The Fallacy, Delusion and Myth of Tikkun Olam

Everyone wants to (or should aspire to) improve the world. The words “Tikkun Olam” (fixing (sic) the world) though have been exchanged as the task of a Jew. The problem is that Tikkun is not defined, ill-defined, or defined in a virtual partial vacuum of traditional Orthodox Judaism. It has become a catch cry of tree huggers, New Israel Fund supporters, Reform, Ameinu, Conservative, Shira Chadasha and Conservadox. Ironically, none of these groups recite it in the Aleinu Prayer thrice daily. Eating in a “vegetarian restaurant” or sharing “interfaith hands” and more, have become the new flag of a newly defined version of Judaism. Judaism is not defined by Jews. There are halachic formulae distributed at Sinai. These are applied. They are not created. The further we are from Sinai the more careful we must be to check innovations and new decisions with recognised leaders in the application of the formulae. It’s almost laughable that these Tikkun Olamniks will enter into a Buddhist temple (with its blatant idolatry) barefooted to show their respect for Buddhists, but they will (occasionally) visit a JEWISH Shule, without wearing the customary hat for women, sleeves, longer dress or skirt, or iPhone in pocket, discussing football or other things ad nauseam. I would like a dollar for the number of speeches at Bar and Bat Mitzvas where the “themes” have nothing whatsoever to do with Judaism or Jewish truths. Enough from me. Here is a nice article on the topic from the Algemeiner Journal [Hat tip Magyaro] which is worth reading.

It is so very difficult, indeed utterly unbearable, to sit silently by while Jews, and now the general religious and secular communities, completely misuse and distort the term Tikkun Olam– certainly not intentionally or out of any malice, but rather out of ignorance in the pursuit of virtuous goals and principles which may be applicable to general society and civilization but which have tragically become a poor substitute for authentic religious observance.

This repair rhetoric has become an obsession, a catch-all credo. Everything today is Tikkun Olam. Enough with the Tikkun Olam. It is a senseless and meaningless misconception, its true meaning nothing like it is commonly used and purported to be.

It is not at all a centuries-old tradition, it is not a call to action, and it is not a commandment. And to be clear, Tikkun Olam does not even mean repairing the world in the sense of social justice. Nor in traditional sources is Tikkun Olam in any way even a direct human imperative or action, but rather one that is left in G-d’s hands.

We cannot, and are not instructed to, save the world, or even to repair it. Judaism teaches no such thing. Rather, we are instructed to conduct ourselves properly, to observe the Mitzvos, the Commandments (which are not good deeds, but rather commandments, required imperatives), and in that way to contribute to society and civilization both by example and through practice and action.

For Jews those Mitzvos include not simply socially or politically correct precepts such as giving charity and engaging in political action, but also observance of the Sabbath, dietary restrictions (Kashrus), daily prayer, and other commandments which seem to have fallen out of favor and are ignored, if not openly denigrated and violated, in some segments of the community, as they substitute the false panacea of something they call Tikkun Olam for the authenticity of true Judaism, clinging desperately to Tikkun Olam to avoid their actual responsibilities as Jews to observe the Torah and the commandments.

The term and concept Tikkun Olam appears nowhere in the Torah itself, but first appears only in the Mishna and Talmud in the context of the courts and halakhic (legal) regulations involving disputes and legal rights.

Subsequently in Kabbalah the term was used to refer to the upper worlds or to the repair of the individual soul damaged by the sin of violating or neglecting Jewish law. Following that, the only mention of Tikkun Olam in prayer is in the Aleinu prayer recited at the conclusion of every service, but even in that context it means either that G-d, not man, will ultimately repair the world, or, as others interpret, it does not mean repair of the world at all but rather is a prayer for the uprooting of idolatry, the rebuilding of the Temple and establishing G-d’s kingdom on earth, through the observance of the commandments and not through any separate social imperative.

Indeed, scholars from across the spectrum and diversity of the Jewish community have acknowledged and bemoan the misuse and distortion of the term Tikkun Olam by the community.

