Time to redefine tikkun olam

Time to redefine tikkun olam

Abby Wisse Schachter
Abby Wisse Schachter

At his recent appearance here in Pittsburgh, Yossi Klein Halevi made an amazing declaration, when he redefined tikkun olam.

Rather than basing his definition on some amorphous notion of social justice or using the term as a replacement for left-liberal political positions, Halevi had a different idea entirely.

He said that since tikkun olam — repairing or perfecting the world — can be understood as bringing good into the world and conversely reducing evil, that Israel’s successful attacks on the Iraq nuclear program at Osirak in 1981 and the demolition of Syria’s al-Kibar nuclear reactor in 2007 were both prime examples of tikkun olam — bringing good and reducing evil in the world.

It would not be going too far to say that a shock went through the Temple Sinai audience at Halevi’s assertion. It was shocking to my ears as well given the commonly accepted understanding of tikkun olam as meaning big, global liberal goals such as reducing income inequality through expanding government, protecting the environment by fighting against some natural resources and promoting others, fighting climate change and relieving poverty by advocating for a more generous welfare state. But the more I considered Halevi’s definition the more I realized the service he provided.

Not only was Halevi correct that Israel’s removal of the nuclear threat did much to enhance good and retard evil in the world, but he also makes it possible to reclaim the term altogether. Indeed, it was never acceptable that one set of Jews would get to define tikkun olam for all, and certainly after Barack Obama appropriated the concept of repairing the world for his successful 2008 presidential campaign, it is time to move tikkun olam away from contemporary American politics. As Hillel Halkin noted in his great 2008 Commentary essay on this subject, to hear liberal Jews explain it, “[t]here appears to be nothing wrong with this world that Judaism does not command us to fix … on everything Judaism has a position — and wondrously, this position happens to coincide with that of the American liberal left.” Yet, as Halkin explains, you must first misunderstand and misinterpret traditional understandings of tikkun olam to get there.

According to Halkin, there have traditionally been three ways of understanding the admonition to repair the world: the first comes from the prophet Zechariah and is known through the Aleynu prayer, which seeks the perfection of the world through messianic redemption; the second comes from the Mishnah and regards changing (‘fixing’) behavior for the sake of the Jewish public interest; the third is kabbalistic and according to Halkin it combines elements of the first two. “While [the Lurianic Kabbalah] calls for mending the entire cosmos, it holds that this must be done incrementally through the efforts of every Jew. These efforts … are strictly spiritual, involving prayer, religious ritual and meditation.”

Does Halevi’s definition fit in with Halkin’s? Well, considering that the modern Israeli government is the legitimate representative of the Jewish state’s interests then yes, destroying the nuclear threat definitely qualifies within the mishnaic definition. But if we are talking about the American Jewish community or more locally if we are talking about the Pittsburgh Jewish community, how can we understand tikkun olam in light of Halevi’s dictum to bring more goodness into the world? And is there anything specific to do that would qualify as in the Jewish interest — a la Halkin’s definition?

I have two suggestions: Jews in Pittsburgh are performing tikkun olam when they do for other Jews. This is not to say that volunteering in other communities for non-Jews is a bad thing. Just that prioritizing our own community is part of the long mishnaic tradition.

The second suggestion comes from a friend who got into a conversation about the definition of tikkun olam with her elementary school-age daughter. The girl had come home all jazzed about “repairing the world,” you, see and her mom was curious as to what her child thought that actually meant. The girl said “it means making the world better.”

The mom challenged her daughter to define her terms a little more specifically. So the girl thought about it and said, “Well, like protecting the environment,” and treating people with respect. The mom agreed that both were important but suggested that her daughter think a little more locally by imagining the world as a series of circles.

When the mom asked the girl to name the first, most important circle of her world, she immediately named her family. The mom agreed and then asked for the next circle. The girl volunteered her extended family (both in America and Israel) and then their neighborhood followed by the city and state and country.  The mom then suggested that her daughter think about “repairing her world” starting with her family and asked her to try to get along better with her younger sister, to treat her with respect. The girl was horrified. “But she’s so annoying,” was the answer. And yet the mom explained making the world better — bringing more goodness and reducing bad — includes your sister.

As far as I know the girl is still considering whether she wants to perform tikkun olam.

(Abby W. Schachter authors a blog about the intersection of government policy and parenting at captainmommy.com.)