Reclaiming Tikkun Olam

Whenever non-orthodox/non-traditional streams of Judaism, or at least representative organizations within them, act exceptionally aggressive towards the orthodox, certain elements within the orthodox “side” reacts by discrediting the progressive movements for being “not real Judaism”. Frequently, since many of their leaders and spokesmen (the non-orthodox), who aren’t themselves very committed to or convinced of the value of Torah and Mitzvot, substitute Tikkun Olam, literally the repair of the universe, for our other, often Biblical, responsibilities. The “orthodox” spokesmen then condemn tikkun olam as not only non-Jewish but often absolutely anti-Jewish.

After a recent tasteless speech at the Hebrew Union College graduation by the novelist Michael Chabon, who insulted everything from observing mitzvot  to marrying-in (i.e., preserving Jewish heritage for at least one more generation), the usual bloggers and speakers began their anti tikkun olam rants. Tikkun Olam isn’t Jewish. Social Justice, especially when the victims and perceived victims are not Jewish and the solutions have nothing to do with Mitzvot or Torah, or even Tefilla (prayer), supports values which attack Judaism. The movement is often anti-Israel, promotes anti-Jewish-family values (i.e. seems to value the “rights” of the ever-growing ladder of sexual identifications much more than those of “traditional” individuals and families, etc.)

Wait a minute!

Of course Tikkun Olam, at least in it’s basic concept, it not only Jewish, but it gives great insights into many Torah values. It can rally us to to the right thing when, otherwise, we might just remain indifferent. It describes the answer to that basic, almost unanswerable question that so often faces us of  “why”.

What those Jews who never had the privilege of learning Torah L’Shma, Torah for it’s own sake, is the way we’ve defined the words Tikkun and Olam, in a Jewish way, not based on Greek or Latin translations of the Bible (what we refer to as Torah).

Yes, tikkun, l’takeyn, means repair, to fix. Olam, while, of course, it does contain the meaning “world” also means eternal (and thus time and through this consequences of our actions). A traditional Jew knows that our approach to Tikkun has nothing to do with what “problem”we might see, and adjusting what we perceive to be “off”, but rather, and exclusively, within the realm of Torah and Mitzvot. What’s missing in the world, perhaps displaying the symptoms that enrage and energize us, is a set of unperformed mitzvot, spiritual acts designed to maximize the underlying structure of reality which, in turn, hosts what we in our limited capacity, call reality.

Of course, to use a contemporary example, children separated from the parents is a terrible wrong in the world. But, perhaps rather than demonstrating or posting of facebook or giving political speeches, a tiny group of Jews somewhere, sitting together and chanting Tehillim, Psalms, or studying an obscure tractate of Talmud really fixes the problem. Much like the western symptoms-based approach to medicine, this limited definition of Tikkun Olam actually prolongs the problem.

A timely story is told in this week’s Torah reading, Balak. Bill’am, the evil prophet and curse-for-hire hitman can’t understand his donkey which first walks him into a fence, then into a stone wall, each time further injuring his foot, and finally laying down in the middle of the road. Bill’am’s reaction and “solution” is to beat the donkey, to beat it again and to beat it into an inch of its life.

Like many contemporary, rational humanists who already know all that they need to know, all Bill’am knows is that his donkey is stubborn, willful, and driving him to murder. Bill’am, the “expert” with no need for God or Torah doesn’t see, and thus as no idea that what continues to block him from carrying out “his” plan is God Himself, working as an “angel”, but rather just a rebellious, blind, evil donkey.

Likewise, when we begin to understand that the real causes behind all the imperfection in our world are the duties, jobs and responsibilities assigned to us but yet undone, imperfection awaiting tikkun, we’ll have a chance to both solve the immediate problems that so enrage us now as well as to bring the world to a place where, eventually, all if complete and perfect, perhaps not exactly by our criteria, but by The Creator’s.

Shabbat Shalom

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