Is Tikkun Olam a Jewish Idea?

In this class, we pose the timely and provocative question as to whether the Jewish values we have been discussing apply to our behaviour toward all human beings or just to Jews. Many Jews promote the concept of tikkun olam as denoting a Jewish concern with all humanity. But what does this phrase mean and at what stage in history did it assume this connotation? This lecture provides the opportunity to revisit all our previous topics by discussing the scope of their application. We end with the thought provoking claim that our special relationships with the Jewish people leads to our greater compassion and respect for humanity.

The Concept of Tikkun Olam

  1. The Aleinu Prayer
Therefore it is our hope, O Lord our God, that we may soon see the glory of Your power, to remove abominations from the earth so that idols are utterly cut off, to perfect the world [le-takken olam] under the sovereignty of the Almighty. Then all humanity will call on Your name.
  1. Midrash, Bereshit Rabbah
Why is it that ‘it was good’ is not written in connection with the second day?… Rabbi Chanina said, ‘Because on that day, a schism was created, as it is written, ‘let it divide the waters.’’ Rav Tavyomi said, ‘If because of a division made l’taken olam and to stabilise it, ‘it was good’ is not written in connection with that day, how much more so should this apply to a schism that leads to the confusion of the world.’
  1. Arnold Jacob Wolf, “Repairing Tikkun Olam – Current Theological Writing”, Judaism
All this begins, I believe, with distorting tikkun olam. A teaching about compromise, sharpening, trimming and humanizing rabbinic law, a mystical doctrine about putting God’s world back together again, this strange and half-understood notion becomes a huge umbrella under which our petty moral concerns and political panaceas can come out of the rain.

Shared Humanity

  1. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Addendum to Confrontation
On the one hand, Jews are vitally concerned with the problems affecting the common destiny of man. We consider ourselves members of the universal community charged with the responsibility of promoting progress in all fields, economic, social, scientific and ethical. As such, we are opposed to a philosophy of isolationism or esoterism which would see the Jews living in a culturally closed society.
  1. Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, Jewish Philanthropy- Whither?
The tendency,” I wrote then and I reiterate now, “prevalent in much of the contemporary Torah world, in Israel as in much of the Diaspora, of almost total obliviousness to non-Jewish suffering is shamefully deplorable.” The insouciance springs in part from failure, often grounded in a blend of ignorance and prejudice, to appreciate the scope and value of Gentile avodat Hashem [service of God] and spirituality.

Spiritual Development

  1. Rambam, Laws of Kings
The Sages commanded, even with regard to pagans, that we visit their poor in addition to the Jewish poor for the sake of the ‘ways of peace’. Behold, it says ‘Hashem is good to all and has mercy on all His creations’ and it says ‘[the Torah’s] ways are ways of pleasantness and all its paths are peace.’
  1. Rabbi Ahron Soloveichik, Letter to David Luchins
Dear Dr Luchins,

I am writing this letter in response to your request from me for a brief note on the appropriateness of raising funds to assist needy and indigent non-Jews… Maimonides [Rambam]… writes… ‘Even in respect to pagans our Sages commanded us to support their poor…’Its ways are pleasant and all its paths are conducive to peace.’’ We thus see that the ‘Jewish Fund for Justice’ represents a sublime endeavor that is grounded in the ethical doctrines of our Torah.

  1. Rabbi Judah Loew of Prague, Paths of the World, Love of the Neighbour
Indeed, this matter of loving people is also the love of God, for a person who loves someone loves all of the things which the beloved does. Thus, when one loves God, it is impossible not to love His creations, and if a person hates mankind, it is impossible to feel love for God, Who created them.

Jewish History

  1. Rabbi Jeremy Wieder, Address at Yeshiva University
The issue here is not exclusively about race. The destruction of a tzelem elokim [image of God] and inherent tragedy should shock us regardless of race or creed. But race certainly plays a role in this story. Our history as a people teaches us what it is like to be the oppressed. We suffered for numerous millennia, centuries, at the hands of authorities—official oppressors—from Pharaoh to Antiochus to Hadrian to the medieval Crusaders to Hitler, yemach shemo [may his name be obliterated]. And in many corners of the world outside of Medinat Yisrael (Israel) and this country, the specter of anti-Semitism has reared its ugly head again. And sometimes, it is perpetrated or fostered by the authorities. We need to be sensitive to others in the same position.

The African-American community, to the extent that one can speak of it as a monolithic entity, faces many difficulties and hardships. Not all of them are the fault of broader society, and many of them cannot be solved by broader society, but make no mistake: much of that misfortune and suffering is the legacy of slavery, segregation, overt discrimination, and even more commonly and often unconsciously, stereotyping and bias. As Jews, we are no strangers to discrimination and stereotyping, some of which still persists in the dark corners in this country.

