Part II: Tikkun Olam and the Holocaust[i]

The association of tikkun olam with human agency, a human-centered utopian quest to realize God’s Kingdom on Earth is a relatively new phenomenon. As we saw in Part I, while the term tikkun olam can be found in post-Biblical Jewish texts and the traditional liturgy, its meaning has changed over time. Central to its evolution was the persistence of antisemitism in Europe and the growing conviction among modern Jews that salvation would only come through human agency.

In all likelihood, the first Jews to use tikkun olam in a way that approximates its contemporary meaning were the early Zionist colonists. Their embrace of modern nationalism and the upbuilding of a Jewish society in Eretz Israel/Palestine at the turn-of-the-twentieth century as a response to antisemitism, economic deprivation, and the failure of liberalization policies in czarist Russia defied the conventional Jewish teaching that only God could initiate the ingathering of the Exiles to Zion and the messianic era. It became an important component of the teleology of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Eretz Israel/Palestine. As Rabbi Ben-Zion Bokser explained, Kook saw Judaism as instrumental in hastening human enlightenment: “For Rabbi Kook, the essence of Judaism, which flows from Jewish monotheism, is the passion to overcome separatism, the severance of man from God, of man from man, of man from nature. It is the passion to perfect the world through man’s awareness of his links to all else in existence.” Kook’s teachings about tikkun and his perception of holiness of all of humanity became a springboard for a redemptive religious Zionism. He embraced the secular Zionists’ rebuilding of a Jewish state as a holy project and regarded them as (unwitting) agents of messianic redemption and repair (tikkun).

During the Third Reich, another rabbi embraced an activist, this-worldly understanding of tikkun olam when confronted by catastrophe. Liberal Rabbi Leo Baeck led the representative body of German Jewry, the Central Association of German Citizens of the Jewish Faith from 1933 until it was disbanded by the Nazis in 1938. His student, rabbi and theologian Emil Fackenheim, vividly recalled Baeck’s sermon on the Aleinu prayer in the mid-1930s: “He preached about the abomination of the false gods, and everyone present knew what he had in mind,” and “ended up with the subject of tikkun olam.” Fackenheim noted that while the term could be translated in a variety of ways with messianic undertones, Baeck preferred a “more sober” interpretation: “preparing the world for the kingship of God.” It was the responsibility of Germans and the world as a whole to facilitate the emergence of a more perfect future by sweeping away the abomination of Nazism.

Fackenheim had this story about his beloved teacher in mind in 1982 when he titled his influential work of post-Holocaust theology, To Mend the World. Indeed, tikkun olam acquired a new meaning as American Jewry struggled to come to terms with the implications of the Holocaust and the mission of Jews in a post-Holocaust world. One of the earliest public intellectuals to invoke tikkun olam in his response to the Holocaust was Harold Schulweis, a theologian and leading Conservative rabbi. In a 1966 symposium entitled “The Condition of Jewish Belief,” which appeared in Commentary, Schulweis insisted that the world was “created imperfect and incomplete.” Humanity was tasked with being “an ally of God in perfecting and repairing the incomplete world (tikkun olam).” Schulweis went even further and urged humanity to follow the example of Abraham and confront God with examples of divine moral lapses. Since human beings were “endowed with an imago Dei,” rather than “helplessly fallen,” in his view, Schulweis expected them to “exercise [their] moral freedom and responsibility in the world. The high status conferred upon man as a morally competent partner of God produced and still cultivates a social consciousness and activism in the knowledgeable Jew.”

Placing social action in the framework of covenant, Schulweis regarded tikkun olam as part of the tradition of Jewish “struggle,” as well as the brokenness of the world. He explicitly maintained that tikkun olam demanded this-worldly activism. Judaism must open itself “to those interests—economic, social, cultural—more often relegated to the secular in doctrinally-centered theology.” Furthermore, his insistence that the covenant was “people-centered,” meant that social justice was a communal responsibility as opposed to a solitary endeavor. Likewise, he argued that salvation would be realized collectively, not individually.

Schulweis’ social activist orientation regarding repairing the world contrasts with that of Fackenheim. To be sure, resistance is a central motif in Fackenheim’s work, particularly in To Mend the World. The resistance of Hitler’s victims during the Holocaust inspired and demanded living a “resisting life” in its aftermath. Yet Fackenheim’s posture was inward rather than universal. His call for resistance in the shadow of complete rupture was a plea for Jewish survival. The will to live as a people, as exemplified by the creation of the Jewish state, and the reclamation of the principle that human life is sacred constituted acts of tikkun.


[i] This is Part II of a 3-part essay excerpted and adapted from Jonathan Krasner, “The Place of Tikkun Olam in American Jewish Life,” Jewish Political Studies Review 25:3-4 (2015). Part I appeared in the January 5, 2021 edition of The Weekly Word. Part III will appear in a subsequent issue of The Weekly Word.