Shalom Learning Center Articles

Written by: Erin Parfet

Tikkun Olam

tool 1957451 1280Tikkun Olam is a Jewish phrase found in the Mishnah, a collection of rabbinic teachings and oral Jewish traditions dating back to the writings of Judah the Prince in the 3rd century, which characterizes social action performed to perfect or repair the world and help those who may be disadvantaged. In the Jewish faith, this moral responsibility to repair the world falls on each individual. Judaism views the mitzvot as defined in the Torah as a means to engage in Tikkun Olam. The practice of Tikkun Olam, an important but not central tenet of Judaism, has also profoundly come to shape Jewish identity and is an undercurrent in modern-day Jewish social and political movements.

The concept of Tikkun Olam originates in the Talmud and Mishnah (Gittin chapters 4 and 5). It has a very narrow legal definition, referring to courts and halakhic (legal) regulations pertaining to marriage, divorce, inheritance, personal status, and related issues, as well as the improved standard of living after these legal reforms were implemented.

However, over the centuries, Tikkun Olam has also taken on a broader sense in the Jewish liturgy and the Aleinu prayer: "The world will be perfected (letaken olam) under the sovereignty of the Almighty, when all humanity will call on Your name, and the earth’s wicked will all turn to You." Tikkun Olam did not become more synonymous with social justice until the 19th century.

Philanthropy and helping others transcend religion, culture, and era. In the Hebrew Bible, the Prophets were ancient examples of Tikkun Olam, speaking out against the social inequality, oppression, and corruption of the time. Maimonides, a medieval Jewish philosopher and rabbi, among other things, wrote extensively on the idea that individuals have a responsibility to promote ethical behavior and fulfill their personal moral obligations to make the world a better place. Writing in a commentary to the Mishnah, "Through wisdom, represented by the Torah, and the elevation of character, which is represented by acts of kindness and observing the Torah’s commandments, and represented by the Temple offerings, one continuously brings Tikkun Olam and the ordering of reality," Maimonides once wrote. Other Jewish philosophers, such as Moses Mendelssohn and Abraham Joshua Hershel, and rabbis, such as Abraham Joshua Hershel, have expanded on these ideas in their writings as well.

The modern phrase Tikkun Olam was first coined by Shlomo Bardin, the founder of the Brandeis Camp Institute, in the 1950s. Bardin believed the phrase "l'taken olam b'malchut shaddai," translating to "when the world shall be perfected under the reign of the Almighty," as derived from the Alienu prayer, summarized the Jewish values and obligations of each Jewish person in changing, improving, or fixing the earthly world for future generations and to restore the world back to an original state of holiness.

The Jewish people view the practical application of Tikkun Olam as applicable to all communities and all people, not simply Jewish people and Jewish communities. They recognize that their communities are not isolated from the interconnectedness of a greater society and the global world. Examples of Tikkun Olam include social welfare, volunteer work, and donations (financial or material goods). Many Jewish holidays incorporate acts of kindness and charity, such as providing food to those in need or gifts to the poor. Jewish dietary laws also incorporate Tikkun Olam through the ethical treatment of animals and the protection of the environment. The practice of bettering the world can come through two means: tzedakah (justice and righteousness) and g'milut hasadim (acts of loving kindness). For the Jews, without these things, evil will be allowed to persist.

Some sects of traditional Judaism include a parallel idea similar to Tikkun Olam: Tikkun Yisrael. This concept is similar to Tikkun Olam except that it focuses on the responsibility of the Jewish people to help their Jewish neighbor and improve the Jewish nation. To put it another way, Tikkun Yisrael focuses on improving the lives of the Jewish people and Jewish nation, while Tikkun Olam focuses on bettering the entire world. The concept of Tikkun Yisrael is expanded upon in the Talmud with the principle of "Kol yisrael arevim zeh bazeh," meaning all of Israel is responsible for each other. Tikkun Yisrael is further defended by the Biblical prohibition of not standing by while your brother’s blood is being shed or while a fellow Jewish person is suffering physical, financial, or emotional harm.

Maimonides expanded on this moral obligation to care for the fellow Jew: "It is a positive commandment of Rabbinic origin to visit the sick, comfort mourners, prepare for a funeral, prepare a bride, accompany guests, attend to all the needs of a burial, carry a corpse on one’s shoulders, walk before the bier, mourn, dig a grave, bury the dead, bring joy to a bride and groom, and help them in all their needs. These are deeds of kindness that one carries out with a person that have no limit. Although all these mitzvot are of Rabbinic origin, they are included in the commandment "Love your neighbor as yourself."

