Sinai Synagogue, Yom Kippur AM, September 19, 2018
Rabbi Michael Friedland
Over Shabbat Shuvah and last night I spoke of how teshuvah is about change. The Maharal of Prague taught that teshuvah was about changing and correcting the transgression but also changing the transgressor. Last night I showed how our sacred literature changed the image of Aaron from his characterization in the Bible to that which we find in the rabbinic period and how that can serve as a model for change for us as well. These ten days are about change. But not just change for its own sake, change for the better. This idea of personal transformation is not unrelated to another key motif in the our Jewish conceptual universe – that of tikkun olam, repairing the world. Just as we seek to improve ourselves, so it is understood by most Jews that we have a responsibility to mend the brokenness of the world.
In the 2008 romantic comedy-drama, Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist the character Norah (played surprisingly by an actual Jew) Kat Denning tells her boyfriend played by Michael Cera: It reminds me of this part of Judaism that I really like. It’s called Tikkun Olam. It says that the world’s been broken into pieces and it’s everybody’s job to find them and put them back together again. To which Nick replies: “Well, maybe we’re the pieces. Maybe we are not supposed to find the pieces. Maybe we are the pieces.”
The character Norah is Jewish but her Jewishness was not important to the story at all. I remember watching the film, shocked, that a real Jewish concept, not a Yiddishism or a bagel and lox, was representing the Jewish people. But in fact there was no reason to be shocked. The term Tikkun Olam has entered the American lexicon in the same way schmooze, chutzpah and matza ball soup have. Tikkun Olam has become the ready made phrase for politicians who want to win over their Jewish audiences. It is so ubiquitous that a joke goes: an American Jew visits Israel for the first time and asks his Israeli guide, how do you say Tikkun Olam in Hebrew?
This familiarity with the term has not been received positively by certain Jewish scholars and members of the tribe who sit in the nationalist camp. For the term has become a catch all for many Jews who sit on the progressive end of the political spectrum. For the scholars the term has lost its relationship to its original meanings in Jewish texts. For scholars like my late teacher Byron Sherwin, tikkun olam has been bastardized and its intentions undone by leftists whose connection to Judaism is tenuous at best.
And for Jewish nationalists on the right end of the political spectrum, tikkun olam Judaism is yet another step in the destruction of the Jewish people. Jonathan Neumann, a British author whose new book To Heal the World? How the Jewish Left corrupts Judaism and Endangers Israel asks “Isn’t it just a little bit incredible for the teachings of the ancient faith of Judaism to happen to comprise without exception the agenda of the liberal wing of today’s Democratic party?” Neumann warns that Jews are embracing a version of liberalism that jeopardizes the community’s future — especially because its false cosmopolitanism risks cutting connections to the Jewish people and the state of Israel. He fears the new cult of tikkun olam will lure young Jews away from a rich, authentic Judaism. Cherry-picking convenient passages from the tradition, he charges, social justice warriors have defined modern American Judaism as a subsidiary of the Bernie Sanders wing of the Democratic party.
Gil Troy, a lecturer in Jewish History, in a positive review of Neumann’s book in LA’s Jewish Journal, writes, “Tikkun olam-ers” are at once annoyingly fluid and exhaustingly doctrinaire. They jump ever so nimbly from passion to passion as the political agenda changes — always finding some fig leaf with a doctored pedigree to Judaize their latest political stance. This week it is environmentalism, the next week civil rights. But never ever is it about Judaism.”
Troy admits it is valuable for Jews to inject religious and moral principles into politics. Just not the principles and politics of ‘Tikkun Olam-ers’. He writes, “Modern tikkun olam… makes the pursuit of a particular form of social justice American Judaism’s overriding mission. It overreaches by being too comprehensive — and too present-oriented... Most modern liberals don’t understand that the cosmopolitan rootlessness they worship leads to a moral rootlessness that is anti-Jewish, anti-Zionist — and ultimately amoral. The cult of modern tikkun olam thus threatens Am Olam, the eternal people.”
Now to some extent we must admit that these concerns are correct. Byron Sherwin is certainly correct that most Jews today who use the term Tikkun Olam have no clue to its origins in Jewish literature. And Troy and Neumann may be correct in their assessment that Jews who invoke Tikkun Olam as a central motivating factor in their Jewishness are less likely to observe Shabbat, more likely to be concerned with local sourcing of food than kashrut and may also support sanctions and boycotts against the Jewish state.
But maybe we should understand what the term means and where it comes from and what its context is before we determine that tikkun olam Jews are destroying Judaism and the Jewish people.