The Torah warns us about ona’at ha-ger (inflicting emotional pain on a convert), according to R. Eliezer ha-Gadol in the gemara [Talmud] in Bava Metzi’a (59b), 36 or 46 times. And why does the Torah warn us about ona’at ha-ger? Because “ki gerim heyitem be-eretz Mitzrayim”: “because you were strangers in the Land of Egypt.” We know what it is like because we have been there, and we should act accordingly.

Values in Practice

  1. Michael Walzer, Universalism and Jewish Values
At the most abstract level, monotheism, creation “in the image,” and messianic redemption can generate a powerful universalist commitment.

But the concrete life of the Jewish people for most of its history hasn’t been dominated by those abstractions, but rather by a God of history who not only created the universe but who also chose the Jews, and who will one day bring them a redeemer, the king messiah, son of David. Between the historical moment of election and the promised but always postponed moment of redemption, the life of religious Jews has been narrowly circumscribed, highly vulnerable, and intensely parochial. Especially so during the long years of exile, before emancipation and sovereignty: the scattered communities were everywhere subordinate and, most of the time, beleaguered and oppressed.

We can readily imagine this experience as the basis for a “liberationist” ethics and a liberal or leftist politics; it can also, however, produce an inwardly turned traditionalism, hostile toward the outside world, resentful of would-be intermediaries, and deeply suspicious of any kind of moral, political, or social inclusiveness. Among religious men and women, this latter outcome seems the more likely one.

  1. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Confrontation
Non-Jewish society has confronted us throughout the ages in a mood of defiance, as if we were part of the subhuman objective order separated by an abyss from the human, as if we had no capacity for thinking logically, loving passionately, yearning deeply, aspiring and hoping. Of course, as long as we were exposed to such a soulless, impersonal confrontation on the part of non-Jewish society, it was impossible for us to participate to the fullest extent in the great universal creative confrontation between man and the cosmic order. The limited role we played until modern times in the great cosmic confrontation was not of our choosing.

Issues of priorities

  1. Rabbi Lichtenstein, Jewish Philanthropy – Wither?

However, in practice, these demands inevitably clash with meeting multifaceted tzarchei amcha, the needs of our own community. These ordinarily enjoy priority on several grounds. First, they are our own—a blend, in a sense, of self-interest, insofar as donor and recipient are fused in an organic entity, and of altruistic concern, insofar as, at the personal plane, the two are differentiated. Second, as we invoke the principle of efshar laasot al yedei acherim [the possibility of a task being performed by others] the prospect that a given need can and, hopefully, will be met by others, dilutes my own obligation and releases energy and resources for other ends, frequently affecting the balance between inward- and outward-looking responses. Many universal causes have, almost by definition, broader appeal and a wide spectrum of potential supporters. Specifically Jewish institutions by contrast—and especially those related to sacral devarim shebikdushah [matters of holiness] can only draw upon a far more limited base.

  1. Nechama Leibowitz, Studies in Shemot
One who goes beyond his natural circle, into which he was born (family, birthplace, nation), and flies to distant climes to heal the misfortune of humanity, the downtrodden and wretched of remote communities, while his own home, neighbourhood, city and homeland cry out for his assistance, ignoring them in the conviction that their plight is too circumscribed and petty for him to bother about, is the subject of a special ruling in Halakha – A Jew comes before a non-Jew, the poor of your own circle before that of your own city, your own city before other cities – charity begins at home. The Torah does not wish love of humanity or patriotism to be built up at the expense of our omission of our obligations to those nearer to us. These broader ties of country and universal brotherhood will not be implanted by the uprooting of natural links of affection but, on the contrary, the way to love of others, to love of humanity, chosen by the Torah is by the constant widening of the human circle, or parental love for their children eventually including the children of others, gradually enveloping not only those near in kin but also those near in physical proximity, those amongst whom we happen to live. We are therefore commanded to live in mutual brotherhood with them. Our love will thus eventually embrace our people and then mankind.

Universalism and Particularism – Potential Synergy

  1. ‘Norway, I Cry for You’, Sara Yocheved Rigler
“My deepest condolences to the parents, especially Leiby’s mother. As a mother of 2 boys, I know what a long, long journey it is for a mother to bring up her baby to be 9 years old. To carry a baby for 9 months, give birth, struggle with sleepless nights, ailments, aches and pains, the first step, first smile, first fall, going from milestone to milestone, cheering with them, crying with them, worrying with them, wearing your heart on your sleeve every moment of the day. These are precious moments etched in our hearts forever. And then, suddenly, cruelly and horribly, your child is snatched from you, and in one second your life is completely and utterly destroyed. I pray that God help you find inner strength to cope with this immense tragedy, for the sake of your daughters, your husband and all the others who need you in their lives. I cried for your son, and I cried for your heart that will forever have a piece missing. With deepest sympathy, Carmen Ali from Qatar.”