The real meaning of Tikkun Olam


There’s nothing like studying the Talmud to learn more about Judaism.  I’m not referring to long hours in a Jerusalem yeshiva with one’s head buried in the text, but rather to the study program called Daf Yomi.  Reading a page a day, one can get through the entire Talmud in seven and a half years.  In the current Daf Yomi cycle, followed throughout the world, I along with my Talmudic haburah are now four years into it, with another three and a half years to go.

As anyone who has cracked open one of the many volumes knows, the Talmud offers extensive discussions on just about every conceivable moral issue imaginable.  It’s undoubtedly archaic in context, but it’s no less relevant in concept today than it was thousands of years ago.  The analyses that the ancient rabbis bring to bear in debating the various issues is beyond impressive.  It’s no wonder yeshiva buchers end up being among the very best law school students.  For novices like myself, it’s a challenge just to keep up.

A few months ago, while studying tractate Gittin, the volume dealing with divorce law, we came across the well-known concept of tikkun olam.  According to everything I had learned growing up as a typical reform Jew, tikkun olam means “repair of the world” — sometimes referred to as “social justice” — often entailing government programs to make the world a better place.  However, delving into the Gemara, the Talmudic commentary, I was in for a little surprise.

According to the translation in the ArtScroll publication, tikkun olam means “benefit of society.”  In the Koren publication, it means “betterment of the world.”  Either way, the meaning is very different from the popularized one often used today.  As Adam Kirsch, head of the graduate program in Jewish studies at Columbia University, observed in his recent Tablet article, “We have interpreted ‘the betterment of the world’ to mean the improvement of society in the name of social justice … I don’t mean to disparage this idea … but there is no doubt that this is not what our ancestors meant when they used the words tikkun olam.”

As discussed throughout Gittin, tikkun olam relates to traditional rules of morality and justice in a limited number of situations, and to certain adjustments in isolated instances when the rules could lead to perverse results.  Like with the popularized version of the term, the goal is to improve the general Jewish society.  However, its use as explained in the Talmud is not intended to expand what’s done to create a better society but rather to adjust how certain rules are applied.  The Gemara cites several situations where tikkun olam applies.  Three examples will help to clarify the idea.

Under traditional divorce rules, a husband (assumed to be living separately from his wife) could employ a scribe to draft a get (the traditional document that effectuates the divorce) and could use an agent to deliver the get to his wife.  If the husband changed his mind, he could declare the get nullified in court.  This may seem reasonable, but the rabbis pondered a potential problem.  What if, after the get is drafted and the agent sent on his way, but before the agent delivers the get to the wife, the husband changes his mind and nullifies the get in court?  What if he then sends a second agent to meet up with the first agent, but the first agent delivers the get to his wife before the second agent arrives?  Would the wife think that she’s divorced, even though the husband nullified the get in court?  Presumably so.  What if the wife, believing she’s divorced, remarries and has a child?  Would the child be illegitimate — a mamzer?  The rabbis were not comfortable with this possibility.

For the benefit of society — mi’pnei tikkun ha-olam — Rabban Gamliel the Elder, head of the Sanhedrin for many years during the Second Temple period, changed the rules.  In Gittin 32A, “The mishna relates that initially, a husband who wished to render the bill of divorce void would convene a court elsewhere and render the bill of divorce void in the presence of the court before it reached his wife.  Rabat Gamliel instituted an ordinance that one should not do this, mi’pnei tikkun ha-olam.”  He concluded that, under these circumstances, a husband could not nullify a get in court.  Rather, the husband would have to deliver the message directly to his wife or directly to the first agent before the get is delivered to the wife.  Otherwise, even if the husband changes his mind, the divorce would be effective once the wife receives the get.  In this way, the normal rules for nullifying a get were adjusted so as to prevent the wife from thinking that she was divorced when she was not, and thereby to avoid the potential birth of mamzerim.  As Kirsch notes, “It is to avoid this kind of uncertainty that the rabbis instituted a reform in the divorce process — the kind of reform they refer to as mi’pnei tikkun olam.”

A second example, also in Gittin, involves kidnappers and ransoms,.  Kidnappings were evidently not uncommon in ancient days.  In the case of a kidnapping, one would think that a family would have the freedom to redeem a captive for whatever price they could negotiate — even a very high price if the family could afford it.  But the rabbis were concerned about two major consequences.  First, they were concerned that a high ransom would incentivize kidnappers to kidnap more people, which would obviously not be good for the community.  Second, they were concerned that a high ransom would also incentivize kidnappers to demand a high ransom for other captives, thereby putting an additional financial burden on the community.  For these reasons, in the Mishna in Gittin 45A, the rabbis decided that “captives are not redeemed for more than their actual monetary value, mi’pnei tikkun ha-olam.”  In this way, the rabbis restrained the freedom of affluent families to negotiate high ransoms. 

