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The Fallacy, Delusion and Myth of Tikkun Olam

June 7, 2013 10:45 am 61 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.

61 Comments

  • Being a Muslim, I have always felt a certain connection to the deep and dedicated monotheism of the Jewish folks, and as a Muslim I am required to bless the great ones of Israel who risked their lives and limb for the sake of the Almighty (and thus for their own good). However, time and again, I see in Islam as well as in other folks that their “god” becomes the rituals, as the purpose of the law is set aside. The Almighty is the maker of one and all – every blade of grass speaks about Him, and every grain of sand to those who can hear. The purpose of the spiritual elite was to connect with one and all by reflecting the Mercy of the Almighty in personal life – and all the rituals are to strengthen that side of your soul. No one can ever say the Law should be disobeyed, but the purpose of the Law perhaps was to keep the good people from falling into “other” activity that was rampant through the ages, by keeping them so busy with the rituals that they have no time to indulge in lesser things. People who are self centered and not centered on the Almighty can never be concerned about His Creation – which is His Artwork. He has given everyone their moms, regardless of their lineage – including animals. The truly Cognizant of the Almighty keep that in mind and their Mercy extends to all – unfortunately the bane of religious people time and again is their religion and ritual itself becomes their god, and then they become burdensome and in some cases dangerous to the creatures of the Almighty. Abraham is Abraham, although he did not practice all the rules that an average observant Jewish person does, because he was a man of compassion as well as resolve. Resolve to obey the Almighty, even when required to do what is hard – AND had immense mercy even for people like Eliezer when he was being pursued as a runaway slave.

    May the Almighty guide me if I am wrong in writing this, and may He Strengthen me if my direction is correct. Amen. Ali

  • None the less, I have much more use for one who “ignorantly” seeks virtue before God than one who talks about God at the expense of better applied time and fulfillment of the virtues. I have always appreciated men whose dignity kept their hands busier than their lips. It is difficult to denigrate the pashat of that. Anywhere. :)

  • My understanding of Tikkun Olam, in its simplest sense, is just being good to all and to treat them as you would have them treat you. True, the Bible does give many commandments as well as prohibitions that are to be observed. In many places it, indeed, reads like a law book. But Tikkun Olam, in so far as I have ever known or read, is a voluntary personal commitment to practicing the exemplary commandments of the Bible.

    We are told “remember the stranger” – that is, when he is in need, to treat him as if he was a member of your own family (to what degree? well, up to your capabilities and not beyond). If one seeks sanctuary from oppressive law (such as the biblically illegal slave trade as it was practiced in the antebellum USA) then you must provide it if you can. I can list other examples but you get the point. Tikkun Olam means doing your part to make this a better word. Doing it alone will not suffice – it takes everyone to read the Bible and to observe its exemplary commandments. That is what will heal the world.

    Note that nothing in what I wrote above is a call to dismiss all biblically mandated rituals, holidays, or whatever. These acts of kindness are all to be volitional and in the proper spirit.

    Let’s be peaceful to one another. That is what Tikkun Olam means to me.

  • This is a great point. The ethics and value of wanting to improve the world we live in is admirable and something most of us would agree is important if our world is going to improve. However, confusing this secular value with the commandments of religious holy books or customs is a problem. As someone who was raised in an orthodox shul and attended a religious day school, I learned the difference between progressive secular values and strict religious observance. It is true that sometimes they do overlap, but that is not to be confused with sharing an overall philosophy of how to live or how to act.

    Most of the very religious and observant Jews I knew growing up were completely unconcerned with progressive activism or the idea that they had a responsibility to contribute and help the world they live in at large. They were 100% concerned with learning Torah, following the commandments, and dedicating themselves to a mostly insular life of religious observance and study. Their interactions with the outside world were mostly kept to a minimum, such as things they did to make a living, or everyday commerce in the community. Their political leanings almost exclusively were influenced by what they perceived as being most consistent with the laws of the Torah and what is ‘good for Jews’, i.e. pro-Israel policies, and very socially conservative positions: anti-choice, anti gay rights, anti overt sexuality or anything considered ‘blasphemous’.

