Better understanding Tikkun Olam – A Reform and Conservative critique

What’s wrong with the way that some people use the idea of Tikkun Olam?

• There’s nothing wrong with being non-Orthodox

• There’s nothing wrong with being liberal (yet Judaism also isn’t against being conservative or libertarian)

• There’s nothing wrong with recognizing that our religious tradition charges us with repairing wrongs.

But some Jewish thinkers hold that many of today’s Jews misunderstand and misrepresent tikkun olam. In this first blog post, just below, we examine what Tikkun Olam had meant in Judaism, in classical rabbinic and kabbalistic texts.

Misunderstanding Tikkun Olam

And now here we look at specific critiques of how the idea is used today from well-known Reform and Conservative theologians.

Reform Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf

He doesn’t argue against many of the specific good things that Reform advocates for in the name of Tikkun Olam. But he points out that lacking serious methodology, Reform is simply picking and choosing secular political liberal positions. The result is less than the sum of its parts. Since Reform insists that there be no legal or methodological norms, any Jew can pick any secular or social position and label this as God’s will. The result is then secular political views being promoted in the name of religion, which ironically is what Reform had traditionally argued against.

Wolf clearly states that traditional Jewish texts compel us to repair injustice in this world. But he holds that we have the obligation to read our texts more closely. God is not in service of any one modern-day political or social movement.

Rabbi Wolf writes

The capture of the Talmudic-Zoharic notion of Tikkun Olam (the correction or repair of the world) by liberal political circles is well-nigh complete. Few remember that the rabbis once meant by the doctrine not much more than fine tuning their construction of the mitzvah system so that it might be made feasible for obedience. The siddur, to be sure, contains the fine phrase “to correct the world under God’s kingship,” but the alenu prayer in which the phrase occurs is anything but universalistic in its original formulation….

…One hardly knows what to say about the ineffable hutzpah of the circle around the Ari, Isaac Luria, who presumed to plumb the very essence of the divine. They accepted a mythology of the creation of the world by God’s tsimtsum, self-contraction, followed by the breaking of vessels and the repair of the world by human theurgic practice. How all of this rank superstition could be accepted with profound loyalty is a mystery to us of the mitnagid persuasion; we agree with Emmanuel Levinas, the great twentieth century Jewish philosopher who considered it also dangerous nonsense. But even more incredible is the manipulation of the esoteric doctrine to support political views of the soft left in our own time. Consider the sermonic version of Arthur Green:

Tikkun Olam, which means “mending the world,” is an ancient Hebrew phrase that has taken on new life in the past few decades… In contemporary usage it refers to the betterment of the world, including the relief of human suffering, the achievement of peace and mutual respect among peoples, and the protection of the planet itself from destruction.

While associating these ideals with tikkun olam may be a recent innovation, the values themselves are deeply rooted in Jewish tradition…

The rediscovery of ancient spiritual forms in recent decades has paralleled an age of activism for political and social change. In some cases these have been separate from, or even opposed to, one another

Once the halakhic system mandated a serious social responsibility, but the apodictic nature of Jewish law has given way to what Rosenzweig has called “aggadic doing,” the aimless or haphazard performance of whatever the person of our time considers important to do. Accordingly, the Reform movement will suggest or even instruct its adherents what political measures to support, while hardly requiring any ritual obedience, except for converts. We are not told why we must support women’s right to choose abortion, for example, except that it falls somehow under the rubric of tikkun olam.

…we are told that solidarity with the easy left is our Jewish duty under God. But there is no coherent standard for changing. Jewish law except the spirit of the times, an epoch that is hardly worthy of emulation…. Our good faith is suspect when we demand so little of ourselves. The recent cancellation of youth visits to Israel by the Reform movement was not a miscalculation by the President of the UAHC so much as it was a proof that, as usual, liberals decamp when the going gets tough. No sense of obligation commands either peaceniks or hawks to send their children to an Israel under siege (perhaps because of its own sins as well as those of its enemies). You can count on it; the soft left will always demand, as Rabbi Yoffie correctly intuited, a “100% risk free” setting for its performance of mitzvot. We will repair the world only when it doesn’t cost too much.