Here is a third example from Gittin, this one of an economic nature.  Under the ancient rules of the Sabbatical Year, debtors were to be relieved of their obligations in the seventh year — i.e., their debt at the time was to be forgiven.  This certainly sounds like a compassionate approach for those unable to get out from under the burden of debt.  At the same time, the rule had a perverse effect.  As the Sabbatical Year drew near, lenders, concerned that debtors would not repay the debt, would be unwilling to lend.  As author Hillel Halkin notes in his 2008 Commentary article on the subject, “the regulation was having the paradoxical consequence of only making life for the poor harder by preventing them from borrowing at all.”  Initiated by Hillel the Elder, a new rule was put in place.  As it says in the Mishna in Gittin 34B, “Hillel instituted a document (a prosbol) that prevents the Sabbatical Year from abrogating an outstanding debt mi’pnei tikkun ha-olam.”  With the prosbol in place, lenders would continue to lend, even as the time of the Sabbatical Year approached.

As one can see, the idea of tikkun olam was utilized in very specific situations in order to avert particular unintended consequences.  Traditional rules were adjusted so as to prevent certain undesirable outcomes.  This has nothing to do with the popular notion of tikkun olam — “social justice” to “repair” the world.  Rather, tikkun olam as discussed in the Talmud relates to individual actions in selected circumstances — and adjustments in the rules to avoid potentially perverse results for the community. 

This raises the inevitable question — how did the idea of tikkun olam take on its current connotation?  The Aleinu prayer, which likely dates back to the Second Temple period, includes a similar term — l’taken olam b’malkhut Shaddai — but this has an altogether different meaning.  Based on the common translation, the prayer expresses the hope that the world will be “perfected” under the Kingdom of the Almighty.  In the 16th century, tikkun olam became part of Lurianic Kabbalah, but this was a very different idea, as well.  As Halkin explains, while the Lurianic tikkun “calls for mending the entire cosmos …  these efforts … are strictly spiritual, involving prayer, religious ritual, and meditation.”

The current connotation can be traced back to the beginning of the post-War period.  Brandeis University professor Jonathan Krasner, in his 2014 article “The Place of Tikkun Olam in American Jewish Life,” identifies three distinct groups that transformed tikkun olam over the past 75 years.  The first were theologians who, in the aftermath of the Holocaust, looked for ways to re-imagine the covenantal relationship between humans and God.  They included Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Palestine, and various Reform and Conservative rabbis, including Rabbi Leo Baeck and Rabbi Harold Schulweis.  Under tikkun olam, as used by these Jewish leaders, “the Jews were not merely partners with God but ‘senior partners in action,’ entirely responsible for the execution of the covenant.”

The second group were educators — including Shlomo Bardin, founder of the Brandeis Camp, and Rabbi Raphael Artz, director of Camp Ramah in New England — many of whom sought to reinvigorate Jewish education, including social action and tzedakah, under the rubric of tikkun olam.  For example, as Krasner notes, in speaking to a group of campers in 1960, “Bardin insisted that it was their ‘task’ as Jews to ‘fix the world.’”  Similarly, Rabbi Artz, in a 1967 address to Jewish educators, proclaimed, “The ultimate goal of man’s partnership with God is Tikkun olam.”

The third group was political.  Beginning in the 1970’s, a number of progressive rabbis and community leaders began appropriating tikkun olam for their publications and programs.  As Krasner notes, at the New Jewish Agenda’s founding conference in 1982, “The platform asserted that ‘many of us base our convictions on the Jewish religious concept of tikun olam (the just ordering of human society and the world) and the prophetic traditions of social justice.’”  In the early ’90’s, says Krasner, “others took up the effort to shape a progressive Jewish politics around tikkun olam.”  Among these was Michael Lerner, who founded Tikkun, a left-wing alternative to Commentary magazine.  “Lerner hoped to energize alienated Jews with a model of Judaism that rejected the crass materialism and hypocrisy of middle class suburban Jewish life in favor of a Jewishly grounded ethic of social justice.”

Today, tikkun olam is part of modern, liberal discourse, even though its popularized connotation has little to do with its traditional meaning.  In discussing the term in his 2014 article “The Assimilation of Tikkun Olam,” Levi Cooper, a faculty member at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, notes that “It has become a watchword for any value, even if a particular value — worthwhile as it may be — is not rooted in Jewish tradition.”  This brings us back to the tradition — the Talmud — in which tikkun olam served a very important, but specific, role when applying rules of morality and justice in certain circumstances.

The Talmud, I’ve learned, is more than amazing — parsing in minute detail the many moral and judicial issues that inevitably come up in the normal course of life.  The focus is primarily on what’s right and just for those directly involved.  In several limited instances, the rabbis had a wider perspective to keep an eye on the effects on the community as a whole and to adjust specific rules as needed — mi’pnei tikkun ha-olam.  The idea of “social justice” may, for many, still be worthwhile, but, according to the Talmud, tikkun olam it is not.

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