    Religious Jews are very closely aligned in the political values with Evangelical Christians when it comes to foreign policy and social values. I think this is pretty far from what most progressive secular people would consider ‘repairing the world’. It is an unapologetically biased and selfish position, wholly concerned with the interests of one in-group and largely unconcerned with issues that do not pertain to religious observance, commandments, or self-preservation.

    Because many modern Jews are not observant nor learned in Torah Judaism, and tend to be on the liberal progressive end of the political spectrum, they show an understandable desire to reinterpret popular Jewish maxims like Tikkun Olam and apply them instead to what THEY perceive as what it means to repair the world, instead of what the Torah and Talmud have to say.

    You do a good job in pointing out the cognitive dissonance that exists between secular progressive values and Torah Judaism. I believe the best way to approach this for someone who is Jewish by birth or culture but not religiously observant, is to stop misusing maxims like ‘Tikkun Olam’ and instead use a more appropriate secular term to reflect their to desire to improve their world. There is no need for religion or god in our collective attempt to improve our society, environment, politics, communities, and the conditions of our world. We do best by leaving god and religion out of it!
    Thanks for the insightful article.

  • The article’s point is well taken, but it’s not true that we should not try to improve the world in whatever way we can (provided it’s consistent with the Torah, and we’re also dedicating ourselves to fulfilling all the mitzvos).

    The Gemara says that everyone should consider yourself as if you’re the only person in the world. Rebbe Nachman of Breslov — who was certainly focused above all on Torah and mitzvos without any reform or assimilation — interpreted this Gemara to mean that everyone should not only pray for the entire world, but also observe the world carefully to see if there is anything we can do to improve it.

  • Such zealotry is clearly out of place in today’s world and is especially troubling because expressed by a leader who should know better. Why not let others use their own definitions of concepts? It may be their only connection to their heritage.

    It is precisely such uncompromising stands that pushed millions of Jews to secularism in the first place.

    • Moshe David Tokayer

      “… Why not let others use their own definitions of concepts? …”

      Anyone can use their own definitions of concepts but they would be wrong in calling it Judaism. That’s the rub.

      Example – Every Jew has the right to eat pig. But it is incorrect to claim that Judaism does not require Jews to refrain from eating pig. Saying that is a distortion of Judaism.

  • To keep it simple: in our Tefilot, prayers it says “tikun olam b’malchut Shakai” (k instead of d for respect)— rectification of the world for the kingdom of the Almighty”–this is very different from the modern liberal notion of tikun olam. When you think of it as stated in the prayers, it makes much more sense. As always: context!

  • Leftist Jews use it to help them destroy Israel by supporting the New Israel Fund and Jstreet both claim they are bringing civil rights to Israel. But they forgot that Israel is a Jewish country and has more civil rights then America.

    Report: ‘Breaking the Silence’ is financed by Palestinian funds
    2015 Foreign Agents Report reveals: At least 15 organizations funded by the New Israel Fund are actively involved in anti-Israel activity.

