Though used easily and spoken fluently among many American Jews, tikkun olam is not an English word. It is just one of those Hebrew words, like “mazal tov,” used so often that it eventually slipped into the American Jewish lexicon and now rolls easily off the tongue.
Contrasting the ease by which it is spoken is the more complex history of the phrase itself. The term first appears in early rabbinic texts (ca. 200 CE) and refers to public policy that often protected those who might be at a disadvantage – e.g., women in the issuing of divorce decrees – or sought to improve relations with the non-Jewish population around them. “Mipnei tikkun ha-olam” the Mishnah states: we make certain amendments (tikkunim) to the law to make the world (olam) better (Mishnah Gittin 4:2-9). And it should be noted that while it was a recognized legal principle, it was a minor one and it did not drive programming at the local beit midrash/house of study.
The Kabbalistic tradition, as it does with so many things, turns the concept on its head. Isaac Luria, an influential 16th century kabbalist, envisions creation as involving God’s self-contracting (as in, condensing) to make space for the universe to come into existence. As part of this process divine sparks attached themselves to vessels/kelim which in turn shattered and scattered these sparks around the world. Lurianic kabbalah taught that individual acts of religious observance, if done with the correct intention, release trapped, divine sparks which may once again reunite with God and thereby aid in ‘tikkun olam,’ the repairing of the world.
So whereas tikkun olam started as a matter of social policy and legal amendments, it evolved into an individual spiritual practice. And whereas originally the act of tikkun benefited society, in Kabbalah the act of tikkun repaired the world on a deeply divine level.
Today we have our popular usage which mixes elements of its past. Tikkun olam is widely used in the liberal Jewish community as an umbrella term for social action and environmental projects. These can range from recycling, to volunteering in a homeless shelter or food pantry, to painting classrooms in underserved schools, to petitioning members of Congress about the environment…to name a few.
In this form it reclaims from mishnaic times the focus on social betterment and from the Kabbalah the importance of both the individual and the individual act of tikkun.
As noted above, the environment is part of the tikkun olam focus of the liberal Jewish community. Thankfully, decades of Jewish environmental consciousness have led to the formation of large organizations like Dayenu and Adamah, which advocate for climate protection policies in Washington and within the Jewish community. However, a major area of environmental and social justice reform is still a blindspot in our Jewish environmental advocacy: industrial animal agriculture. Every aspect of our contribution to the harms of factory farming–from daily communal food choices to federal policy–is in major need of tikkun. As Jews we can be doing much more to expose the myths of our American food system–-not to mention the world of good we could do by educating our communities about the climate impacts of our food choices.
This presents a major opportunity for the Federations, camps, schools, JCCs, Hillels, and synagogues that organize a wide range of climate and environmental activities for communities and model appropriate behavior.
As the High Holidays approach, our tradition encourages us to reflect on the internal and interpersonal rather than external and engaging of the world; we reflect on the times we walked the wrong path, acknowledge, apologize and we vow to turn from it. We call this reflective redirection teshuvah (another one of those words used easily and spoken fluently among many American Jews.)
Tikkun olam is relevant now because it is vital for us to do teshuvah, to do some reflective redirection when it comes to our communal food choices. One of the most immediate and impactful tikkunim that is within our control is our diet. Industrialized animal agriculture is a top contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, pollutes the water, and degrades the soil. And we have not even mentioned the cruel treatment of the domesticated animals (including kosher) and workers.
Our immense appetite for meat is not a norm or a tradition. On the contrary, prior to the industrialization of the food process, meat was a rarity, often consumed on special occasions and holidays. Whereas in the past 50 years, worldwide meat production increased nearly 5 times and the amount eaten per person doubled from almost 50 lbs to 100 lbs.
All of this translates into the increased number and intensity of the fires, heat waves, storms, hurricanes, that are literally roasting and drowning the planet.
Our diets are our choice–particularly when we eat in community and our practices reflect our shared values. With our dietary choices we have changed our environment in ways that are already impacting our lives and the lives of people around the world. We must turn from this path. And so our teshuvah must become our tikkun olam. We must turn from this diet path we are currently walking and institute communal choices and support policies that address the sin of our consumption.
What does this mean practically?
It means replacing the animal products we consume on a daily basis with delicious plant-based meals as often as we can. In addition, we need to be diligent about where our food comes from, and acknowledge that virtually all of our animal products fall short of Jewish values.
To meet the climate goals that many Jewish institutions are already committed to, the food choices they promote and offer need to evolve. Our organizations need to adopt policies that center plant-based foods and still give people the choice to opt into animal products. .
The environmental degradation we see around us is of our making, by our hands AND we have the power to do something about it–individually and communally. Though not an obvious theme of the holidays, this year let’s make our teshuvah our tikkun. In this way we can make a difference, we can be a light to the broader human community , and we can help heal our world.