The phrase tikkun olam is understood in our time to mean 'repairing the world'
Tikkun Olam is Judaism envisioning an ideal world. Often translated to mean 'repair of the world', and even as social justice, tikkun olam underpins our religious way of life and perspective that works towards a time of peace – not just ending war, but a time of prosperity, health and justice for all. For Reform Jews the importance of working individually and collectively towards a better and redeemed world is vital to our understanding of what being active Jews means.
The phrase tikkun olam is understood in our time to mean 'repairing the world'; and is used synonymously with social action. Interestingly, the roots of the term lie not in a modern understanding of social activism, but in an older Jewish understanding of what our purpose as Jews was, in finishing the ordering of the world and is boundup in our relationship to God.
Tikkun olam is not mentioned in the Torah. Its first usage is in the Mishnah (c. 200 CE), where the Rabbis made some changes in Jewish law mipnei tikkun ha-olam 'for the sake of order in the world' or even 'in the interest of public policy'. That is to say, their attempts to standardise practice so it applied fairly to everyone and in all situations.
In the Aleinu prayer (c. 1300CE) we pray for God to tikkun olam 'fix or perfect the world', but there it means that God will be recognised by everyone as the supreme ruler.
For kabbalists (c 1200-1500CE ) the idea of the world being shattered, like a vessel, becomes important to understand the role of Jews in firstly having agency and secondly being in control of their world. During this time of pogroms and blood libels, the kabbalist idea of retreating into our inner lives and working to become one with God gave each Jew the opportunity to find purpose in a world where the Jew was powerless. The shattered world needed fixing through inner devotion, study and acts of personal kindness – all within reach, and all with the power to connect a Jew to God.
These very different meanings of tikkun olam reflect something important about the Jewish tradition and what we might want to emphasis in our own tikkun olam programmes. That is, that the actions of social justice are for us bound in our tradition, that the acts are as much about being Jewish, community and God, as much in fact as the act of tefillah in a synagogue.
The fact is that in our times, the tikkun olam dimension of Jewish life is very attractive for many Jews. The question is, when we undertake programmes that help others and our world, are we taking part in tikkun olam or social action?
In some ways the term tikkun olam and its roots are less interesting than the many laws that derive from the Jewish concepts of chesed; acts of loving kindness and tzedek; or justice. These concepts underpin so much of our Jewish story, the way we understand our role in the world and our relationship to God.
In undertaking programmes within our synagogues and RSY-Netzer we might do well to take some of the different usages of the term (as outlined above) into consideration, and ask:
- How what we are undertaking brings order to our community efforts and helps us differentiate between good and bad;
- How our work seeks to bring God into our lives and the world, by the moral judgements that we make;
- How our inner lives are affected, and built by our actions;
- And how we are making the world a better place, and brings us closer to the Messianic Age.
Sources and Resources:
- The Way into Tikkun Olam (2005, Jewish Lights Publications, VT, USA) Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff
- Netzer Olami’s Everything You Wanted to Know about Reform Zionism published by Netzer Olami. This booklet has a wonderful explanation of tikkun olam and its place in RSY-Netzer’s ideology as well as tikkun concentretric circles: how repairing oneself is vital before, repairing one's own family, community, society and the Jewish people before making change in the world. Try the RSY-Netzer website for more.
- The Union of Reform Judaism is our sister movement in the United States and has many resources for synagogues on tikkun olam.
- The Big Green Jewish Website is a portal for all things green and Jewish and is based at the UK’s JHub.
- Repair the World is a website that aims to inspire Jews to undertake service opportunities and promotes social action involvement.
- Sh’ma is an online monthly 'Journal of Jewish Responsibility'.
- On1Foot is an online database of Jewish texts for social justice
- Prayer for Social Action: a prayer that a group can use before beginning a project, meeting or programme.
Key Texts for Tikkun Olam:
Justice, Justice shall you pursue.
- Within the Torah there are examples of both procedural and substantive justice – can you think of some?
Adonai is righteous (tzadik) in all His ways and kind (chasid) in all his actions.
- What is the difference between tzadik/tzedek and chasid/chesed?
- Why do you think the terms tzadik and chasid are used together here, and so often in our liturgy?
I loathe, I spurn your festivals, I am not appeased by your solemn assemblies. If you offer Me burnt offering - or your meal offerings - I will not accept them; I will pay no heed to your gifts of fatlings. Spare Me the sound of your hymns, and let Me not hear the music of your lutes. But let justice well up like water, righteousness like an unfailing stream.
- Why do you suppose Amos is chastising the people in this way?
- How would you prioritise religious acts and celebration of festivals against acts of kindness and justice? Is it possible to do one without the other?
The Movement for Reform Judaism does not consider this text to constitute the definitive answer on this subject. We believe that Judaism is a living, evolving faith and, as such, there is no 'final word' on Jewish texts, traditions and thought.