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|This article may be expanded with text translated from the corresponding article in the Hebrew Wikipedia. (March 2012)|
Tikkun olam (Hebrew: תיקון עולם or תקון עולם) is a Hebrew phrase that means "repairing the world" (or "healing the world") which suggests humanity's shared responsibility to heal, repair and transform the world. In Judaism, the concept of tikkun olam originated in the early rabbinic period. The concept was given new meanings in the kabbalah of the medieval period and has come to possess further connotations in modern Judaism.
The expression tikkun olam is used in the Mishnah in the phrase mip'nei tikkun ha-olam ("for the sake of tikkun of the world") to indicate that a practice should be followed not because it is required by Biblical law, but because it helps avoid social disharmony. One example is in Gittin 4:2.
At first a person used to convene a Court in another place and cancel it. Rabban Gamliel the Elder enacted in the public interest (mip'nei tikkun ha-olam) that they should not do so. At first a person used to change his name and her name, the name of his city and the name of her city, and Rabban Gamliel the Elder enacted in the public interest (mip'nei tikkun ha-olam) that he should write, "The man so-and-so and every name that he has," "The woman so-and-so and every name that she has."
While the exact wordings of this text may be misleading, the rabbis made this rule because they were concerned that a woman might receive a get (divorce document) and think she was divorced when in fact she was not (because the man had voided the divorce in a court in a different town). She might then remarry in good faith not knowing that she was not yet a free woman. (In Jewish tradition there are severe consequences if a married woman engages in sexual relations outside of her marriage. For more information, see: mamzerim.) Therefore, mip'nei tikkun olam - for the sake of the tikkun of the world - this law was changed to prevent such confusion.
As an explanation of rabbinic laws, the phrase mip'nei tikkun ha-olam is also invoked for laws about the collection of the ketubah money for a widow (Gittin 4:3), the limit on payments to redeem captives (Gitten 4:6), purchasing religious articles from non-Jews (Gittin 4:6), divorce threatened by vows (Gittin 4:7), and the bringing of first fruits for land purchased from non-Jews (Gitten 4:9). Several additional uses are found in Gittin 5:3. In most of these cases the phrase is used in the sense of bettering the community.
The phrase tikkun olam is included in the Aleinu, a Jewish prayer that is traditionally recited three times daily. The Aleinu, said to have been written by the prophet Joshua, praises God for allowing the Jewish people to serve God, and expresses hope that the whole world one day will recognize God and abandon idolatry. The phrase tikkun olam is used in the longer expression l'takken olam b'malkhut Shaddai,"to perfect the world under God's sovereignty." In other words, when all the people of the world abandon false gods and recognize God, the world will have been perfected. Alternatively, being that we share a partnership with God, humanity is instructed to take the steps towards improving the state of the world and helping others, which simultaneously brings more honor to God's sovereignty. Some scholars, however, argue that the phrase in the Aleinu prayer is actually not a valid source for the concept of tikkun olam, and that the confusion arises because of the homonym "l'takken" (spelled differently, לתכן) meaning "to establish" rather than "to fix" or "to repair." There are many sources where the reading of לתכן survives today. This section of Aleinu is fundamentally a prayer for the establishment of God’s kingdom and therefore the reading of לתכן fits much better and makes much more sense. If so, the meaning of the phrase is something like, "to establish God's sovereignty over the world." However, these scholars are careful to note that, even if the Aleinu prayer is not a valid source for the concept, there are certainly other valid sources in the corpus of rabbinic literature. This does not mean that social justice and “repairing the world” are less important in Judaism. While many people feel that tikkun olam’s roots in Aleinu is controversial and question the translation, there are still other prayers in the Jewish tradition that do capture the essence and spirit of tikkun olam. For instance, in Siddur Sim Shalom, “A Prayer for Our Country” includes the verses, “May citizens of all races and creeds forge a common bond in true harmony to banish all hatred and bigotry” and “uniting all people in peace and freedom and helping them to fulfill the vision of your prophet: ‘Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they experience war anymore.’" Both lines express wholeheartedly the idea of universal equality, freedom, and peace for all. There is also Mi Sheberach which blesses all of those who are ill and are in need of healing. There truly is no lack of prayers referring to repairing the world. For example, in Gates of Prayer, “You [Lord] have taught us to uphold the falling, to heal the sick, to free the captive, to comfort all who suffer pain” (383). This is just a short list of prayers and blessings that reference the Jewish value of fixing/repairing the world. While the phrase tikkun olam may not be directly mentioned, the belief and meaning is still there whether one is praying for the whole world or another individual.