    By Arutz Sheva Staff

    First Publish: 12/14/2015, 10:51 AM

    The grassroots Zionist organization Im Tirtzu has revealed that the New Israel Fund (NIF) is behind the funding of numerous organizations that are involved in anti-Israel activity.
    One of these organizations, Breaking the Silence (Shovrim Shtika), is also funded by Palestinian beneficiaries.
    The report further reveals that in 2016, The Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law Secretariat – a Palestinian foundation – is due to fund some 10,000,000 NIS (2,600,000 USD) to bolster the activities of foreign organizations against IDF soldiers and in favor of Palestinian terrorists. In addition, the report reveals that the Palestinian foundation funds a lobbyist in the Knesset by means of the B’Tselem organization.
    Im Tirtzu commented: “The President of Israel cannot partake in this event following the revelation of this information. This is the most severe report to ever be compiled against Israeli organizations. It turns out that while we are fighting terrorism – these foreign agent organizations are fighting us. We will urgently consider our next steps, including in the Knesset, in order to eradicate this phenomenon.”
    Of the 20 foreign agent organizations examined, 15 are supported by the NIF, 13 receive millions of shekels from Palestinian foundations, and 4 legally defended terrorists or the families of terrorists, some of whom attacked Jews in this most recent wave of terror.
    Four of the organizations benefit from 15 National Service positions that provide Israeli draftees a means to fulfill their obligatory national service. In the Jewish state of 2015, one can perform National Service in a foreign agent organization defending terrorists, filing charges against soldiers or defaming Israel in the United Nations with the claim that Israel is an “Apartheid” state.
    The report summarizes the activities of these NIF-funded foreign agent organizations in 2015 revealing highly concerning details:
    In 2015 alone, these organizations defended 18 terrorists:
    HaMoked: Center for the Defence of the Individual filed appeals against the destruction of the houses of 12 terrorists, including the murderer of the Henkins, the murderer of Malachi Rosenfeld, the murderers of Danny Gonen, the murderer of Yeshayahu Krishevsky, and the murderers of Aharon Banita-Bennett and Nehemia Lavi. The access road to Avnei Hefetz, for instance, where a husband and wife were severely injured in a shooting attack on December 9th, 2015, when terrorists opened fire on them from a moving car, was opened following an appeal by HaMoked.
    Recently, the Israeli Supreme Court turned down no less than seven appeals filed by HaMoked on behalf of terrorists, including appeals that aimed to prevent the destruction of the houses of truly murderous terrorists, among them the murderers of Danny Gonen, Malachi Rosenfeld and the couple Na’ama and Eitam Henkin. In 2014, HaMoked filed appeals against the destruction of the house of the murderer of Police Chief Superintendent Baruch Mizrahi. This appeal was turned down as well.
    Physicians for Human Rights-Israel (PHR-IL) worked on behalf of the hunger-striking terrorist Mohammad Allan,45 as well as on behalf of Khader Adnan.6 In addition, PHR-IL appealed to the Israeli Supreme Court to prevent the destruction of the terrorist who murdered Police Chief Superintendent Baruch Mizrahi that took place in 2014.
    Adalah, alongside the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, defended the terrorists Subhi Abu Khalifa and Shuruk Dawiyat, who stabbed Israeli civilians in Jerusalem. In addition, Adalah alongside the radical Palestinian organization Al Dameer represent the family of terrorist Fadi Alloun.
    The cooperation between Adalah and Al Dameer (the head of which has participated in terrorist activity) can also be seen in their combined demands to investigate the death of the terrorist Muataz Awisat, among others.
    Activities against Israel Defense Forces soldiers and security forces:
    Breaking the Silence provided 57 negative testimonies against IDF soldiers. The Palestinian foundation The Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law Secretariat, operating in Ramallah, noted in a report published in 2015 that it paid Breaking the Silence in order to bring them at least one negative testimony against the IDF. Breaking the Silence provided 57 testimonies.
    Hamas admitted this past year that is used the Breaking the Silence report on Operation Protective Edge for the purposes of its warfare against Israel. In 2015, the organization held at least 9 events around the world, whose purpose was to accuse the IDF of committing war crimes. Two of the events took place in Scotland. One was under the auspices of the anti-Israeli organization MAP (Medical Aid for Palestine).
    The other was for the radical anti-Israeli party SNP (Scottish National Party). Additional events took place in Zurich – Switzerland, Luxemburg, Madrid – Spain, three events in the United States, 678 Holland, and more.
    Adalah filed a lawsuit on behalf of the Al Midan Theater in Haifa, which presented the play “A Parallel Time” that deals with materials edited and inspired by the terrorist Walid Daka, one of the murderers of the kidnapped soldier Moshe Tamam.
    The Public Committee Against Torture in Israel is working on making it harder for Israeli security forces to interrogate terrorists.
    The CEO of the organization, Yishai Menuhin, accuses the Israel Security Agency (Shin Bet) and Israel Security Agency agents of forced recruitment of agents, preparing a targeted killings list, performing executions, and torture.
    Physicians for Human Rights-Israel accuses the IDF of intentionally firing on Palestinian medical teams and termed the wave of terror a “wave of protest.”
    Other activities carried out this year:
    1. The Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) works towards restoring permission for terrorists in Israeli prisons to resume academic studies.
    2. Gisha – Legal Center for Freedom of Movement works towards cancelling the prohibition banning importing (commercial levels) of materials which can be used for terror tunnels.
    3. The Palestinian foundation from Ramallah reported that it funded a lobbyist in the Knesset for B’Tselem.
    4. The legal counsel for Yesh Din – Volunteers for Human Rights, [Michael Sfard] defended elements of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) in Federal Court in New York this past year.
    5. Gisha – Legal Center for Freedom of Movement published an international report placing full responsibility for the situation in the Gaza Strip on Israel.
    6. Gisha – Legal Center for Freedom of Movement filed frequent appeals to the Israeli Supreme Court against Israel’s policy on the Gaza Strip in order to lift the limitations and restrictions on the Gaza Strip, this despite the security situation.
    7. The Acting Director of Gisha – Legal Center for Freedom of Movement, Tania Hary, spoke before the members of the United Nations Security Council against Israel’s actions and the blockade it imposes on the Gaza Strip.
    8. Kav LaOved–Worker’s Hotline works towards granting Israeli citizenship to illegal immigrants in Israel.

