land of Israel---and a "normalized" existence), for many today, there seem to be not a few who are so concerned with and by the State of the world that they are pursuing their version of Tikkun Olam by doing their best to remove the State of Israel entirely.

(And, of course, they have the best of intentions.)

4. As for those who claim to want to fix the world, caveat emptor!!

This Is Hell said...

It's either very hard or very easy to argue the point when religion and philosophy are reduced to unassailable platitudes. Tikkun Olam is at least more and different from "be nice, it's the nice thing to do" which is what American Jews have turned it into. It's not the SPCA it's not the food bank and it's not sending money to Darfur or the Ninth Ward of New Orleans. I'm sorry but if "Be a mensch and give tzadakah" is all one gets from it, then there's not much point in having that discussion.

Anonymous said...


This is an interesting topic to me.

You mentioned in passing what is, I think, one of the critical reasons so many Jews have seized on "tikkun olam" and morphed its meaning into a Jewish prescription to do good in the world. That reason is the discomfort Jews, particularly liberal Westernized Jews, have with the particularist, tribal, nationalist and ethno-centric strains in Judaism. Instead, they wish to see Judaism as a more universal, open "thing" focused on all of humanity rather than only on itself. Some of this instinct derives from self-interest, much the same way the early Jewish attachment to Civil Right for Negros and others had elements of self-interest, but some is an expression of genuine universal humanist attachment. In any event, whether you call it "tikkun olam" or not, Judaism DOES contain within it a universalist strain of justice for all mankind, just as it contains strains of ethno-centric particularism.

The model I have been using myself lately is an emphasis of "or lagoyim" and "mamlechet kohanim". It is our responsibility as Jews to do right in the world because it is our job as a nation of priests/servants of God to do so and because it is also our job to set an example for the world.

The problem with the way 'tikkun olam" is so often used now, is that it really is a fig leaf to cover the lack of a special relationship with God and the lack of a specifically Jewish obligation. It is self-negating.

Once again, great blog and great topic. I rarely comment, but I always read.

Anonymous said...


I am so please you appreciated the article I posted. You are so gracious to mention me. I wish I had time to write a little more about this topic.

Anonymous wrote:
"Some of this instinct derives from self-interest, much the same way the early Jewish attachment to Civil Right for Negros and others had elements of self-interest, but some is an expression of genuine universal humanist attachment."

The involvement of Jews in the civil rights had to do with recognizing a "wrong" and doing something to fix it. Many, like Rabbi Heschel, were refugees from Germany. They saw the Jim Crow laws as equivalent to the Nuremberg laws. The Negro Colleges were filled with German-Jewish professors who were forced to leave Germany at that time. The Negro Colleges provided their visas to America.


Lee Ratner said...

I kind of agree with the Anonymous who posted after This is Hell but I would phrase it differently. I'd say that Tikkun Olam was seized about as way of explaining what Judaism's purpose as a religion is. The purpose of the Dharmic religions like Hinduism and Buddhism is to remove people from the wheel of reincarnation. The purpose of Christianity is salvation and overcoming the original sin through faith in Christ. The purpose of Islam is salvation through submission to God and the following of Shariah. Its kind of hard to say what Judaism is. Jews disagree a lot on what the message of Judaism is to Jews and to non-Jews and why its important to follow Halacha. Look at the kosher laws. A few Rabbis, including the esteemed Rabbi Kook, believed that kashrut was intended to promote vegetarianism and encourage humane treatment of animals. Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, while not a vegetarian, believes that these Rabbis have a point. Other Rabbis argue that kashrut was not intended to promote vegetarianism but only to separate Jews from gentiles. The arguments on the purpose of Jewish religion are endless in their variety.

I think tikkun olam was seized as an attempt to try to find some purpose and message to Judaism. Especially from the liberal perspective. Not necessarily make Judaism more universal but to give Jews as people a purpose.