The Fallacy, Delusion and Myth of Tikkun Olam

June 7, 2013 10:45 am 32 comments

All illustration of Jews praying in synagogue on Yom Kippur. The term Tikkun Olam is misused due to ignorance in the pursuit of virtuous goals and principles which have become a poor substitute for authentic religious observance, writes Grand Rabbi Y. A. Korff. Photo: Maurycy Gottlieb.

JNS.org – It is so very difficult, indeed utterly unbearable, to sit silently by while Jews, and now the general religious and secular communities, completely misuse and distort the term Tikkun Olam– certainly not intentionally or out of any malice, but rather out of ignorance in the pursuit of virtuous goals and principles which may be applicable to general society and civilization but which have tragically become a poor substitute for authentic religious observance.

This repair rhetoric has become an obsession, a catch-all credo. Everything today is Tikkun Olam. Enough with the Tikkun Olam. It is a senseless and meaningless misconception, its true meaning nothing like it is commonly used and purported to be.

It is not at all a centuries-old tradition, it is not a call to action, and it is not a commandment. And to be clear, Tikkun Olam does not even mean repairing the world in the sense of social justice. Nor in traditional sources is Tikkun Olam in any way even a direct human imperative or action, but rather one that is left in G-d’s hands.

We cannot, and are not instructed to, save the world, or even to repair it. Judaism teaches no such thing. Rather, we are instructed to conduct ourselves properly, to observe the Mitzvos, the Commandments (which are not good deeds, but rather commandments, required imperatives), and in that way to contribute to society and civilization both by example and through practice and action.

For Jews those Mitzvos include not simply socially or politically correct precepts such as giving charity and engaging in political action, but also observance of the Sabbath, dietary restrictions (Kashrus), daily prayer, and other commandments which seem to have fallen out of favor and are ignored, if not openly denigrated and violated, in some segments of the community, as they substitute the false panacea of something they call Tikkun Olam for the authenticity of true Judaism, clinging desperately to Tikkun Olam to avoid their actual responsibilities as Jews to observe the Torah and the commandments.

The term and concept Tikkun Olam appears nowhere in the Torah itself, but first appears only in the Mishna and Talmud in the context of the courts and halakhic (legal) regulations involving disputes and legal rights.

Subsequently in Kabbalah the term was used to refer to the upper worlds or to the repair of the individual soul damaged by the sin of violating or neglecting Jewish law. Following that, the only mention of Tikkun Olam in prayer is in the Aleinu prayer recited at the conclusion of every service, but even in that context it means either that G-d, not man, will ultimately repair the world, or, as others interpret, it does not mean repair of the world at all but rather is a prayer for the uprooting of idolatry, the rebuilding of the Temple and establishing G-d’s kingdom on earth, through the observance of the commandments and not through any separate social imperative.

Indeed, scholars from across the spectrum and diversity of the Jewish community have acknowledged and bemoan the misuse and distortion of the term Tikkun Olam by the community.

Thus Rabbi Jill Jacobs observed years ago (Zeek, July 2007) that, “In its current incarnation, Tikkun Olam can refer to anything from a direct service project such as working in a soup kitchen or shelter, to political action, to philanthropy. While once regarded as the property of the left, the term is now widely used by mainstream groups such as synagogues, camps, schools, and federations, as well as by more rightwing groups wishing to cast their own political agendas within the framework of Tikkun Olam.”

After quoting Arnold Jacob Wolf (“Repairing Tikkun Olam,” Judaism 50:4), who writes, “All this begins, I believe, with distorting tikkun olam. A teaching about compromise, sharpening, trimming and humanizing rabbinic law, a mystical doctrine about putting God’s world back together again, 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,” Jacobs points out that one of the key figures in the Kabbalistic school of thought which developed the concept of Tikkun Olam was the same person who codified Jewish law, since it is individual observance of halakha, Jewish law, which is the way to repair the world.

Professor Steven Plaut of Haifa University wrote about “The Rise of Tikun Olam Paganism” (The Jewish Press, January 23, 2003), calling it a “pseudo-religion,” “social action fetishism” (The Jewish Press, November 19, 2008) and a “vulgar misuse and distortion by assimilationists.” He concludes that Tikkun Olam is quite clearly “a theological notion and not a trendy socioeconomic or political one,” observing that, “It would be an exaggeration, but only a small one, to say that nothing in Judaism directs us to the pursuit of social (as opposed to judicial) justice.”