Thus Rabbi Jill Jacobs observed years ago (Zeek, July 2007) that, “In its current incarnation, Tikkun Olam can refer to anything from a direct service project such as working in a soup kitchen or shelter, to political action, to philanthropy. While once regarded as the property of the left, the term is now widely used by mainstream groups such as synagogues, camps, schools, and federations, as well as by more rightwing groups wishing to cast their own political agendas within the framework of Tikkun Olam.”

After quoting Arnold Jacob Wolf (“Repairing Tikkun Olam,” Judaism 50:4), who writes, “All this begins, I believe, with distorting tikkun olam. A teaching about compromise, sharpening, trimming and humanizing rabbinic law, a mystical doctrine about putting God’s world back together again, this strange and half-understood notion becomes a huge umbrella under which our petty moral concerns and political panaceas can come in out of the rain,” Jacobs points out that one of the key figures in the Kabbalistic school of thought which developed the concept of Tikkun Olam was the same person who codified Jewish law, since it is individual observance of halakha, Jewish law, which is the way to repair the world.

Professor Steven Plaut of Haifa University wrote about “The Rise of Tikun Olam Paganism” (The Jewish Press, January 23, 2003), calling it a “pseudo-religion,” “social action fetishism” (The Jewish Press, November 19, 2008) and a “vulgar misuse and distortion by assimilationists.” He concludes that Tikkun Olam is quite clearly “a theological notion and not a trendy socioeconomic or political one,” observing that, “It would be an exaggeration, but only a small one, to say that nothing in Judaism directs us to the pursuit of social (as opposed to judicial) justice.”

Most recently there was the publication earlier this year by Oxford University Press of the scholarly book Faith Finding Meaning: A Theology of Judaism by Rabbi Byron L. Sherwin, which also highlights the current fallacy (pages 33-35). Calling it “a blatant distortion of the meaning of the term,” a “substitute faith” and a “shibboleth,” he writes that “the current [promiscuous] usage of this term represents a category mistake, is a blatant example of conversion by redefinition, and constitutes a paradigmatic example of the reductionist fallacy” which is merely “liberation theology without the theology.” He concludes, “Tikkun Olam means ‘for the proper order of the Jewish community.’ It is a long way from that definition to ‘build a better world.’”

Please. Everyone. Enough with the Tikkun Olam. For Jews who truly do want to engage in Tikkun Olam, the only honest and authentic Jewish way to do that is to encourage observance of the Torah across the entire spectrum of the Jewish Community. That in fact is actually what our responsibility is, nothing more and nothing less, and the rest is up to G-d—if we do our part, so will G-d.

Grand Rabbi Y. A. Korff, the Zvhil-Mezbuz Rebbe of Boston, is Chaplain of The City of Boston and spiritual leader of the Zvhil-Mezbuz Beis Medrash in downtown Boston and Newton. This column first appeared in The Jewish Advocate of Boston.

Author: pitputim

I'm a computer science professor in Melbourne, Australia. I skylark as the band leader/singer for the Schnapps band. My high schooling was in Chabad and I continued at Yeshivat Kerem B'Yavneh in Israel.

11 thoughts on “The Fallacy, Delusion and Myth of Tikkun Olam”

  1. The very term tikun olam is invented by these leftists who know nothing of Judaism.

    As the author points out, in Alenu we express the hope that G-d will “fix the world under His sovereignty”; not only don’t we say anything about us doing so, but the words “bemalchus Sha-ai” are integral to the phrase. It doesn’t mean to repair something that is broken, but to establish something, in this case a theocracy that would horrify the tikkun-olamniks.

    In the mishna we do not find the term “tikun olam”, but rather “tikun ha-olam”. There is no semantic difference, but the omission of the “ha-” prefix in the leftist slogan indicates that this was not their source for the concept. If it were, why would they change the word in this way?

    And what does the mishna mean by this term? Not any grand world-repairing, but minor technical regulations for the smoother operation of people’s lives. A modern example of tikun haolam in the mishna’s sense is the rules for who has right of way in traffic. It doesn’t achieve any great goal of “social justice”, it just ensures that everyone can get where they’re going without crashing into each other. That is what the mishna means by the term mishum tikun haolam, which is best translated as “for the world’s good order”, or “for the world’s smooth operation”.