Repairing Tikkun Olam,” Arnold Jacob Wolf, Judaism 50:4, Fall 2001

Conservative Rabbi Byron Sherwin

A variety of ideas rooted in the French and German Enlightenment and elsewhere has come to dominate American Judaism. These include: the “sovereign self,” individual moral autonomy, secularism, a universalistic liberal morality, and others. Such ideas have not only infiltrated, but have come to characterize much of American Judaism.

In addition, ideas allegedly rooted in rabbinic and kabbalistic sources, although distorted beyond recognition in their meaning and message, now claim legitimacy as historically pivotal ideas of the Jewish religion. A prime example is the shibboleth of contemporary American Jewry Tikkun Olam. The nature of the “category mistake” that currently characterizes American Judaism is the subject of what follows.

… Jews, in other words, are no longer even conscious of the possible difference between Jewish and non-Jewish values adapted from the general culture, i.e., American culture. Non-Jewish values are embraced as “Jewish” values, without any awareness of their origin. Various authentic Jewish values that do not coalesce with those imported from outside are considered “un-Jewish.”

…for the Lurianic mystics, tikkun often refers to tikkun ha-nefesh, the repair of the individual soul, spiritually debilitated by sin, and requiring repentance–often by means of extreme ascetic practices–for the violation or neglect of Jewish law… This is an individual program of moral and spiritual rehabilitation, not a program for social or political action.

Byron L. Sherwin, The assimilation of Judaism: Heschel and the ‘category mistake’, Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought, Vol. 55, Issue 3-4,

And in Faith Finding Meaning: A Theology of Judaism, Rabbi Sherwin writes

A final example of the semantic displacement of American Jewry is its shibboleth: Tikkun Olam. Web sites of many American synagogues and Jewish communal organizations identify Tikkun Olam as the defining concept of authentic Judaism, and as a traditional Jewish teach ing deeply rooted in Talmudic and medieval Jewish mystical teachings. Even American politicians try to appeal to Jewish voters by invoking Tikkun Olam.

However, the current usage of this term represents a category mistake, is a blatant example of conversion by redefinition, and constitutes a paradigmatic example of the reductionist fallacy. In addition, it demonstrates the pitfalls of “coalescence.”

The contemporary use of Tikkun Olam is a metamorphosed version of prophetic Judaism, which like prophetic Judaism has come to be understood as being synonymous with Judaism. The attempt by the early Jewish reformers to equate Judaism with prophetic Judaism is both an example of the reductionist fallacy and a category mistake. As in early American Jewish Reform, the contemporary use of Tikkun Olam commits the reductionist fallacy by equating Judaism with universalistic liberal ethics rooted in Enlightenment thought.

The promiscuous use of the term Tikkun Olam identifies it with an enormous range of social programs, artistic projects, and a plethora of political causes. However, it is, in effect, little but a Jewish counterpart to Christian “liberation theology,” although without the theology, thereby appealing to the largely secular nature of American Jewry.

In discussing the phenomena of “coalescence” and the sovereign self, the American sociologist Sylvia Barack-Fishman writes that most American Jews “tend to look to social action and universalistic principles of Tikkun Olam as the sustained mission of Jews and Judaism in modern times, selecting from traditional Jewish rituals and behaviors those elements which may contribute to a meaningful (but episodic) Jewish experience.”

The contemporary usage of Tikkun Olam, often translated as “mending the world,” represents an example of conversion by redefinition. Though the term is found in classical Jewish literature, its mean ing has been redefined in a manner that both distorts it and also commits a category mistake. Although the term Tikkun (ha-)Olam appears in Talmudic and midrashic literature, no major study of early rabbinic thought recognizes it as a significant or central rabbinic concept.

Ironically, some Jewish advocates of “abortion on demand” have described the “right to choose” as an example of Tikkun Olam; yet the earliest uses of the term in rabbinic literature relate it to the human obligation to populate the world. The replacement of Jewish law with American civil law has made religious divorce (i.e., the גט get) an unnecessary anachronism, according to post-halakhic Judaism. Yet early references to Tikkun Olam in the Talmud specifically identify the גט get as an instrument for achieving Tikkun Olam.


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