Part III: Tikkun Olam, Social Justice, and American Liberalism[i]

Holocaust memory played an important role in shaping the contemporary Jewish understanding of tikkun olam, as we discussed in Part II. But the term entered the general Jewish vocabulary when it was adopted in the 1970s by the Jewish counterculture. Many young Jewish Americans were energized by the political and social change movements of the 1960s and 70s, and some looked to Jewish tradition to ground their activism. Ironically, despite these young people’s contempt for the suburban Judaism in which most were raised, some probably first encountered the term tikkun olam in their religious schools, summer camps, and synagogue youth groups.  Jewish education became an important conduit for its dissemination in the 1960s and 70s. Fearing trends of rebellion and apathy among American Jewish youth, several educators argued that Jewish education urgently required reform. A demand for more “relevance” in the curriculum joined a call for renewed emphasis on the teaching of Jewish values, including social justice, which was referred to as tikkun olam.

Informal educators were among the first to promote social justice under the designation tikkun olam in their programming. At the popular Brandeis Camp Institute, in Simi Valley, California, charismatic educator Shlomo Bardin routinely inspired youth by exhorting them to fulfill the Jewish mission to the world through acts of tikkun olam. In 1970, determined to place greater emphasis on social justice, one of American Jewry’s leading youth organizations, United Synagogue Youth, published a curriculum and educator’s guide called “Tikun Olam.” By the 1980s, tikkun olam was routinely being promoted as an important Jewish value in religious school curricula. The subject matter presented in these curricula was eclectic, ranging from nuclear proliferation to sanctuary for illegal immigrants, and from extending support to HIV/AIDS victims to advocating for the right of Jews in the Soviet Union to emigrate. Educators found role models in Jewish activists fighting for causes like civil rights. Champions of tikkun olam liked to invoke Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s statement in a letter to Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. after the civil rights march to Selma, Alabama, in 1965: “Legs are not lips and walking is not kneeling. And yet our legs uttered songs. Even without words our march was worship. I felt my legs were praying.” After his death in December 1972, friends, students and admirers did not hesitate to describe Heschel’s activism as tikkun olam.

An article in the wildly popular Jewish Catalog (1971) was arguably most important in spreading the idea of tikkun olam to Jews North America. Modeled after The Whole Earth Catalog, the book aimed to be a “compendium of tools and resources” for the Jewish counterculture. But its reach far exceeded its target audience. Rabbi Arthur Waskow urged readers to “plant a tree somewhere as a small tikkun olam—fixing up the world—wherever the olam most needs it. … Plant a tree in Vietnam in a defoliated former forest… Plant a tree in Appalachia where the strip mines have poisoned the forests. Go there to plant it; start a kibbutz there and grow more trees. Plant a tree in Brooklyn where the asphalt has buried the forest. Go back there to plant it and live with some of the old Jews who still live there.” Waskow overtly politicized and expanded the meaning of tikkun olam to include a variety of causes, both universal and particular, from environmentalism and anti-Vietnam War activism to caring for the Jewish elderly and neighborhood gentrification (ostensibly to make formerly Jewish areas safer and more livable for those who remained there).

Tikkun olam remained an important motif for progressive Jewish activists through­out the 1980s and 90s. Among those who took it up as a cri de coeur were Leonard Fein and Michael Lerner. An activist and founding editor of Moment magazine, Fein argued that survivalism, either for its own sake or as a response to the Holocaust, was an instrumental value at best. He emphasized that the purpose of Jewish continuity must extend beyond the parochial interests of an ethnic group, no matter its venerable pedigree. He believed that “there is only one agenda that warrants the effort and that dignifies the pursuit, and that purpose is what it has always been, to enter into partnership with God in completing the work of creation.” Fein viewed tikkun olam as the ground “where particularism and universalism meet,” where Jews are afforded the opportunity to live their ethics and thereby “move from ethics to justice.” Fein strongly maintained that far from endangering Jewish survival by making Judaism indistinguishable from liberalism or secular humanism, tikkun olam gave purpose and meaning to Jewish survival.

At the same time, academic, mental health professional and left-wing political activist Michael Lerner and his wife (at that time), drug store chain heiress and psychotherapist Nan Fink took up the cause of tikkun olam. In 1986 they co-founded TIKKUN, a progressive political and cultural magazine. Each issue carried a definition of “tikkun (tē · kün)” on its cover: “To mend, repair and transform the world.” Lerner expressed his frustration with the complacency of the American Jewish establishment. “The notion that the world could and should be different than it is…seems strangely out of fashion,” he complained in the first issue. Insisting that the Jewish commitment to liberal politics was based on deeply rooted Jewish values, and not merely on perceived political interest, Lerner hoped that TIKKUN would help keep “the Prophetic tradition alive.”

He defined Judaism as a religion that was “irrevocably committed to the side of the oppressed” and the biblical accounts of Creation and the Exodus as infused with the message that “the world needs to be and can be transformed, that history is not meaningless but aimed at liberation…” According to Lerner, this essential teaching led inexorably to a progressive political and social agenda. Lerner hoped to energize alienated Jews with a model of Judaism that rejected the crass materialism and hypocrisy of middle class suburban Jewish life in favor of a Jewishly grounded ethic of social justice. “A tikkun in the Jewish world” would be “the most important step in fighting assimilation.” Lerner courted controversy as an unabashed promoter of Palestinian-Israeli coexistence and an advocate of Jewish dialogue with Palestinian Arab leaders who were publicly inimical to the Jewish state’s existence. While TIKKUN was always a niche publication and perceived by some as highfalutin, it found a dedicated readership outside as well as inside of the Jewish community that included intellectual and political leaders like Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton.

As the unabashedly progressive Lerner emerged as the most prominent face of tikkun olam activism, opposition crystallized on the Jewish right. In the 1980s and 1990s, the association of tikkun olam with a liberal, universalistic political agenda was roundly criticized by neo-conservatives, supporters of hawkish Israeli policies, and some Jewish survivalists. In Rabbis and Lawyers (1990), Jerold Auerbach criticized prophetic Judaism and the American Jewish passion for tikkun olam, as follows: “How tempting to assume that the Hebrew Bible was a preliminary draft of the American Constitution, that the Hebrew prophets were the founding fathers of American liberalism.” Auerbach complained that American Jews “hear in prophecy what they want to hear.” By making Judaism synonymous with liberalism, American Jews had, in effect, “transformed prophecy into a repudiation of the very sacred law tradition at its core.” Auerbach astutely viewed the elevation of social justice to a core principle as emblematic of a “search for compatibility between Judaism and Americanism.”

Several earlier advocates of tikkun olam anticipated those who would criticize its unconcealed universalism. By presenting tikkun olam in the framework of the covenant between the Jews and God, for example, Schulweis intended to make it part of community-based practice. “Social involvement is not the concern of some individuals but of the entire community,” he wrote. Leonard Fein was fond of saying that “in order to survive, a people needs more than a strategy; it needs a reason.” The secret of the rise of tikkun olam was its power to give meaning to Jewish identity by articulating a post-Holocaust Jewish mission in the world and reinforcing liberal political and social values that were already deeply ingrained in the vast majority of American Jews. Most Jews had a vague sense of correlation between their Judaism and their liberalism. Tikkun olam legitimized it and gave it a name.


[i] This is Part III 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). Parts I and II appeared in the January 5, 2021 and January 12, 2021 editions of The Weekly Word, respectively.