November 1, 2007
Tikkun for which olam?
If you want to be popular in the Jewish world today, just say tikkun olam.
Everywhere you go it seems that Jews of all stripes are jumping on this universal bandwagon.
It's not just the Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, secular, progressive and humanistic groups. Many Orthodox are also getting involved.
What's going on? What is it about this notion of "repairing the world" that makes Jews go gaga? And who decided that we the Jews -- with less than half of 1 percent of the world's population -- should become the Great Fixers of Humanity?
Recently, in one day, I got to experience three different views of tikkun olam. The last view was so politically incorrect, it was almost embarrassing.
Let's start with the first one. It's lunchtime at the Magic Carpet on Pico Boulevard, and I'm enjoying myself with two prominent progressive Jews of the community. It's the kind of lunch where you get a big "l'chaim" just by blurting out words like social justice and universal health care. If you want a really big hug, just say "Palestinian rights."
This is classic tikkun olam: There are problems and injustices in the world, and it is our duty to try to fix them. Economic injustice; reforming the criminal justice system; promoting interfaith dialogue; fighting hunger and homelessness; fighting global warming; helping the dying children of Darfur; and so on.
This approach has talmudic roots in the mishnaic term "mipnei tikkun ha-olam," which can be translated as "in the interest of public policy." As you can read on the Web site MyJewishLearning.com, the term refers to "social policy legislation providing extra protection to those potentially at a disadvantage -- governing, for example, just conditions for the writing of divorce decrees and for the freeing of slaves."
In modern-day America, classic tikkun olam has evolved into full-blown social activism that for many Jews is the primary expression of their Judaism.
I got my second view of tikkun olam several hours later when I attended "An Encounter With Jewish Spirituality" at the home of Rabbi Abner Weiss in Westwood. Rabbi Weiss is one of those renaissance Jews: an Orthodox scholar, author, trained psychologist, expert in kabbalah and leader of a congregation (Westwood Village Synagogue). He has just launched this new "Encounter" program to provide a "kosher" Jewish yoga and meditation experience for those who haven't found spirituality in traditional Judaism.
In his introduction, the rabbi went back to the time of Abraham to talk about a world "not lit, but in flames" and how we partner with God to put out the flames. Abraham was the first hero of tikkun olam, not as a holy priest, but as an everyman who "chose God," "loved without reason" and performed simple acts of loving kindness.
But in kabbalah, the rabbi went on, "Tikkun olam is a lot more than social activism."
In this "spiritual" view, all mitzvot have the power to change the world. Because the mitzvah has a Divine origin, it also has a Divine effect. Thus, lighting the Shabbat candles, making a blessing before you eat or honoring your parents has the same cosmic power to "repair the world" as any demonstration in front of the federal building to raise the minimum wage.
While lauding the work of social activism, the rabbi impressed on us that in the mystical tradition, tikkun olam starts from the "inside out" -- we repair ourselves through deep contemplation and by clinging to God and His commandments, like Abraham did, which, in turn, gives us the strength, humility and wisdom to make our world holy.
That same night, on an Internet reader forum, I stumbled on yet a third view of tikkun olam, one I can charitably describe as "tribal."
It was a rambling, passionate rant that boiled down to this: "The Jews should take care of Jews, and let others worry about their own." In other words: Tikkun, yes, but for our own olam.
This wasn't just politically incorrect; it was downright offensive. How dare we focus on ourselves and forget the rest of the world?
But that response seemed too predictable, so I gave it some serious thought. That's when it got embarrassing. You see, I confess that the tribal rant struck a deep tribal chord in me, and brought out stuff that had been brewing inside for a while.
I wondered: Have we gone a little too far with our passion for tikkun olam? Can this grand love affair with "repairing humanity" become a runaway train that will take Jews further and further away from the binding glue of Jewish peoplehood?
For every million we raise for children in Africa, certainly a worthy cause, how many hungry Jewish kids will we not feed or help send to a Jewish school?
I know the classic response: "It's not either/or, we must do both." Well, that may be ideal, but in the real world, where 90 percent of Jewish tzedakah goes to non-Jewish causes, too many Jews are not doing both.
Let's face it: there's something quite intoxicating about tikkun olam -- this notion of a little tribe looking out for the whole planet. After you've tasted that global Kool-Aid, who feels like schlepping to La Brea Boulevard to pack food boxes for needy Jews?
Don't get me wrong. It's not that I don't care about Muslim children dying in Darfur. But why can't we hold accountable the billion Muslims around the world who haven't lifted a finger to help their own brothers and sisters? If we encourage other groups and nations to take better care of their own, does that count as tikkun olam?
For Jews, what is the appropriate balance between "repair of the whole world" and "repair of the Jewish world"? Is it in balance now? Has our glorifying of tikkun olam contributed to the modest percentage of Jewish money that goes to Jewish causes -- and the declining interest in Zionism among young American Jews?
If, for many Jews, social activism has become "the new Judaism," will this overshadow foundational Jewish practices like Shabbat and Torah learning that may not seem as "sexy" and "relevant"?
And should we pay more attention to the spiritual approach to tikkun olam that teaches us that all of God's mitzvot can help repair the world?
If you ask me, we're due for an honest debate on the untouchable -- and touchy -- subject of tikkun olam.