Adam Gross

Tikkun Olam is good but not enough

Why is tikkun olam a very necessary part of Judaism, but not enough?

One potential answer – which does not stem from within our tradition – is, because “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”.

A more powerful Jewish answer comes from the midrash, which links to a verse from Parshat Pinchas we read this past Shabbat: what is the greatest principle of the Torah?

Ben Azzai says: This is the book of the generations of Adam – on the day that G-d created man, He made him in His Image.

Ben Zoma says: We have found a more encompassing verse, which is, “Shema Yisrael.

Ben Nanas says: We have found a more encompassing verse, which is, “Love your fellow as yourself.

Shimon Ben Pazi says: We have found a more encompassing verse, which is, “The first lamb you shall sacrifice in the morning and the second lamb you shall sacrifice in the afternoon.

Rabbi Ploni stood up and said: The halachah follows Ben Pazi

In other words, all the values in Judaism we might see as the most central are surpassed by the essence of Torah, which is the constancy of discipline to follow that which is commanded by G-d.

Rav Aharon Lichtenstein ( identified and analysed in depth the dual meaning of ‘mitzvah’ – as a ‘command’ on the one hand, and as a ‘value’ on the other. We may add a third – as a ‘good deed’.   The point about Judaism, why it is different from secular moral codes, for example the utilitarianism of JS Mill, or the categorical imperative of Kant, is that the value and good deed cannot be dissociated from the command. Tikkun olam is correct only when tied to commandment.

But left like this, it seems offensive to the modern mind. We know intuitively what is good and what is not good – it is ‘common sense’ that we cannot steal from others, rather we should give charity; that we should not harm others, rather we should promote wellbeing and peace; that we should not cheat the system, rather we should work hard.

Why then do we need to root our common sense morality to commandment, especially when many of those commandments don’t make any sense at all? Moreover, it is not just sceptics that say this – it is a consensus position across Torah scholars throughout the ages, and indeed by Torah itself, that very many commandments in Torah do not make sense.

I have been struggling with this question as a baal teshuva for many years. I have come to realise it is not just important but pivotal to the whole matter of why, in the 21st century, Judaism should still obligate me, even – nay, especially – when it doesn’t make any sense.

With this in mind, let me present my best understanding to date of how Judaism works to answer this question and why as a result, I observe the mitzvot.

Ordinary people know there is a world. But they can’t directly see, touch, or otherwise experience G-d. Why?

As far as I have come to understand so far, and imperfectly, the uniquely Jewish concept of tzimtzum (G-d’s concealment from the material world) and the broader proposition of panentheism (i.e. the material world is contained within G-d), which is understood to underpin the basic worldview of all streams of Orthodox Judaism, is the most powerful reconciliation that I know of a material world with the  omnipresence, omniscience and omnipotence of a non-material G-d.

G-d is here with us, everywhere, in the world. However He is hidden. Our job is to reveal His presence.

To elaborate, Judaism understands G-d’s concealment to be a kindness, a sign of love, for humanity. If G-d were not concealed, we could not have separate existence from Him. We could not have free will or identity as everything would be subsumed by Him. G-d wants free people to freely choose to know and connect with Him, and with each other. This is what G-d’s love means.

The nature of G-d’s concealment from the material world and the proposition of a panentheistic reality provide the foundation for understanding the function of the mitzvot and highlighting the unique ‘value proposition’ of Judaism as a system of morality.

G-d is concealed from our material world. His non-material presence fills the world but He is separate from it. This is the meaning of holiness, of being present but at the same time separate and concealed – transcendent.

G-d stands behind impersonal laws of nature that shape what happens in the world. He gives us intelligence to understand and decide how we live within this world, calling on us both ‘to fill, subdue and rule over it’ (Genesis 1) and also ‘to work and protect it’ (Genesis 2). When we exercise our will, to freely decide how to live in the world, we are subject to the laws of nature.

However, when we decide what to do on the basis of our own will, we have an unfortunate tendency to mess things up – hence the ‘palace in flames’ metaphor in the midrashic account of Avraham Avinu’s ‘discovery’ of G-d. Avraham sees a palace in flames (i.e. the world) and calls out, ‘who is the owner of the palace’? G-d says ‘Here I am’.