  • Michael W Cuber

    The concept of Tikkun Olam being degenerated to good deed doing and compromise in place of Torah Observance (doing what G-d requires for relationship), is much the same as what has been done with Western Christianity. You end up with something entirely different than what you started with, and find yourself mired down with doctrines of men in place of obedience to our Creator.
    Shalom

    • As I read this I was thinking the exact same thing, greasy grace, user friendly, politically correct, worldy quasi religious belief.

  • ‘When I was young I thought I could change the whole world. As I got older I thought I could change my society. As I got older still I thought I could change my family. Now that I am old I know I can barely change myself.’ If each of us works on himself or herself with Sifrei Mussar such as Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler ztl, whose works are available in English, we will see social growth and improvement as we each inspire the other by our observance of Mitzvahs, Chukim, Mishpatim etc. Following S R Hirsch we should build a model Torah society which others can emulate.

  • Rambam, in his Hilchot Teshuvah, chapter 3, paragraph 8, teaches that:

    If any Jew denies that even ONE WORD of the Torah is Divinely revealed, then he or she is a heretic [apikuris].

    In the same paragraph, Rambam teaches that any Jew who denies the Oral Law* [Torah SheBeAl Peh] is also a heretic [apikuris].

    In paragraph 6 of the same chapter, Rambam teaches that a heretic [apikuris] has no place in the afterlife of the righteous, and will be punished eternally.

    What percentage of Reform Jews and Conservative Jews qualify for these categories?

    Last but not least:

    Why should Orthodox Jews who believe that the entire Torah is Divinely revealed, accept the validity of conversions that were performed by Reform Jews who reject the Divinely-revealed nature of the Torah?

    * NOTE: The Oral Law can be found in:
    The Mishnah, the Jerusalem Talmud, the Babylonian Talmud, the Minor Tractates of the Talmud, and ancient midrashim like: Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer, Mechilta, Tanna DeBei Eliyahu, Midrash Tanchuma, etc, etc.

  • It’s true that tikkun olam has been separated from it’s original source and has taken a life of it’s own, but it doesn’t mean it’s wrong. We find the same story with environmentalism. However, Rambam does teach us that we should give to the poor of the gentile communities if we can, and help them in other ways too. Thus, I don’t see how social justice-in terms of action, not in terms of spirit-is off from the original goals. Also, mitzvahs aren’t meant to stay intellectual, as someone pointed out earlier. There are mitzvahs to be kind, to be fair etc, that we can certainly act on.

    • Moshe David Tokayer

      The problem isn’t that tikkun olam was separated from its original source. The problem is that in the minds of many Jews the concept of building a better world is mandated by Judaism and is called Tikkun Olam in our sources. This needs to be pointed out as a distortion and that’s what the article does.

  • I have found this series of vehement declarations deeply insightful, very Jewish, totally hilarious, and, in the main, utterly shameful. I was brought up as a so-so Christian. I was only told in adulthood that my mother’s mother was a Jew. Believing this, I had then to decide whether I wanted to be known as a Jew, to be accepted as a Jew by other Jews, or remain unassimilated. Now let me ask you this. For every observing Jew alive today, how many hundreds, thousands, hundreds of thousands, possibly even millions do you suppose there are just like me? Do you notice us? You should. We have the same dimensions, same senses, affections, passions. If you prick us, we bleed; tickle us, laugh; poison us, die; and if you despise us, by telling us that only you and your work is valued by G-d, how shall we think of you?