Jews believe that performing of ritual mitzvot (commandments, connections, or religious obligations) is a means of tikkun olam, helping to perfect the world, and that the performance of more mitzvot will hasten the coming of the Messiah and the Messianic Age. This belief dates back at least to the early Talmudic period. According to Rabbi Yochanan, quoting Rabbi Shim'on bar Yochai, the Jewish people will be redeemed when every Jew observes Shabbat (the Sabbath) twice in all its details. This suggests that tikkun olam will prove successful with the coming of the Messiah and the Messianic Age.
Some explain the power of Shabbat by its effect on the other six days of the week and their role in moving society towards the Messianic Age. Shabbat helps bring about the Messianic Age because Shabbat rest energizes Jews to work harder to bring the Messianic Age nearer during the six working days of the week. Because the experience of Shabbat gives one a foretaste of the Messianic Age, observance of Shabbat also helps Jews renew their commitment to bring about a world where love and mercy will reign. This relates to the section on the role of mitzvot (above) that suggests that tikkun olam will prove successful with the coming of the Messiah and the Messianic Age.
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Lurianic Kabbalah has also been used to explain the role of prayer and ritual action in tikkun olam. According to this vision of the world, God contracted part of God's self into vessels of light to create the world. These vessels shattered and their shards became sparks of light trapped within the material of creation. Prayer, especially contemplation of various aspects of the divinity (sephirot), releases these sparks and allows them to reunite with God's essence,  bringing them closer to a fixed world. According to Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, in his book Derech Hashem, the physical world is connected to spiritual realms above that influence the physical world, and furthermore, Jews have the ability, through physical deeds and free will, to direct and control these spiritual forces. God's desire in creation is that God's creations ultimately will recognize God's unity and overcome evil; this will constitute the perfection (tikkun) of creation. While the Jews have the Torah now and are aware of God's unity, some believe that when all of humanity recognizes this fact, the rectification will be complete.
In Jewish thought ethical mitzvot as well as ritual mitzvot are important to the process of tikkun olam. Maimonides writes that tikkun olam requires efforts in all three of the great "pillars" of Judaism: Torah study, acts of kindness, and the ritual commandments. Some Jews believe that performing mitzvot will create a model society among the Jewish people, which will in turn influence the rest of the world. By perfecting themselves, their local Jewish community or the state of Israel, the Jews set an example for the rest of the world. The theme is frequently repeated in sermons and writings across the Jewish spectrum: Reconstructionist, Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox.
Also, the mitzvot often have practical worldly/social effects (in contrast to mystical effects as held by Lurianic Kabbalah).
Some Jews believe that performing mitzvot will create a model society among the Jewish people, which will in turn influence the rest of the world. This idea sometimes is attributed to Biblical verses that describe the Jews as "a kingdom of priests and a holy nation" (Exodus 19:5-6) and "a light of the nations" or "a light to the nations" (Isaiah 42:6 and Isaiah 49:6). The philosophies of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch and Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook are prominent in this field, the former rationally and in terms of a kehilla (community) of Jews in galut (the diaspora) influencing their non-Jewish neighbors, and the latter mystically and in Zionist terms of a Jewish state influencing the other nations of the world. Some other Orthodox rabbis, many but not all of them Modern Orthodox, follow a philosophy similar to Hirsch's, including Joseph H. Hertz, Isidore Epstein, and Eliezer Berkovits. The philosophy of Religious Zionism follows Kook in his philosophy.
In Modern Orthodox philosophy (which often is intertwined with Religious Zionism, especially in America), it is commonly believed that mitzvot have practical this-worldly sociological and educational effects on those who perform them, and in this manner, the mitzvot will perfect the Jews and the world.
According to the rationalist philosophy of Hirsch and others, the social and ethical mitzvot have nearly self-explanatory purposes, while ritual mitzvot may serve functions such as educating people or developing relationships between people and God. As examples, prayer either inculcates a relationship between people and God or strengthens beliefs and faith of the one who prays, and keeping kosher or wearing tzitzit serve as educational symbols of moral and religious values. Thus, the ultimate goal of mitzvot is for moral and religious values and deeds to permeate the Jewish people and ultimately the entire world, but the ritual mitzvot nevertheless play a vital role in this model of tikkun olam, strengthening what is accomplished by the ethical.
Hirsch's Horeb is an especially important source, as his exposition of his philosophy of the mitzvot. He classifies the mitzvot into six categories:
Aside from the fact that by perfecting themselves, the Jews set an example for the rest of the world, there is thus the additional distinction that mitzvot have practical, worldly effects — for example, charity benefits the poor materially, constituting tikkun olam by its improvement of the world physically or socially, in contrast to the mystical effects of mitzvot as held by Lurianic Kabbalah.
