Part I: Tikkun Olam in the Classical Sources[i]

Tikkun olam, a Hebrew term which literally means “to mend/repair the world” has gained currency in American Jewish circles over the past 50 years and has even entered the wider American religious discourse.  The contemporary connotation, with its emphasis on human agency in bringing about God’s kingdom on earth, represents both a synthesis and reinterpretation of earlier conceptual frameworks and a response to the perceived failure of Jewish emancipation and integration in the West as exemplified by the persistence of antisemitism and the Holocaust. Tikkun olam has also become a vehicle for American Jews seeking to reconcile their theology with their political liberalism.

While Jews always were concerned with social justice, its association with tikkun olam is hardly a century old and was not widely adopted in North America until the 1970s and 1980s. The origins of the term can be traced back to Talmudic texts and the early post-Temple liturgy. The idiom made its debut in early rabbinic literature, and most notably in the second paragraph of the contemporaneous Aleinu prayer. In the Talmud, the justification of mipnei tikkun ha-olam, for the sake of the improvement or stabilization of society, was applied to rabbinic enactments that were designed to close loopholes perceived as damaging to the credibility of the legal system. By contrast, Aleinu envisions the repair of the world under the Kingdom of God, l’taken olam b’malkhut Shaddai. While this understanding of tikkun olam was more universalistic, its concept of repair as the eradication of paganism and the imposition of religious uniformity is equally far removed from the modern concept of social betterment.

Although it was invoked in the daily liturgy, tikkun olam remained a fairly obscure notion until it was appropriated by the kabbalists. The kabbalistic work, the Zohar, by Rabbi Moses de Leon effectively introduced the idea that human beings could repair “the flaws in the universe… and help restore the cosmic balance.” It was the thought of Isaac Luria (1534–1572), however, that fully elaborated the mystical meaning of tikkun olam. Luria envisioned human beings as full partners with God in bringing redemption. The kabbalistic iteration of tikkun olam radically differs from both the Talmudic and third-century liturgical understanding of the idiom. While both the Aleinu and the Lurianic creation myth were eschatological, the Lurianic notion of redemption imagined a reunification of the Godhead and an end to the material world.

Luria’s gnostic outlook caused him to reject the present world as fundamentally wicked. Humanity essentially was asked to pave the way for the undoing of its creation. Finally, while both the Talmud and Luria saw a role for humanity in tikkun ha-olam, the rabbis mandated concrete ameliorative steps in order to strengthen the social fabric and promote economic justice, while Luria invested the power of tikkun in acts of contemplation, study and the performance of mitzvot (commandments).

Luria and his fellow kabbalists could not have anticipated how tikkun olam would be reinterpreted in the twentieth century, which will be the subject of next week’s installment of The Weekly Word.

[i] This is Part I 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 II and III will appear in subsequent issues of The Weekly Word.