    • Not that only the work of religious Jews is valued.
      But that the job of the Jew is to do what God told us to do.
      A different concept entirely.
      Judaism teaches that God created the Jews for some purposes, and the non-Jews for others. With a great deal of overlap, of course.

      The article isn’t about Jews vs non-Jews, it’s about the misinterpretation of the phrase “Tikkun Olam”.

    • Don’t feel despised. That was not the point.

      The point of this (excellent and amusing) article is not that Tikkun Olam is bad. It’s that Judaism has a long list of things you can do: observing the Sabbath, praying on a regular basis, giving charity, being careful about how you treat others, studying Jewish subjects, etc. The list of Jewish things you could do (the mitzvot) is long. Those who want to increase their Jewish involvement should emphasize these things, which are the essence of Judaism. And they are established, tried and true things, things which have proved their worth over thousands of years.

      You can still clean trash along the roadside. It’s an excellent thing to do, but it’s not a substitute for learning about and doing the mitzvot.

      Be happy!

  • Paul Caplan

    The Mitzvot are just as bad as Tikkun Olam. We had a credo engraved on two tablets of stone, and it served us well for 1500 years.

    Then Rebbe decided that Moses was not clever enough, and turned our credo of Ten Commandments into 666 commandments, and later 613, for fear of Gentile massacre.

    Tikkun Olam is one of our shocking national stupidities that come from the Talmud and the Mitzvot. These two monstrosities will put us back in the gas chambers unless we get rid of them.

    • Yo man, you disagree with the entire premise of the Jewish Bible, so your post is not helpful. You know no on here is likely to be enlightened and changed from your 5 sentence post, so why do it.

    • Hi Paul. I agree fully with your 5 sentences post.
      Kat Please don’t be so sure of your opinion…

    • Amen, Paul Caplan! I’m a Mormon who feels exactly the same way about what currently passes for doctrine and commandments we need to adhere to that look nothing like what the founder of Mormonism, Joseph Smith, revealed. Most Mormons, let alone average people, do an in-depth study of Joseph Smith’s teachings; his teachings are in perfect harmony with what Moses revealed.

      So it is completely expected that the oracles of Moses would be added and subtracted from by active Jews just as the oracles of a prophet I believe to be a modern-day Moses have been added and subtracted from by active Mormons.

      When the Messiah comes, those who have placed their faith in him and his revealed word with exactness will be saved. Those who look instead to the seemingly inspired and alluring commandments of men in a Mitzvot and the like will not be saved. This is not to say these unsaved persons are evil. They just didn’t refrain from going after other gods in a manner of speaking.

      For Mormons, our version of the Mitzvot is “The Church Handbook of Instruction” that takes priority over the revealed word of Jehovah and contradicts much of the plain truths revealed by both Moses and Joseph Smith. I don’t expect you to believe in Joseph Smith; I just wanted to demonstrate that very few active Jews and very few active Mormons alike exercise such faith in the original oracles given by Jehovah that they are willing to be ostracized socially for their rejection of man-made policies and commandments that don’t sit flush with the revealed word of each religion’s respective founding prophet.

    • Shalom. Whatever is the apparent reason that put the Jews to gas chambers, God is in control. We may not agree about the number of commandments but it necessary for each of us to study their bible and come up with their on convictions as Hashem leads us.

    • Moshe David Tokayer

      Have you even read the Jewish bible?

      How can you say that we only kept the 10 commandments for 1500 years until Rebbe. There are plenty of commandments in the Jewish bible that came way before Rebbe appeared on the scene. To name a few, Love your neighbor as you love yourself, You shall not light fire in your homes on the Sabbath day. A long list of animals we can eat and a long list of birds that we cannot eat. The prohibition against eating sea animals that do not have fins and scales. Do not muzzle an ox as it threshes.

      You get it?

    • how do you know there was 666 commandments?

  • 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.

    • Where did Cooper get his smicha from?

      • dolores dolan

        to attempt to repair the world as dffulicult as it is seems worthy as a religious and maybe not necessaryily a reglious personI Is this attempt of goodness not a positive part of living a holy life Spinoza said all things worthwhile would be hard,

  • 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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