G-d therefore provided the children of Avraham with a ‘manual of actions’ (i.e. the mitzvot contained in the Torah) that people can perform to connect with His concealed presence and thereby fix up the ‘palace’ (i.e. the world) – in other words, tikkun olam. How does this work?

With His primordial tzimtzum, G-d concealed Himself to create space for human free will in the material world. When we follow the manual (i.e. perform the mitzvot), we perform a ‘reverse tzimtzum’ by suspending our will in order to create space for Him in the material world.

Specifically, because we nullify our will before His will when following His ‘manual of actions’, we become the vehicle for the infusion of His immanent presence into the world – we are carrying out His will in the world, and as a result, we can go beyond human fallibility and only with His help, fix up that ‘palace’ (i.e. tikkun olam).

The prototype for this is the building of the tabernacle in the desert by the Children of Israel, which occupies the latter parts of the Book of Exodus, and performance of the rituals at the tabernacle, which occupies much of the Book of Leviticus and the latter part of Parshat Pinchas in the Book of Numbers (Numbers 28-29).

When the Children of Israel ‘followed the manual’ for building the tabernacle and performing the rituals, according to G-d’s very precise instructions, Torah tells us how it caused the literal descent of G-d’s immanence into the world (Leviticus 9) for the first time since the primordial withdrawal of that immanence from the Garden of Eden.

G-d’s kindness knows no bounds. Therefore, through his Manual (i.e. Torah), He provides us ways (i.e. mitzvot) of bringing His immanence into the world with every activity we perform in every aspect of our lives (as per Proverbs, ‘know Him in all your ways and He shall direct your paths’):

  • what we eat
  • how we structure family life
  • how we dress
  • how we treat other people
  • the way we use our time
  • the way we do business
  • the way we use our money, etc, etc.

These actions are laid out throughout Torah, but they are crystallized in the ‘holiness code’ of Leviticus, starting with the laws of kosher foods in the latter parts of Parshat Shemini, Leviticus 11.

In other words, in every activity we perform, no matter how mundane or otherwise apparently meaningless (even the very act of putting on our shoes), there is always a choice we can take that allows us to nullify our will before G-d and bring His immanence into the world.

This may help to explain the sequencing of what many find to be the most ‘boring’ parts of Torah – i.e. after the exodus but before the journey to the Land.

First, G-d sets out the prototype for the mitzvot with the building of the tabernacle (Exodus)…

…then G-d expands on this prototype by explaining the main rituals to be performed within this tabernacle (early Leviticus)…

…then (middle of Leviticus) G-d sets out the ways in which the Jewish people across all dimensions of their human existence can replicate this prototype in every place and in every era…

… and finally (end of Leviticus), in the portion of the blessings and curses, G-d tells us what is at stake.

So, what appears to the uninitiated in Judaism as a never-ending list of dos and don’ts is in fact the continuous opportunity that G-d provides to us to connect with Him and infuse His immanence into the world as a means to help fix it up

The converse is also true. There are curses as well as blessings. The greater the extent to which the Jewish people ignore or contravene the mitzvot, and also importantly, the greater the extent to which the Jewish people take credit themselves for the flow of blessings that G-d provides as a result of mitzvah performance, the greater G-d’s subsequent withdrawal, and the greater the exposure to danger the Jewish people – still small and powerless except for His grace – face from the larger and more powerful nations of the world.

G-d’s instructions to the Jewish people when building the tabernacle were incredibly precise. The more precision, the easier it was for the Children of Israel to nullify their will before His will. And conversely, the less precision that G-d provides in the manual, the more gaps there are which provide scope for people to reimpose their own will at the expense of G-d’s.

This is why, as noted above, many of the mitzvot are ‘supra-rational’ (This does not mean they are irrational but rather, they are not subject to rationality). These are mitzvot like not eating pork, not mixing wool and linen, not mixing meat and milk, or indeed, how we put on our shoes, which we cannot explain in ordinary ethical or scientific terms.

Building on the understanding explained above, the supra-rational mitzvot are the ‘easiest’ mitzvot to perform. Because we cannot apply our own understanding as to why, for example, we are not allowed to eat pork, we find it easier to nullify our will before His, and refrain from so doing.