Most recently there was the publication earlier this year by Oxford University Press of the scholarly book Faith Finding Meaning: A Theology of Judaism by Rabbi Byron L. Sherwin, which also highlights the current fallacy (pages 33-35). Calling it “a blatant distortion of the meaning of the term,” a “substitute faith” and a “shibboleth,” he writes that “the current [promiscuous] usage of this term represents a category mistake, is a blatant example of conversion by redefinition, and constitutes a paradigmatic example of the reductionist fallacy” which is merely “liberation theology without the theology.” He concludes, “Tikkun Olam means ‘for the proper order of the Jewish community.’ It is a long way from that definition to ‘build a better world.’”

Please. Everyone. Enough with the Tikkun Olam. For Jews who truly do want to engage in Tikkun Olam, the only honest and authentic Jewish way to do that is to encourage observance of the Torah across the entire spectrum of the Jewish Community. That in fact is actually what our responsibility is, nothing more and nothing less, and the rest is up to G-d—if we do our part, so will G-d.

Grand Rabbi Y. A. Korff, the Zvhil-Mezbuz Rebbe of Boston, is Chaplain of The City of Boston and spiritual leader of the Zvhil-Mezbuz Beis Medrash in downtown Boston and Newton. This column first appeared in The Jewish Advocate of Boston.

32 Comments

  • It seems that there is an underlying political/religious agenda here that is not being spoken about openly. The reform and conservative movements use the concept of Tikkun Olam to undercut orthodoxy (you don’t have to be fully observant and obey torah mitzvos to be a good Jew, just focus on “repairing” the world with socially good deeds), while the orthodox derogate the popular meaning of this concept as a “shibboleth” and “pseudo-religion” to express their hostility to reform and conservative theology. And to express their enmity to liberal leftist Jews who want to elevate a slogan to religious doctrine so as to propel their agendas. But it seems nobody wants to be completely impolite and attack their religious opponents directly which would lead to open warfare.

  • Tikkun Olam, healing, repair, of relationship, begins close at hand. Throw mitzvot out the window, simply be present. Be with your neurosis, unpick it, there is silence, in being, together. “Seek me and live”, Amos is attributed to have encapsulated the Torah’s central thesis. The subtext here is the I, in the sense of the me, is just so boring and unworthy of your (obsessive) consideration, so I implore you, even as you pound your chest, “don’t seek yourself, seek Me”. And what is this me, je ne sais quoi, but in doing so the “Me” we discover is the relational self. Serve life, wondrously.

  • You say that those who “distort the term Tikkun Olam– certainly (do so) not intentionally or out of any malice.” You are most certainly wrong. They DO so out of malice and intentionally. This is their pseudo-theology, a political paganism of the Left. Tikkun magazine finds Tikkun Olam even in taking LSD. This is innocent naivete?

  • On the one hand, Rabbi Korf is right. There is no mitzvah among our 613 mitzvot called Tikkun Olam and too many of us, especially high school and college students, are paying too much attention to Tikkun Olam and too little attention to Kashrut, Shabbat, and Tefillah.

    One the other hand, with all due respect to Rabbi Korf, he is not helping anyone by not acknowledging that Tikkun Olam represents a category of activities that includes mitzvot, like feeding the sick and treating strangers and workers well, as well as the many types of “gemilot hasadim” (acts of kindness) that Pirkei Avot states that, along with the Torah and Avoda (prayer), keeps the world standing. To paraphrase Shakespeare, a mitzvah by any other name is still a mitzvah, and Tikkun Olam projects succeed in getting people engaged and excited about helping others. That is something we should encourage, not discourage. However, we should make sure that people engaging in Tikkun Olam are aware of the mitzvot that are the basis for Tikkun Olam. Otherwise, we run the risk of people engaging in social action purely as a secular activity rather than one that is inspired by and closely connected with mitzvot and hessed (healing).

    Another reason to continue our commitment to Tikkun Olam can be found in the second part of Aleinu, which we usually race through silently at the end of services and during the High Holidays, in which we say “letaken Olam be’malhut shadai” — “to perfect or fix the world in the kingdom of God.” This refers to our hope that God will turn the world into one where everyone recognizes God’s authority. Although this doesn’t provide a source for a Tikkun Olam call to action for us, it does challenge us to be like God and help to make the world a place where God’s authority is recognized.

