(Editor’s note: This column first appeared April 28, 2000.)
Did you hear the one about the fellow on his first UJA mission to Israel who asked his guide, “How do you say tikkun olam in Hebrew?”
Truth is, my vote for the most overused, least understood — even hijacked — phrase in Jewish life these days is tikkun olam, or, repair of the world.
Now don’t get me wrong. I don’t want to sound like the Scrooge of American Jewry, throwing cold water on the concept of every Jew’s obligation to do his or her part, however small, to improve society through acts of kindness, ranging from personal charity to political activism. But the fact remains that while tikkun olam has come to symbolize the universal nature of mitzvot and been adopted as the mantra of advocates of social justice, it is really about the particular nature of fulfilling a Jewish ideal, namely, recognizing the centrality of God in our lives.
This dissonance surrounding the two Hebrew words is not due to an oversight or misunderstanding, I’ve come to believe, but a telling example of how some liberal American Jews have expropriated the Judaic phrases and teachings they choose to base their values on, ignoring the inherent religious message in favor of a more universal one.
Many of us would like to believe that our Western ideals are consistent with Jewish tradition, when that is not always the case. After all, modernity is about individual rights and freedoms while Judaism is about obligations — collective and personal. So in convincing ourselves that our Jewish morals reinforce rather than challenge our views on issues from abortion to gay rights, we tend to sometimes disregard or distort the texts.
The classic illustration, as Jack Wertheimer, professor of American Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary, noted recently, is the Aleinu prayer, recited three times each day, which includes the phrase: “L’taken olam b’malchut Shaddai.” The true meaning here has been altered by our focus on the first two words, a variation of tikkun olam. Rarely cited, though, is the rest of the phrase, which translates as “the sovereignty of the Lord.”
In other words, the text is saying, how do we perfect the world? Through serving God, by performing the mitzvot God requires of us.
In omitting the conclusion of the thought, we are left with a very different message, suggesting the abstract imperative to improve society without anchoring the text in the specific requirement of following God’s commands.
Another example is the word mitzva, which we tend to translate as “good deed,” but in fact refers to 613 specific commandments required of us by the Torah. Mitzvot are not just acts of kindness but religious obligations, sometimes beyond logic (like the laws of kashrut) but imperatives just the same.
Then there is the central message and most memorable phrase of the Passover story: “Let my people go.”
We all know that Moses says this to Pharaoh. But what about the rest of the sentence? In Exodus 7:16, God instructs Moses: “And say to him [Pharaoh], ‘The Lord, the God of the Hebrews, sent to me you to say, ‘Let my people go that they may worship Me in the wilderness.’”
The concept of freedom, then, in the Exodus story and subsequently in the Passover seder ritual, is not about man being freed from slavery so that he can pursue his own interests. Rather, it is so he can devote himself to God.
Throughout history we have seen Jews drawn to universalist groups and causes, like bundism and communism, searching for ways to perfect the world without God. On the other hand, we see Jews who seem to focus only on religious observance and care little about the community outside of their synagogue or neighborhood, sometimes expressing contempt for non-Jews and little affection for nonobservant fellow Jews.
In truth, Judaism requires the observance of the universal and the particular, the mitzvot between man and his fellow man as well as between man and heaven. Social justice is wonderful, and political activism is admirable, but they must be grounded in tradition to be authentically Jewish. As Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, the author and ethicist, has noted, “liberals and conservatives should ask themselves if there is anything in Judaism that challenges their political beliefs. If the answer is no,” he says, “then their real religion is liberalism or conservatism, not Judaism.”
The beauty of our faith is in the recognition that to fulfill the mitzva of repairing the world, both parts of the text are required. We must look outward and inward, as Hillel instructed, “If I am not for myself who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I?”
This is the balance that genuine Jewish belief and practice holds dear, changing the world by changing
I’m all for it, as long as repairing the world is rooted in our service to God.
(Gary Rosenblatt, editor and publisher of The New York Jewish Week, can be reached at Gary@jewishweek.org. This column previously appeared in The Week.)