By contrast, when it comes to the rational mitzvot – which are generally, but not always, the mitzvot involving obligations to other people – we think we understand why we should not murder, not steal, give charity, honor our parents, etc. Therefore, we apply our own understanding to define how we should carry out these mitzvot.

This provides more scope for us to reinsert our own will, rather than carrying out His will, when performing these mitzvot. This is where we can go wrong, as even King Solomon – proclaimed as the wisest of all men in scripture – demonstrated.

In this sense, at least in my understanding, G-d may have given us the supra-rational mitzvot, the cause today of so much doubt and derision, as a means of training.

G-d knows that left to our own devices with only the rational mitzvot, we will gradually subvert them to perform our own will, not His. Therefore, we train ourselves through the supra-rational mitzvot to nullify our will, and as we get better at it, more disciplined, we can perform the rational mitzvot with ever-greater nullification of our will to His.

The hardest of the inter-personal mitzvot is arguably the mitzvah to love our fellow as ourselves (Leviticus 19). (Or alternatively, perhaps, a mitzvah a few verses later, to love the stranger as ourselves..) As noted above, this mitzvah, which sits at the center of the holiness code of Leviticus, has been called by the great sage, Rabbi Akiva, the ‘great principle of the Torah’. Hillel, one of our greatest leaders, famously said about this mitzvah, ‘this is the whole of Torah, the rest is all commentary’.

Many have been confused by these comments. Given the many supra-rational mitzvot, including the many mitzvot which involve obligations toward G-d, how can loving your fellow (or the stranger) be the ‘great principle’ or the ‘whole of Torah’?

With the understanding set out above, we can now better understand what Hillel and Rabbi Akiva are saying.

It is easier to nullify our will when we are given precise instructions. And it is also easier to nullify our will when the matter is beyond our understanding. However, when we are not given precise instructions, and when the matter is subject to our understanding, to perform the mitzvah according to the will of G-d, and not according to our own ego, this is the hardest of the mitzvot to perform. Those that can perform this inter-personal mitzvah according to G-d’s will, by truly nullifying their own, these are the holiest among us who bring G-d’s divine presence into the world.

In other words, the pinnacle of, or perhaps the foundation for tikkun olam – loving our fellow as ourselves – is only possible when rooted to G-d’s will.

This, then, is Judaism, per the best of my understanding at this time.

By way of addendum, given that zionism (which I use with a small ‘z’), namely the return of the Jewish people to become a free people in our own Land, is the cause of so much misunderstanding and controversy, the explanation provided above can better help clarify the relationship between Judaism and the Land of Israel.

Our quest to resettle Eretz Yisrael in contemporary times, and our ultimate aspiration to rebuild the Temple on Mount Moriah in the days of Moshiach, is not – or should not be – motivated by a striving for colonial dominance or national self-glorification, but precisely the reverse – for the opportunity to nullify our individual and collective will before the will of G-d through the myriad additional mitzvot that can only be performed in our Land and at our Temple.

Thus, according to the great sage, the Chafetz Chaim (Concise Book of Mitzvot), it is possible to perform only 271 of the 613 total mitzvot while Israel is in exile and the Temple remains destroyed. 26 additional mitzvot can be performed in the Land which we now have the privilege to perform as we resettle it. This gives a total of 297 and leaves 316 mitzvot – the majority – dependent on the rebuilding of the Temple, i.e. 316 extra ways of bringing G-d’s immanence into the world to fix it up.

The matter of the appropriate Torah-based approach concerning interaction with the Arab residents of this Land is an important matter, and worthy of separate examination. But whatever our rights and obligations towards the Arabs in the Land, whatever our track record in fulfilling them, and whatever their track record in their interactions with the Jewish people, based on the explanation above, it is important to assert that Judaism cannot be interpreted to be anything other than zionist – we need to be in our Land to perform those mitzvot.

About the Author
Adam Gross, an Oxford-educated strategist, has over 20 years' experience solving complex problems in the international arena for United Nations agencies, international financial institutions, private sector, NGOs and social enterprises across Europe, Africa and Asia. Adam made aliyah with his family in 2019 to live in northern Israel.
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