    In kabbalah, once again we do not find the term “tikun olam”, but rather “olam hatikun”, the world of repairs, that is to say this world, which was created to repair the damage caused by the previous world, “olam hatohu”, the world of chaos. (“Previous” here means logically prior, not previous in time, since there was no time before our world was created. The concept of chaos logically precedes the concept of order.)

    So the left made this term “tikun olam” up out of whole cloth. They did not derive it from any Jewish tradition.

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  2. I find the tone of the article’s author quite troubling. I fully agree that the term has been hijacked for initiatives that are often divorced from halachah and Torah values, but the article implies that Jews should concentrate entirely on Torah and mitzvos and refrain from broader social justice concerns, which they should leave up to G-d.

    Perhaps the author of the article is strictly correct when he says that the use of “tikkun olam” in the Talmud is for halachic ordinances, but there are many other mitzvos that impel support for broader social justice concern. The reasoning behind many of the Mitzvos Bein Adam L’Chaveiro – aside from them being requirements from On High – should lead us to support social justice on a broader scale.

    As long as social justice initiatives do not supplant authentic Yiddishkeit, I really see no issue.

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    1. “Social justice” is neither. Nekot hai kelala beyadach: any sort of hyphenated “justice” is guaranteed to be unjust. That applies to “social justice”, “environmental justice”, “climate justice”, if it has a qualifier you know it’s not justice. Almost every cause that comes under the rubric of “social justice” is wrong and perverted and is not merely not mandatory, but should be opposed.

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      1. A fair point, except that some may have in mind Justice, but are stressing something particularly unjust in a given time period. That is not always the case. Anyone for Climate Justice?

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        1. No. Halacha has views on each of these. There is no Halacha that says Chassidei Umos Haolam have to be white. Civil Rights are more complex because they mean different things to different groups and one needs to look at each one through the prism of Halacha.

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        2. Civil liberties is not a “social justice” cause, but quite the contrary, the “social justice warriors” often find themsleves opposing civil liberties, such as the freedom of speech, the freedom of association, the presumption of innocence, and the right to confront ones accuser.

          By “racism” I assume you meant to write “anti-racism”, and yes, the way it is used by “social justice warriors” is a terrible perversion. Intersectionality is pure evil. It’s bad enough that, having jettisoned all traditional moral codes, they have manufactured a new one of their own in which racism is the worst possible sin. The Torah says not a word against racism, and many gedolei hatorah were racist, as is apparent to anyone who has learned a little Rashi. But nowadays it’s much worse than that, with the new concepts of “white privilege” and “structural racism”, which turns the whole concept on its head, and is in fact anti-white (and anti-Jewish) racism.

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    2. I know what you mean. I think his intention was to unmask those who redefine Judaism. Judaism of course involves all those good things, however, one doesn’t have to be a Jew to do them! It’s this universalism which can’t cope with the concept of the chosen people except to say that “we are more enjoined to do these things”. Witness refugee issues. Is it true that we have more of a responsibility because we were refugees through most of our history? I think not. Rather, the underlying principles guide us, not our experience. To put in mundanely, we don’t drive safely because we have been in a car crash. We drive safely because that is what should be done.

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      1. The Torah says that we must not mistreat the stranger because we were strangers in Mitzrayim, Likewise, surely we should be considerate to refugees given that we have so often been refugees? Yes, there are underlying principles, but so too there is the national conscience and experience which helps shape our behaviour.

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        1. I think you answered your question. You’d need a Binyan Av. Don’t forget also that Dibroh Torah Kilshon B’Nei Odom, but the reason is the Yesod. The Yesod is not to mistreat.

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        2. Being considerate is one thing. It’s quite another to demand, as a matter of “justice”, that they have a “right” to be admitted to live in the country of their choice, and given all their needs and wants at the expense of that country’s taxpayers, let alone that that country’s people be exposed to a serious risk of crime from these “refugees”, as the Europeans are learning to their cost.

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