Tikkun ha-Olam: The Metamorphosis of a Concept

Gilbert S. Rosenthal writes in 2005:

* The notion of tikkun ha-olam—healing, mending, repairing the world, improving society—has become a popular concept these days. Everyone seems to be invoking the term or the concept: it is a shibboleth in both Jewish and non-Jewish circles; it has captivated the imagination of scholars and theologians, of statespersons and politicians. Former President Bill Clinton and Senator Hillary Clinton have invoked it; former New York Governor Mario Cuomo discussed it on a national television program; Catholic and Protestant theological statements cite it; there is even a left-wing magazine based in California that is named Tikkun. The term has become synonymous with social activism. In a word, tikkun ha-olam has arrived. But what does it really mean? What is its origin? How did it evolve and develop? What is its significance for Jews and non-Jews in today’s world?

* Tikkun ha-olam may be implicit in biblical legislation and tales; it assumes potentially far-reaching dimensions in the rabbinic world.

The verb t-k-n appears only three times in the Bible, and only in the late book Kohelet (Ecclesiastes). There it means “to straighten, to repair, to fashion.” In rabbinic Hebrew, as well as in the Aramaic of the Targum and Talmud, the verb assumes many meanings and, in fact, becomes one of the most flexible verbs in the language. It means to fix or repair objects such as shoes, a road, a vessel, or a staff or to beautify a person with cosmetics or clothing. It connotes preparing or readying oneself for a significant event or the study of Torah.5 It means to legislate or pass ordinances, to enact laws in order to remedy legal inequities or unjust situations. A takkanah (ordinance, legislation) is the repair of a legal inequity or societal flaw in marital laws, divorce matters, economic affairs, market protocols, and the redress of an inequity. It is the legal step taken to improve society.6

In purely ritual or cultic practices, t-k-n is the verb of choice to justify instituting new procedures in religious life—often in the wake of calamities such as the destruction of the Second Temple. The verb is applied to the composition or formulation of new prayers and liturgical procedures, the emendation of biblical texts, the fixing of the calendar and festival dates, and the cultic or ritual preparation of foods such as grain that were required to be tithed.7

Occasionally, the Midrash speaks of the role of human beings in completing or putting the finishing touches on God’s work of creation, and the verb selected is t-k-n.8 Only rarely does the Talmud utilize the verb to describe the need of humans to “mend their souls” or “repair spiritual damage” or “rectify sin.”

* The noun form tikkun ha-olam, which I prefer to translate as “the improvement of society,” is found some thirty times in the Mishnah and Gemara of the Babylonian Talmud, eight times in the Talmud of the Land of Israel, and a mere handful of times in the Midrash and Tosefta. Remarkably, almost all the references are to be found in the fourth and fifth chapters of Tractate Gittin, which deals primarily with divorce laws. This leads me to conclude that the principle was originally devised to protect the rights of women in divorce cases and to shield them from unscrupulous, recalcitrant, and extortionist husbands.

* [In the Aleinu prayer] God, rather than humans, will repair the world. The Talmudic sense of the word was this-worldly; the liturgical is other-worldly.

* [Tikkun ha-Olam] is used sparingly in the vast Responsa literature.

* All of this changed, however, with the advent of the Zohar and the new system of Kabbalah that appeared in the thirteenth century in Spain as a consequence of the writings and impact of Rabbi Moses de Leon (d. 1305). The Zohar frequently uses the term tikkun, in a variety of contexts, to mean “repair,” “restoration,” or “amendment.” In the words of Isaiah Tishby, “it becomes a central concept in the history of Kabbalah.”43 More significantly, the Zohar views every human act as of cosmic importance so that when humans perform mitzvot, engage in prayer and Torah study, and observe the festivals of the calendar year, they help unite the sefirot, the ten emanations of the Divine, and restore the world to its pristine state, ending all divisions so that all existence is united with God.

* [Israel] Salanter, who held a pessimistic view of human nature, was not so much interested in repairing the world or improving society or rectifying the original flaws in the universe caused by creation. He was more concerned with correcting the flaws of the individual Jew, improving and refining his or her character, and creating better people.

* And then, the doctrine disappeared almost entirely, except in esoteric kabbalistic circles. Few wrote about tikkun ha-olam in the classic rabbinic sense outside of the walls of the various yeshivot. Then, quite suddenly, the concept reappears in the middle of the twentieth century. Martin Buber began to allude to the doctrine, without actually using the appropriate terminology.

* for the Reform and Conservative groups, tikkun olam (as they phrase it) has become virtually synonymous with their social action agendas. This phenomenon did not become immediately apparent and the use of the classical term is a rather recent
development. For example, the Reform movement did not utilize the phrase in its platforms of religious principles in 1885, 1937, and 1976.

* Ironically, the Reconstructionist movement also names its social actions program Tikkun Olam. The founder of the movement, Rabbi Mordecai M. Kaplan, was bitterly opposed to Kabbalah and any manifestation of mysticism in Jewish thought or practice, dubbing it, “theurgy.” For his movement to adopt a kabbalistic concept is both bizarre and amusing.

* Thus, the concept of tikkun ha-olam has come full circle. First, it was a limited rabbinic norm or legal principle with great potential, all but forgotten in the Middle Ages. Then we encounter a brief and ambiguous reference in a single prayer with eschatological overtones ascribing to God the power to bring mending to the world. Afterward, the Zohar reinterprets the idea so that it implies tikkun olamot—the repair of the supernal and lower worlds and restoration of the balance of the sefirot. In its next metamorphosis, the Lurianic School stresses the role of humans, and especially of Israel, in mending the flaws in creation, healing the cracks, and redeeming the sparks of divinity scattered throughout the world. Afterward comes the Hasidic emphasis on improving human souls so as to ease their transmigration and hasten the coming of the messiah. Finally in our odyssey, we arrive at the current phase: the modern borrowing and reversion back to the Talmudic notion of tikkun ha-olam—of improving and bettering society through legislation, social action, and activism and highlighting the human component required to achieve these goals, with a dash of eschatology thrown in.
Undoubtedly, Rabbi Isaac Luria would be amazed and astonished.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been noted in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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