To thunderous applause, President Barack Obama described himself in a March 2013 Jerusalem speech as “a man who’s been inspired in my own life by that timeless calling within the Jewish experience – tikkun olam… the work of repairing this world.”
Indeed, to many American Jews, especially those affiliated with the Reform and Conservative movements, the concept of tikkun olam is the highest value, around which they have built their entire Jewish identities and agendas.
One problem: the understanding of tikkun olam as political activism and social organizing isn’t a “timeless calling within the Jewish experience.” In fact, it’s less than 50 years old.
Now, the actual phrase “tikkun olam” goes back many centuries – although it’s not used even once in the Hebrew Bible. It appears most prominently in an important prayer (the Aleinu) and in Kabbalah – Jewish mysticism. But the term never referred to a broad program of social change until very, very recently.
An outstanding essay published last month by visiting Brandeis Prof. Jonathan Krasner describes how, in his words, “the evolution and popularization of the term in a relatively short period of time is remarkable,” as tikkun olam “meant something very different” to earlier groups of Jews. For example, it once referred to Talmudic maneuvers to adjust technical legalities to concur with broader Jewish values; contemplation, study, and observance of commandments; and American Jewish patriotism supporting values shared by the wider society.
While some voices before the mid-twentieth century did refer to tikkun olam in terms of promoting social justice, peace, Zionism, and economic equality, its biggest boosters understood that the concept is not age-old. For example, Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan felt tikkun olam would replace Orthodox reluctance to hasten the coming of the Messiah by inculcating a sense of Jewish responsibility for the world.
In the last half-century, though, tikkun olam has become the catchall phrase for advocacy of goals that are nearly all left-of-center: environmental activism, feminism, nuclear disarmament, universal health care, gay marriage, urban renewal, reproductive rights for women, and more.
And “make no mistake”: tikkun olam as it’s used today grew out of recent liberal American politics, and is not a value uniting the Jewish community across space and time. If tikkun olam is for everybody, why are its advocates almost always on the left? Right-of-center Jews like me believe in world-repairing policies just as compatible – if not more so – with Jewish values.
For example, I oppose the minimum wage largely because it devastates the least fortunate in our society – such as urban young men with little education, single mothers, recovering addicts, and released felons. Because many such people don’t provide enough value to employers to justify artificially inflated wages, they don’t get the dignity that comes with a paycheck of any size.
I believe in educational choice, which helps poor and minority children escape public schools that have ossified into mediocrity in the grip of the corrupt teachers’ unions. And talk about repairing the Jewish world! Vouchers enable Jewish parents, especially those with moderate-to-low incomes, to give their children an excellent Torah education.
I’d like to see an increase in reasonable restrictions on abortion. “Reproductive freedom” is not a Jewish value. By contrast to the pro-choice mindset, our tradition balances the potential human life of a fetus with the importance of the mother’s survival. Sometimes abortion is forbidden in Jewish law, and other times it is mandatory. That’s hardly “pro-choice.” So waiting periods, mandatory counseling, parental notification, and similar laws all help “to fix the world in God’s kingdom,” as the Aleinu prayer demands.
And certainly, I support rolling back gay-marriage laws, which are inconsistent with Jewish beliefs about proper family life. Given that Judaism cherishes the distinct and essential roles of both mothers and fathers in nurturing children, reinstating man-woman marriage nationwide would go a long way toward repairing a real problem in today’s world.
But activism for those and similar causes is never considered tikkun olam, because that’s a brand-new liberal-oriented idiom. In fact, focusing tikkun olam has eased many American Jews’ discomfort with ritual commandments by displacing them in favor of upholding the (mostly) liberal positions they support anyway. So, arguably, tikkun olam as understood in recent decades is not only alien to Jewish traditions, it undermines them.
Nonetheless, Reform and Conservative Judaism now consider this new understanding of tikkun olam to be among their most sacred principles. The Union of Reform Judaism says being a Reform Jew involves four activities, one of which is “the ongoing work of tikkun olam.” And the latter movement presents tikkun olam as one of the eight behavioral expectations of “the ideal Conservative Jew.”
How can a term that is so new seem so old? I don’t believe Jews on the left have consciously lied about the history of a concept they consider essential to their faith. Rather, the language we use creates its own reality in our actions and beliefs – and our present has a way of coloring our sense of the past.
And just because something is new doesn’t make it bad. In fact, given that the phrase isn’t going away, perhaps Orthodox Jews should co-opt it by explaining that we, too, are engaged in public-square world-repair. Already, a small number of voices within modern Orthodoxy and the Orthodox-ish fringe have begun to do so.
And Agudath Israel of America, which represents the most tradition-minded Orthodox Jews in this country, promotes many world-repairing objectives – all without using the term tikkun olam. For example, it advocates increased government spending on behalf of “society’s downtrodden: the homeless, the hungry, the disabled, the unemployed, the sick, the elderly.”
Of course, the strategy of dismissing the phrase tikkun olam as a recent, non-essential interpretation of Jewish priorities is one understandable reaction to this socio-linguistic development. However, I prefer to work to broaden the term in a way that clarifies that Orthodox Jews, too, want to fix the world – but we take our cues from the Torah, not the platform of the Democratic Party.
David Benkof is a frequent contributor to the Daily Caller, where this essay first appeared. Follow him on Facebook or Twitter (@DavidBenkof) or E-mail him at DavidBenkof@gmail.com.