One expression of the term comes from the second century text known as the Mishnah. The term is used a number of times as a legal remedy for societal ills. For example in a divorce case a Mishnah teaches: At first, a man [who had already sent his wife a get, religious divorce, by means of a messenger] would set up a beit din (court) in a different place [from where the wife lived] and cancel it. Rabban Gamliel the elder established that this should not be done, for the sake of tikkun ha’olam. (Mishnah Gittin 4:2) There was a twofold concern here –the woman would marry not knowing that her get had been revoked and any children from the second marriage would be illegitimate for technically she was still married to husband one. Or divorced women knowing this could happen would never remarry even though they could, and they would be deprived of developing new families. Rabban Gamliel outlawed this practice to remove such confusion. All the examples in the Mishnah of this legal remedy and its justification of tikkun olam deal with issues of proper order with in Jewish community not the world. The critics are correct – in this context tikkun olam has nothing to do with repairing the world’s ills - and yet tikkun olam was the terminology used by Jewish legalists to fix societal problems. They may have been Jewish societal issues but the idea was that a legal system could be used to correct the manipulation of law in society by the powerful.
The second most prominent expression of tikkun olam is in a prayer we are all familiar with: the Aleynu. In the second paragraph that expresses longings for universal harmony we state “We hope for the day when your majesty will prevail, when all false gods will be removed and all idolatry will be abolished, l’taken olam b’malchut Shadai, to fix or perfect the world under the Sovereignty of God”. Tikkun Olam in this paragraph is speaking about a universal yearning of harmony and wholeness but specifically one in which God is doing the perfecting, not people. Jill Jacobs, exec director of Rabbis for Human Rights North America, suggests that one way we can understand this idea is the establishment of Godly qualities throughout the world and that the elimination of such social scourges as poverty and discrimination will lead to such a world.
But the most recognized use of the term comes from the mythic cosmogony of the great influential kabbalist Isaac Luria in 16th Century Sfat. In the wake of the destruction of the Spanish Exile he offered a mystical alternative to the creation of the world. At first all was God, but God decided to make room for the world and to do so engaged in what was called Tzimtzum, a retreating of God into God’s self in order to make space for the world. In doing so, some of the harmony within the Divine became unbalanced. To fill the space of the world, God emanated illuminating light that would link God to the world. The light was contained in a thicker light which would serve as shells to contain the purer light. However in the process of emanation the vessels shattered. This was called the Shevirat Hakelim, the breaking of the vessels. The result was that the husks of broken vessels now mingled with the pure sparks of light. The husks now were the source of the evil forces in the universe, trapping the divine light. The challenge in Lurianic Kabbalah now became how to mend the injury suffered not only in the world but within the Divine powers. And this led to the third key part of Luria’s myth – tikkun, mending the brokenness. According to Lurianic kabbalah this tikkun was the responsibility of human beings. Holy sparks could be released to be returned to their divine source by particular activities. These activities included prayer, strict observance of mitzvot and mystical exercises. But the tikkun olam element that Luria spoke of was not repairing this physical world but rather the world of the sefirot, that is the mystical understanding of the distinctive powers within the Godhead. As Lawrence Fine, a scholar of Jewish mysticism, states: “The project of human life is to separate the holy from the material world …All existence will return to its original spiritual condition.” And Professor Fine concludes that the responsibility for bringing all this about is “a human one, not a divine one. Divinity is, in effect, a passive beneficiary of the actions of human beings”.
And what else is this myth really telling us? That the responsibility to heal and fix and repair is a human one, and our actions could not only heal the world but God as well. The elaborate Lurianic explanation for the how the world came into being gave human beings agency to perfect the world. Joseph Dan, one of the greatest scholars of kabbalah called the concept of tikkun “the most powerful idea ever presented in Jewish thought”. It influenced almost all subsequent Jewish thinking.
Of course the project as noted required observance of mitzvot and ethical behavior. But now every mitzvah, every act of kindness, every act of teshuvah no matter how small or commonplace, like lighting Shabbat candles, was a step towards healing the world and the Godhead.
In the examples of tikkun olam found in the Mishnah and in Lurianic Kabbalah, we see examples of humans asserting responsibility to fix brokenness in the world. In the Mishnah, it referred to legal remedies by authorities to bring clarity and equanimity to community; in Lurianic kabbalah, it was to fix spiritual worlds and disharmony within the Godhead. In the Aleynu, tikkun olam is more restrained. We humans hope for God to fix the world and bring harmony amongst all humanity.
This debate over human involvement in repairing society’s inequities is a long one. It goes back all the way to the Prophet Amos.
In the 8th century before the Common era, Amos a sheepherder from Judah appeared in the northern kingdom of Israel with an admonition from God:
“For three transgressions of Israel, For four, I will not revoke (your punishment): Because they have sold for silver Those whose cause was just, And the needy for a pair of sandals.”
