Harold Behr

Tikkun Olam

“Until we extend the circle of compassion to all living things, we will not, ourselves, find Peace.”
– Dr Albert Schweitzer.

These words, articulated by a Christian physician who devoted many years of his life to working with disease-ridden people in Gabon, have a remarkable resonance with the concept of Tikkun Olam – literally – ‘repair of the world’ – a term originally coined by 16th Century Kabbalists and later adopted by secular and religious Jews advocating a philosophy of striving for the betterment of humanity.

The notion of universal compassion has been disparaged by cynics who prefer to see the world as a jungle in which only the strongest survive and in which our primary duty must be the protection of our own kind. ‘Extending the circle of compassion to all living things’, as Schweitzer puts it, is seen as an idealistic dream, belonging in the realms of cloud-cuckoo-land.

Exactly who our own kind are is a matter of dispute. Many Jews draw a magic circle round their fellow Jews and turn away from the sufferings of others, as if compassion were a quantifiable entity, a medicine not to be dispensed indiscriminately. The trouble with this mentality is that casts those outside the magic circle into a twilight zone of ‘otherness’, an alien community of strangers who, sooner or later, take on a menacing aspect.

When outsiders come to be perceived as dangerous, the magic circle is drawn even tighter. Those inside the circle are increasingly bound by ties of loyalty and customs which reinforce differences rather than similarities, while those who are unable to participate in such values find themselves in the camp of aliens, with all its attendant hazards.

Of course the problem is not confined to the Jewish world, an argument cited by critics of ‘Tikkun Olam’. But this argument is simply the adult version of the playground justification that “they did it first”, and it gets us precisely nowhere, except to reinforce the cycle of mutual recrimination.

Far from being a quixotic outlook on the world, ‘Tikkun Olam is a profoundly pragmatic philosophy. It does not imply the neglect of one’s family, friends or community, nor does it gainsay the need to shield them from realistic threats to their wellbeing or the need to use force in order to protect them in the face of violence. What it does is to lay the ground for an attitude of universal compassion which paves the way for healing, wherever the opportunity arises.

About the Author
I was born in South Africa in 1940 and emigrated to the U.K. in 1970 after qualifying in medicine. I held a post as Consultant Psychiatrist in London until my retirement in 2013. I am the author of two books: one on group analytic psychotherapy, one on the psychology of the French Revolution. I have written many articles on group psychology published in peer-reviewed journals. From 1979 to 1985 I was editor of the journal ‘Group Analysis’; I have contributed short pieces to psychology newsletters over the years.
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