    • Orthodox Jews do not “race thru” the second part of the ALeinu and understand exactly what Tikkun OLam does and does not mean

  • Tabitha Korol

    Yes, I noticed its misuse when I joined the Jewish Secular Community. They were welcoming, I’d never learned Hebrew, I wasn’t so much interested in prayer as doing good things for the Jewish community with the skills I had, and there was no building fund! However, when I became co-editor of the newsletter, and added all types of notes of interest regarding Jewish and Israeli history, accomplishments, etc., there was suddenly an uproar from a vocal section…they said ‘everyone’ is great, not just our people, and I should “cool it.” These were the red-diaper babies, I later learned the name. They relished Jewish history in the shtetl but not Jewish survival in Israel. I quit, and became an essayist in my retirement and a pro-Israel, anti-Islamist activist and glad to be away from these Jews who have lost their Jewish identity.

  • Many Jews who are very well meaning would consider this idea of Tikkun Olam as social action to be an extremely laudable cause. The problem with this re-interpretation of a Torah based concept is not with the desire to do good, but that it becomes an ethos whose paramount importance in the eyes of it’s practitioners would seek to become a replacement for authentic Torah based Judaism. In the same ilk as some who claim that one of the Samemanim (ingredients of the Temple incense) refers to Cannabis and is therefore proof that it’s recreational use is acceptable according to the Mishna, which ignores the fact that the end of the same Mishna proclaims that to not use all the ingredients is a transgression of terminal consequence. Similarly, doing good deeds while ignoring so many other commandmants,is to do a serious disservice to one’s Soul-path and to the destiny of the
    Jewish people as a whole, as the Sages stated that all Jews bear a responsibility for eachother,

  • Randi Kreiman

    Neil is right. The problem is not so much that words/terms may or may not change in meaning with time… The problem is that when you take a Hebrew/Jewish term and pervert it to mean something else… And then in turn that turns into an unrecognisable Judaism… Then we have a problem.
    The term, “L’taken olam b’malchut Shakai” means to infuse G-d and G-dliness into the world. How? By following G-d’s “interpretation” of “fixing” the world. Which is: by doing His Mitzvot we will bring about world-redemption through the Moshiach!
    So bottom line… Using the term to do more mitzvot (INCLUDING the mitzvah of charity and assitance to the poor and downtrodden) is a good thing, as long as its not ONLY that!
    However ABUSING the term of Tikun Olam to somehow mean that we must fight for abortion rights and gay rights, is the antithesis of the term… And is not just “changing the meaning somewhat”… It is in fact doing the OPPOSITE of Tikun olam!

  • IT SAYS 20 COMMENTS, WHERE ARE THE OTHER 10? DID YOU REARRANGE THE WEBSITE?

  • Rabbi Neil S Cooper

    It is not sufficient to criticize the concept of Tikkun Olam without suggesting either why this new “take” on an old concept is wrong and/or answering why, if this concept is wrong, what difference does this mistaken interpretation make? To me, the distortion of the mystical concept (as opposed to the concept found in the Mishna/Talmud)is surely in the fact that the concept becomes the center-piece for an entire segment of the Jewish world. Essentially, we become a people of “do-gooders” in a world surely in need of fixing. At the same time, however, if that is the center-piece, where are the unique features of Jewish life? What about Mitzvot? Jewish Tradition? Tikkun Olam, according to its popular and current understanding, may be a necessary component of Jewish Life. It is not, however, sufficient.

  • Is this the same rabbi, whose father reminded us that we would never lose our responsibility to society?

  • Mr. Question

    You state “Nor in traditional sources is Tikkun Olam in any way even a direct human imperative or action, but rather one that is left in G-d’s hands.” I think this statement is contradictory to the pisuk: “Justice, Justice shall you pursue.” (Numbers/Devorim 16:20) in which many commentaries note the repetition of the work Tzedek alludes to the way in which we should strongly pursue all kinds of justice, not just justice in the courts, and not “just left in G-d’s hands”.

  • Interesting that G-d makes things so simple and we, seem to want to take them and twist them and make them be what ever suits us. it is the same in most faiths.