Amos indicts Israel for seven moral transgressions in which elites among the community took advantage of, manipulated or simply ignored the needs of the most vulnerable in society – the poor, the indebted, women. He was especially harsh towards those who flouted Torah law while being welcomed into the sacred spaces because of their wealth.
This condemnation is part of a international rebuke against all of ancient Israel’s neighbors – the Arameans, the Moabites, the Philistines, the Edomites, the Ammonites, the Phoenicians and Judah, the southern Jewish kingdom. Only his critique of Israel was of moral failings, the others were for barbaric cruelty or in the case of Judah lack of fidelity to Torah law.
Why was God rebuking Israel? Because Amos proclaimed: (Amos 3:1) Hear this word, O people of Israel, That the Lord has spoken concerning you, Concerning the whole family that I brought up from the land of Egypt: You alone have I singled out Of all the families of the earth — That is why I will call you to account For all your iniquities.
Amos vents his ire and indignation against the practices of injustice he saw around him and the mistreatment of the needy or indigent by moneylenders and wealthy merchants. Jewish chosenness through the covenant for Amos was not about special favors or status, it was not about rallying Jewish unity against outsiders criticism, chosenness was about being responsible to God for upholding Divine commands and expectations.
This did not make Amos all that popular. Amaziah a priest for King Jeroboam of Israel’s sanctuary at Bethel was incensed that Amos was attacking Israel for its indiscretions. “Seer, off with you to the land of Judah (where you came from)! Earn your living there, and do your prophesying there. But don’t ever prophesy again at Bethel; for it is a king’s sanctuary and a royal palace.”
Amaziah could not abide Jewish self criticism and I am sure was not interested in Amos’ concern with whether or not Phoenicia or Moab got their house in order or not. But Amos is the prophet our tradition remembers and reveres. To those today who argue that tikkun olamers “overreach by being too comprehensive — and too present-oriented” in the words of Gil Troy, what shall we say about Amos’ final oration: To Me, O Israelites, you are just like the Ethiopians — declares the LORD. True, I brought Israel up from the land of Egypt, But also the Philistines from Caphtor and the Arameans from Kir.” The God of Amos is concerned with the injustice of the world, and Jews have a key role to play in that world.
The critics of tikkun olam-ism are correct that the meaning of Tikkun Olam which has been raised to the primary Jewish value by some Jews is very different from the meaning of the term in the Mishnah, the Aleynu and certainly from Kabbalistic texts. But, so what? Terms evolve, meanings are supplanted.
And in response to the tikkun olam naysayers who argue these Jews have replaced Jewish observance and communal loyalty with a rootless cosmopolitanism, do they not know that in the 19th and early 20th century Jews left Judaism in droves for the Messianism of Socialism and communism, without using the justification of tikkun olam, or any Jewish values? Better these Jews justify their universalism on a Jewish concept that Joseph Dan called the most powerful Jewish idea, than on some naïve ethereal emptiness typified by John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ – No religion, no nations, no definitions, no nothing.
Yes the concept of tikkun olam as taught in Jewish literature is not limited to repairing systemic societal flaws via economic, environmental and political activism. Tikkun Olam teaches that we need be concerned with the world within us as much as the world around us. We can strengthen our Jewish commitments and observances even as we work to relieve the systemic sources of racism and poverty, fight against climate change and develop a sensitivity to society’s ingrained misogyny and intolerance of the other. We need not be in Solomon Schechter’s phrase “Amateur Christians” or Amateur Buddhists or Socialists for that matter to care about the world’s injustice. We can be Jews on the frontline dressed in our sacred garb of mitzvot and love of Israel, the people and the Land.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks noted that “The significance of Lurianic kabbalah is that it is a redemption of small steps, act by act, day by day. Each act mends a fracture of the world. The way from here to there, like the journey of the Israelites through the wilderness, takes time”. Keeping Kosher and keeping Shabbat, praying with or without a minyan is a valuable step in the cosmic process of repair no less than registering voters, limiting our consumption of fossil fuels, protesting anti immigration legislation and calling legislators to support healthcare for all. It is not universalist ideals or Jewish loyalty. It is both/and.
Hassidim tell the story of the second Lubavitcher Rebbe who was once so intent on his studies that he failed to hear the cry of his baby son. His father Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi heard, and went down and took the baby in his arms until he went to sleep again. Then he went in to his son, still intent on his books, and said, 'My son, I do not know what you are studying, but it is not the study of Torah if it makes you deaf to the cry of a child.' To be a Jew, is to hear the cry of disrepair in the world and seek to fix it, and to perceive the longing within for connection to our Jewish covenant and take steps to intensify it. Both are acts of tikkun olam. Yom Kippur calls to us - the world is not yet mended, there is work still to do, and we are not yet mended, we seek the cleansing waters of teshuvah and atonement. God has empowered us to do be able to do both. Let us begin today.