According to Jewish scholar Dr. Lawrence Fine, the first use of the phrase tikkun olam in modern Jewish history in the United States was by Brandeis-Bardin Camp Institute founder Shlomo Bardin in the 1950s. Bardin interpreted the Aleinu prayer, specifically the expression le-taken olam be-malchut shaddai (typically translated as when the world shall be perfected under the reign of the almighty), as a responsibility for Jewish people to work towards a better world. As left-leaning progressive Jewish organizations started entering the mainstream in the 1970s and 1980s, the phrase tikkun olam began to gain more traction. The phrase has since been adopted by a variety of Jewish organizations, to mean anything from direct service to general philanthropy.
For some Jews, the phrase tikkun olam means that Jews are not only responsible for creating a model society among themselves but also are responsible for the welfare of the society at large. This responsibility may be understood in religious, social or political terms and there are many different opinions about how religion, society, and politics interact.
Michael Spiro, a Reconstructionist Jew, argues for the validity of a conservative politic of tikkun olam. He contends that the perception that tikkun olam requires leftist politics is based on two myths: (a) conservatives uniformly value self-interest over society and (b) conservatives uniformly are against the rights of women and homosexuals. In response to the myth of self-interest he observes that Adam Smith and the conservatives after him emphasized free markets precisely because they believed that was the path to the greatest public good. In addition, conservatives have always emphasized the importance of private efforts of gemilut chasadim (benevolence) and tzedakah (charity or philanthropy). The conservative position is that individuals and communities should not use government efforts as a substitute for the individual and collective responsibility for these mitzvot. In response to the second myth, he argues that the right's position on family values is fundamentally a question of process, not content: changes in the right to abortion and gay marriage should be pursued using legislative rather than judicial means. Spiro views the concern for process as fundamentally Jewish.
Tikkun olam is used to refer to Jewish obligations to engage in social action in the Reform and Conservative movements as well. For example in USY, the Conservative youth movement, the position in charge of social action on chapter and regional boards is called the SA/TO (social action/tikkun olam) officer. Furthermore, USY has the Abraham Joshua Heschel Honor Society. A requirement of acceptance to the honor society is to perform one act of community service a month. In NFTY, the Reform youth movement, the position in charge of social action on chapter and regional boards is called the social action vice president (SAVP).
In addition, other youth organizations have also grown to include tikkun olam has part of its foundation. BBYO has community service/social action commitments in both of its divisions, AZA and BBG. BBG includes two different programming areas specific to tikkun olam—one for community service, and another for social action. AZA includes a combined community service/social action programming area. In addition, both divisions include "pledge principles," principles by which to guide them. For BBG girls the "menorah pledge principles" include citizenship, philanthropy, and community service. For AZA members, the "7 cardinal principles" include charity.
Tzedakah is a central theme in Judaism and serves as one of the 613 commandments. Tzedakah is used in common parlance as charitable giving. Tzedek, the root of tzedakah, means justice or righteousness. Acts of tzedakah are used to generate a more just world. Therefore, tzedakah is a means through which to perform tikkun olam.
Philanthropy is defined as giving money in order to “promote the common good.” Philanthropy is an effective tool in performing tikkun olam as it supports the organizations that perform direct service. There are many different philanthropic organizations devoted to repairing the world. The United Jewish Federations of North America, one of the top ten charities in the world, counts tikkun olam as one of the three main principles under which it operates. Similarly, the American Jewish World Service supports grassroots organizations creating change in Africa, Asia, and the Americas.
The intersection between tzedakah, philanthropy, and tikkun olam is captured by Yehudah Mirsky in his article “Tikkun Olam: Basic Questions and Policy Directions.” Mirsky writes:
In recent years Jewish thinkers and activists have used Lurianic Kabbalah to elevate the full range of ethical and ritual mitzvot into acts of tikkun olam. These Jews believe that not only does prayer lift up divine sparks, but so do all of the mitzvot, including those traditionally understood as ethical. The application of the Lurianic vision to improving the world can be seen in Jewish blogs, High Holiday sermons and on-line Jewish learning resource centers.[better source needed]
The association between the Lurianic conception of tikkun olam and ethical action assigns an ultimate significance to even small acts of kindness and small improvements of social policy. However, this association can be a double-edged sword and has begun to trigger critique even within the social justice community. On one hand, seeing each action as raising a divine spark can motivate people to action by giving them hope that their actions will have long-term value. On the other hand, if this is done in a manner that separates the concept of tikkun olam from its other meanings as found in rabbinic literature and the Aleinu prayer, the risk of privileging actions that have no real significance and represent personal agendas is introduced.
The application of Lurianic Kabbalah to ethical mitzvot and social action is particularly striking because Lurianic Kabbalah saw itself as repairing God and the world to come rather than this world and its social relations. Author Lawrence Fine points to two features of Lurianic Kabbalah that have made it adaptable to ethical mitzvot and social action. First, he points out that a generation recovering from the tragedy of the Holocaust resonates with the imagery of shattered vessels. Second, both Lurianic Kabbalah and ethical understandings of tikkun olam emphasize the role of human responsibility and action.