  • The imperative for social justice is an ingrained part of the Jewish ethos; “leave a portion of your harvest for strangers”, “support the widow”, etc. Thus, Jews are urged to action and historically rabbis, Maimonides included, have indicated that Torah study alone does not fulfill the spirit of Judaism. Drop the notion of social action implicit in Tikkun Olam and you are left with, what? – Pale Yeshivah buchas, perhaps.

  • Words are important and so are actions. It helps us to know where the phrase comes from and what it means in a historic context, it is equally important to appreciate how it has evolved over time to allow for positive treatment and actions towards others, in the hope it will encourage a positive world for Jews to live in and remain true to the Torah.

    The word awful meant one thing, now means something else…this is the case with so many terms, words, expressions. The one thing we can be sure of is that time changes everything, and all is changed by time…Know the historic context, appreciate it, even incorporate it, but in this case, don’t limit our ability to do more.

  • Very nice article…makes a very clear statement in a very unclear world we live in today. We are not G-D and we can not fix anything…we can just be obedient to Torah and hope our example will inspire others to follow .

    Shalom
    Colorado

  • I competely misunderstood the author. Eureka! Observing shatnes is more important than ensuring that (l’dugma) employees in our kosher (or any) restaurants are paid at least minimum legal wage, in order to adequately feed their families. Just observe shatnes, and we do not, need not, SHOULD NOT question why, chas v’chalila, for no one can know G-d’s ways, (and if we don’t observe or chas v’shalom question shatnes, Hashem may send our entire families to Gehennom for 1200 years) and never ever provide parnassah for that poor restaurant employee. Hey, that could be my next door neighbor, but I’ll just rush out and get our entire wardrobes checked. Need to feed the neighbor. OY, and yes, I do have two sets of dishes, but mi yodea, efshar a guest once threw sonething in the wrong sink, and it extended beyond batel b’shishim. Oy , off to the Mikveh with all of the dishes,,,,,,,, However, if we do follow all Torah precepts, (does this include all of the rabbinic additions? even if by Rabbis later accused of all sorts of nasty things), if we observe all 613 mitzvot, particularly shatnes, Hashem will make sure that the exploited restaurant workers receive sufficient parnasssah to adequately feed their families????? . Unfortunately, it seems to this reader, clear, that that “truth” as purported by the distinguished Rabbi is summarized in the last paragraph of his article. . Maybe the entire Jewish world needs to observe all Torah precepts, in order for Hashem to fix all of the injustices. I’m not the smartest guy in the room, maybe I got some of this wrong. I surely hope so.

    OY VEY, rachmanut, in our difficult challenging world where there is so much injustice, and so much tsuris, “it is so very difficult, indeed UTTERLY UNBEARABLE to silently sit by while Jews…… completely misuse and distort the term Tikkun Olam…”
    The writer seems to have a pathologically low level of frustration. “utterly unbearable”. with all of the warring and illness and poverty ….and animosity and innumerable problems between Jews and their fellow Jews, b’kitsur globbal tsuris, and this misuse of a term, he finds “utterly unbearable”. Rabbi Korff, with all due respect, I see that you are from the Boston area, which is excellent because McLean Hospital in Boston is one of the very finest psychiatric hospitals in the country, and perhaps they can help you with your anxiety and frustration levels.

    • Who told you that the minimum wage helps workers and assures they can feed their families? Your Tikkun Olam consists of ignorance and refusal to study economics. It consists of ignorant posturing for “social justice.”

  • Michael Pertz

    This is so much garbage. If the term has no real halachic value then it may be used in which ever way one chooses. Secondly, the conclusion, that all Jews should follow Torah is basically an instruction to all Jews to follow the rabbinic tradition as interpreted by Haredi Rabbis. the beauty of Judaism is being able to learn from the text, develop ideas and bring them into the world as some formof praxis. The ugliness and rot sets in when a group of Jews decide that they have the “authentic” interpretation and we should “all” follow it, sounds a bit like the Ayatolla’s in Teheran to me! To accuse those Jews who take the term Tikkun Olam and read into it a call for Social Justice should be lauded, not decried or would the author rather have them thrown into a pit and forgotten, like the Nevi’im. The charge is idoleterous, since when do we leave everything up to G-d, execept for following certain commandments ( I take it the author doesn’t attend a stoning, daily) – the article is sadly un-Jewish in the extreme! He clearly is in need of Tikkun Nefesh!

  • Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch states: Before Abraham could become a Jew, he had to perfect being human. The current terminology of Tikun Olam can be simplified as “Be a Mench!” Non the less, it is a prerequisite to Yiddishkiet. Surely it is just semantics with which the good Rabbi takes issue and not the deeds.

  • Mireille Mechoullam

    So why is every Jew is obligated to give charity 10% from his earning?

    • Your pithy response shows a failure in either reading or understanding the article.

      The Why’s and Wherefore’s are irrelevant. That we are commanded to give charity simply means we are commanded to do so. That there are socially constructive results does not suddenly change it into “Tikkun Olam.”

      As an economist, I can tell you that the act of giving ma’aser to the impoverished underclass creates economic growth. This is the same principle behind welfare (like it or lump it).

      One could also say that the purpose is Imitatio Dei, or that the commandment ISN’T to eliminate poverty (which Tanakh and the Talmud says is IMPOSSIBLE), but to encourage empathy and charitable psychology on the part of the giver.

      It is absolutely clear according to Judaism that it is not within our power to end poverty, nor is it our purpose to attempt to do so. Our obligation is to perfect ourselves and clarify our relationship to our Creator by performing his will. The attempt to distort that into a purely humanist agenda is an imposition of OUR will on the relationship.

      Many of the Jewish nation responded to the tragedy of the spies by saying “We want to go to Israel! Let’s go now!” after the die had been cast, and Moshe tried to stop them. Their insistence was borne out of a genuine desire and teshuvah, but they were repenting for the wrong thing. Their sin was NOT the failure to “wish for Israel,” but the willful ignoring of Hashem’s command, and their insistence in crossing into the land over Moshe’s (and Hashem’s) objection highlighted the exact same failure they had committed moments before.

      “Humanist” Judaism is a farce and a fallacy created by earnest intentions.

    • Because G-D Commanded us to. And it is not “10%”; it is “from a tenth to a fifth (ie. from 10% to 20%)). Also be aware that ‘charity’ has a very specific meaning in traditional Judaism: feeding, clothing, and housing the poor and the elderly who are in need; educating and caring for children in need; helping a bride in need; etc.
      A donation to “Occupy Wall Street” would not count, for example.

    • To assist other Jews. Not to achieve “social justice,” whatever that is

  • A little more respect for the famous painting, not “photo” by Maurycy Gottlieb, who died at the age of 23, the painting dated one year prior to his death.
    I know that there are cheap posters made of this beautiful painting. His brother Leopold was born five years after his death, and I am a proud owner of an oil painting by Leopold, an excellent painter in his own right. (Unfortunately not worth even remotely monetarily what a work by Maurycy would sell for at auction.

    Why is everyone so obsessed by semantic misuse of the TIKKUN OLAM phrase? Overused by far, and evidently totally misused, but is the worry that otherwise TORAH observant Jews, would throw it all out for some misguided sense of social justice as usurping Torah? due to misunderstanding of the phrase? In the academic world, many are judged, or believe they are, by the number of pages that they publish. This is particularly true amongst sociologists. Nevertheless a thoughtful interesting article, albeit,in my opinion much ado about little.

  • Jerry Cutler

    And, if the term “Tikun Olam” is misinterpreted by well meaning Jews to reach out to others to do good without malice in an effort to make this a better world….what can be bad? Rabbi Jerry Cutler

    • When it’s turned into a religion of it’s own and used as a substitute for real Jewish observance of mitzot. When it becomes, in effect, a pagan religion.

    • Hillel Raeburn

      Everything. Just admit you want to cheer on your brand of social agenda — leave out the nonsensical attempt at yiddishkeit. It’s a lie.

  • Yes and no. “Tikkun olam” didn’t mean social action. But now it does. Words and their meaning change.

  • this makes a lot of sense.its clear to me for a long time that man is never going to fix the world. try to fix one problem and hundred new ones come along. we are so deep in the mud we cant get anything done.

    there are many points here that never occured to me.very interesting.yes we need to understand the truth and not believe the lies.

    good article.
    shalom from jerusalem

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