Tikkun olam has become a favorite Hebrew catch phrase to describe social activism, opposition to injustice, and efforts to improve society and repair the world. Non-Jews have also appropriated the term: Former U.S. president Bill Clinton used tikkun olam to describe his social agenda.1 Where did the term originate? The meaning of the phrase went through four iterations. It began as a verb meaning “to make straight” in the Hebrew Scriptures. Rabbis used the term in legal discussion in the Talmud. In the Middle Ages it was used to describe a Kabbalistic concept of cosmic repair. Finally, American Jewry appropriated the term in the mid-twentieth century to describe modern social activism.
The Hebrew verb TKN is only found four times in the Scriptures (Ecclesiastes 1:15, 7:13, 12:9, and Daniel 4:36). It means to make straight, establish, arrange, or repair. In Ecclesiastes 7:13 the writer said, “Consider what God has done: Who can straighten [Takkan] what he has made crooked?”
The concept that we have a moral duty to society originates in the Torah. In Deuteronomy 16:20 God commanded Israel: “Follow justice and justice alone.” The prophet Amos condemned Israel’s disregard of the widow, orphan and alien. He declared: “Seek good, and not evil, that you may live…Hate evil, and love good, and establish justice in the gate…let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream!” (Amos 5:14-15, 24).
The rabbis put the words tikkun (repair) and ha-olam (the world) together to create a term for “improving society”: tikkun ha-olam. The phrase is found thirty times in the Babylonian Talmud, eight times in the Palestinian Talmud, and a few times in the Midrashim. Tikkun ha-olam in this sense referred to rabbinic interpretation of biblical law that provided a way for Torah to be carried out while protecting those who could not defend themselves. The phrasewas extended to describe fairness in business practice. For example, physicians could not be held liable for accidental malpractice. Because these moral rulings improved society or made the world straight, they were called tikkun ha-olam.2
Then the term underwent a third iteration. The Zohar, a book of Jewish mysticism, which first appeared in Spain in the late thirteenth century, used tikkun olam to describe the cosmic benefits when a Jew performs mitzvot. An entire philosophy called kabbalah sprung up around this book. It postures how through the fall of Adam, the universe was “ruptured” in both the physical and spiritual realms. When a Jew carries out the mitzvot (the 613 commands in the Torah), cosmic repairs are made in the invisible spiritual world. The benefits then “flow down” into the physical world and slowly repair the damage done on earth by the sin of Adam. Later Kabbalists elaborated on this philosophy by claiming that at the time of the fall, God’s presence was scattered in the same way a clay pot is shattered and the shards scattered. These pieces were called “divine sparks.” Famed Kabbalist Isaac Luria (1534-1572) explained that the Jews were dispersed throughout the world in order to “elevate” these sparks and restore the unity of God’s presence.3
Tikkun olam underwent its fourth iteration in the mid-twentieth century. While Jews struggled to make sense of the horrors of the Holocaust, a handful of theologians said that the tragic event gave the Jewish people a right to be heard. The Jews, they maintained, had earned a platform to speak out against hatred and injustice wherever it reared its ugly head.4
Emil Fackenheim (1916-2003), rabbi, professor of philosophy and Holocaust survivor, postulated that world history follows an ontological cycle: “rupture” and “repair” (tikkun). The Holocaust (rupture) was followed by the creation of the State of Israel (repair). It is incumbent on the Jewish people to lead the way toward repairing the rupture created by the Holocaust through acts of tikkun olam.5
With the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, our Jewish people hoped to design a society founded on moral values led by a government that protected freedom of speech and religion and cared for the outcast, the orphan and the widow. Moreover, many Jewish people believed that having a sovereign state won the right for us to advocate for tikkunolam on an international scale.
Sadly, the years that followed have not borne out this optimistic vision. Conflicts between Israel and her neighbors have erupted into regional wars. After each Middle East peace agreement, war erupted again over a new issue. Since the Holocaust, the world has come to the brink of nuclear holocaust. Ethnic genocide has been repeated numerous times against other peoples. Tikkun olam is elusive.
Any attempt to repair the world must take into account that society is made up of flawed people who are moved by their heart. The motivations of the heart can be fraught with problems. Although the prophets charged our ancestors with the task of tikkun olam, they also condemned the human heart as sick, wicked, and ill-equipped to carry out that mission: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9).
While it is our moral duty to pursue peace, establish justice, and care for those who cannot protect themselves, not until our own hearts are repaired can we repair the world. As long as we are at war with our own evil inclinations, we will be at war with those around us. That is why I believe we need the agent of peace God has provided. I believe Isaiah was writing of the Messiah who was to come:
Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. (Isaiah 53:4–5)
Those of us who are Messianic Jews maintain that Yeshua (Jesus) was that one who brought us reconciliation with God.
The Aleinu (3rd century CE), a Hebrew prayer recited at the conclusion of the Shabbat service, looks forward to a day of complete tikkun olam when God Himself will mend the world:
And therefore we hope to You, Lord our God, that we may speedily behold the splendor of Your might, to banish idolatry from the earth – and false gods will be utterly destroyed; to perfect the world [le-takken Olam] under the sovereignty of the Almighty. All mankind shall invoke Your Name to turn all the wicked of the earth to you.6
1. Jewish Scene, “Tikkun Olam Lifetime Achievement Awards”, Susan Nieman. Oct 4, 2012
2. Gilbert Rosenthal. “Tikkun ha-Olam: the Metamorphosis of a Concept.” Journal of Religion, University of Chicago Press, © 2005. p. 219.
3. Gershom Scholem, Kabbalah (Jerusalem: Keter, 1974), 176ff.
4. Gilbert, loc cit.
5. Emil Fackenheim, To Mend the World (New York: Schocken, 1982), pp. 250–313.
6. Rabbi Nissen Mangel, ed. Siddur Tehillat Hashem (Brooklyn, NY: Merkos L’inyonei Chinuch, 1981), p. 144.