What Is the Real Meaning of Tikkun Olam?
Rabbi Laura Geller:
My earliest Jewish memory was of our temple’s social action committee meeting at our home. I snuck downstairs and overheard the grown-ups talking about straws. The next morning, I asked my dad why. He explained that a straw was a white person who bought a home from another white person in order to sell it to a Black person, and that this was one strategy to desegregate neighborhoods. I remember asking, “But I thought it was a Jewish meeting. What does this have to do with being Jewish?” His response was quick and clear: “This is what it means to be Jewish.”
This was many years before I ever heard the phrase tikkun olam, which has come to mean social justice. But that isn’t how the term was understood throughout Jewish tradition. Among its traditional meanings: a legal process to correct an unfairness; the establishment of a world that is sustainable; the kabbalistic notion that what an individual can do not only has an impact on the world but also on God; and the vision of the Aleinu prayer that evil will be someday be eliminated and the world will be perfected under the Divine order.
But none of those concepts is what Reform Jews mean when they use the phrase. Nor are those meanings what more than half of American Jews mean when they report that “working for social justice and equality” is an essential part of “being Jewish,” while only 19 percent say ritual observance is essential.
For me, meaningful ritual observance — like Shabbat, kashrut, Torah study — and social justice go hand-in-hand.
Rabbi Shlomo Einhorn:
Thank you so much for sharing that early experience. It does reflect a social care, empathy and concern that is at the core of the Jewish faith. Rav Kook once wrote, “Love needs to fill up the heart — for ALL.” Do we disagree on the essential role of tikkun olam? I don’t think so. My community, a vibrant Orthodox one, does understand that being Jewish entails a heavy responsibility toward making this world better. However, two points must be clarified.
First, we very much adhere to the complete refrain: L’taken olam bamalchut Shaddai — “to repair the world under the kingdom of G-d.” Meaning, our definition of tikkun olam must emanate from the religious sphere. Social justice is considered social justice only so much as it adheres to principles in Torah and as understood by our tradition and sages. This means that what we fight for is not dictated by liberal or conservative values or whatever is the “hot” social justice issue of the time. Rather, we ought to fight for the pressing social issues of the generation that are congruent to the Torah’s understanding of morality.
Second, yes, we too appreciate the importance of social justice. Nevertheless, our work in the realm of social justice does not override our emphasis on religious practice development of the community and the individual. There is a tension here. On one hand the Talmud says, “adorn yourself and then adorn others” — I think the airplane-oxygen-mask analogy is appropriate here. And on the other hand, we could potentially wait our entire lifetime “perfecting” ourselves before concluding that “now we’re ready to help.”
How does your community view social justice issues that run against Torah values?
Reform Judaism discovers Torah values through the lens of essential principles, not through the halachic process (“principles in Torah as understood by our tradition and sages.”) We probably agree on the principles; where we disagree is the process by which decisions should be made.
For me, the essential principle of Torah is the one Ben Azzai articulates in his famous debate with Rabbi Akiva: that every human being — Jewish or not, like me or not, neighbor or not — is created in the image of God.
Tikkun olam means working to create a world where every human being can live as if he/she were created in God’s image. When I confront questions of social justice, I ask: What does it mean to respond in a way that acknowledges all human beings are created in the image of God? What other fundamental Jewish principles/values ought to illuminate a response?
An example: same-sex marriage. Halachah wrestles with the biblical prohibition against a man lying with a man as with a woman. Reform Judaism takes a different approach: If every person is created in the image of God, and if (here’s another principle) “it is not good for a person to be alone,” then our community ought to welcome committed partners of any gender to marry. So, I am delighted to officiate in an LGBTQ wedding.
Other issues? Immigration: Principles emerge from the many Torah verses reminding us that, because we were strangers in Egypt, we should not oppress a stranger, and the strangers residing with us should be like citizens. Principles also come from our history, like our families’ immigration stories.
Ideals, values and philosophy are truly understood when they are forced to enter the realm of the real. So that the reader can understand, our back-and-forth was interrupted by the horrific tragedy of the Las Vegas massacre. The religious and human sense of urgency to help in any way possible was, I suspect, no different between our communities. Lo saamod al dam re’echa (“do not stand by the blood of your friend”) compels us religiously to dedicate our mind, time and effort to helping in some way. But what if, G-d forbid, I feel nothing toward a certain cause? The religious mandate essentially says, “I could care less about your feeling, the world is on fire — go help!”
I know you look at Ben Azzai as the paradigm for our discussion. But I would actually look at Shamai. When the convert came to Shamai asking him to teach him the entire Torah on one foot, yes, Shamai was strict and asked him to leave. However, let us also acknowledge that Shamai is the one who taught “receive every person with a friendly countenance.” Even his embrace of the other is part of his understanding of din (law). In the same way, tikkun olam in the Orthodox community is as compelling as it is in your community. However, it is guided, defined and applied as per the historic rabbinic tradition and interpretation of the Torah. I will, perhaps, say it sharper: In my view, it is NOT a tikkun (rectification) for the olam (world) if we are involved in matters that run contrary to the Torah’s internal system, regardless of how sweet it may appear.
Rabbi Laura Geller is rabbi emerita at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills.
Rabbi Shlomo Einhorn is the dean of Yeshivat Yavneh in Los Angeles.