Yet there are those Jewish religious leaders who express caution with Tikkum Olam and do not want it to become a catch-all phrase for all political or personal agendas, no matter how well intentioned. They warn that Tikkun Olam is neither a call to action, nor a commandment, nor based in Torah, nor something that can be accomplished under the current guise of "social justice" or "political correctness" – because man cannot save or repair the world. What Jews are commanded to do is live in accordance with the commandments of Torah, which includes but is not limited to Sabbath observance, dietary restrictions, and prayer. Tikkun Olam is not and cannot become some flimsy excuse to avoid the actual teachings of the Torah, given that the concept does not originate from the Torah and the meaning has often been distorted from the original intention.

 "In its current incarnation, Tikkun Olam can refer to anything from a direct service project such as working in a soup kitchen or shelter to political action to philanthropy," Rabbi Jill Jacobs once observed. "While once regarded as the property of the left, the term is now widely used by mainstream groups such as synagogues, camps, schools, and federations, as well as by more rightwing groups wishing to cast their own political agendas within the framework of Tikkun Olam."

In this prevailing era of social justice, wokeness, activism, identity politics, and cultural wars, it is even easier for the Jewish concept of Tikkun Olam or sometimes even the Christian concept of helping your neighbor (depending on the context) to be written off as the liberal or progressive messaging of the current era. While some nefarious actors have hijacked and marketed the fundamental concepts of equality, justice, bettering the world, and love for perverted reasons that have nothing to do with advancing Christ’s mission on earth or a genuinely better world for all (for those who do not accept Christ), the Jewish concept of Tikkun Olam in its purest form dates back for centuries and should not be confused with some of the progressive movements of the day.

The concept of Tikkun Olam, though expressed in different terminology, is not fundamentally foreign to those of us who are Christians, who often embrace similar parallel concepts as a core part of their faith as they seek to implement Christ’s mission of self-sacrificing service, Biblical justice, and Christian love in a sin-polluted world. That said, Tikkun Olam cannot be derived directly from the Torah or the scriptures, as the concept of man helping God repair the earth and solve the problems of mankind has its foundational Biblical flaws. Only God can redeem mankind and only through His grace can anything improve in the temporal here and now. Additionally, we know from scripture that the world is going to unravel before Christ’s return (aka get worse, not better), but there are still some loose connections to Christianity.

Within Christianity, carrying one another’s burdens to fulfill the law of Christ, and self-sacrificing service to the widows, orphans, fatherless, needy, oppressed, immigrant, and/or other marginalized communities could take many forms and, in some senses, parallel Tikkun Olam. Many Christians because of their faith volunteer locally for those in need, participate in international humanitarian aid organizations, work in the local soup kitchen or domestic violence shelter, or help in any number of ministries focused on different groups in need with the hopes of establishing relationships and rapport with people so that we can ultimately share Jesus with those who have not already heard the Gospel. 

Especially in a society deeply marred by deepening divisions between rich and poor and the flagrant inequalities that exist between nations on the international stage, Christianity instructs us to put the needs of the poor and vulnerable first (Matthew 25:30–46):

When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, He will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. All the nations will be gathered before Him, and He will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on His right and the goats on His left. 

Then the King will say to those on His right, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. I was hungry and you gave me something to eat; I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink; I was a stranger and you invited me in; I needed clothes and you clothed me; I was sick and you looked after me; I was in prison and you came to visit me.” 

Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you as a stranger and invite you in, or need clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?” 

The King will reply, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”

Then He will say to those on his left, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat; I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink; I was a stranger and you did not invite me in; I needed clothes and you did not clothe me; I was sick and in prison, and you did not look after me.” 

They also will answer, “Lord, when did we see you hungry, thirsty, a stranger, needing clothes, sick, or in prison, and did not help you?” 

He will reply, “Truly, I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.” 

Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous will go to eternal life.

Our lives have often been caught up in the cares of this world—consumerism, frivolous pleasures, the decaying morals of our times, and taking care of our own immediate families—that there is often no longer time in our hectic lives to love others and hear the cries of distress from the poor or our neighbor, who may not be poor but may still be in need. As Adventists, it is sometimes easy to fall into the trap of thinking that Sabbath observance and health messages alone are the golden ticket to salvation, whereas we collectively as a church sometimes struggle more relationally when it comes to loving our neighbor—all of our neighbors, not just certain cherry-picked neighbors for whom it is convenient to love or serve. Often, we want to minister to and help people with certain needs when it is convenient for us rather than all needs.

The concept of Tikkun Olam can also be loosely extrapolated to Christian teachings on forgiveness and reconciliation in terms of repairing damaged relationships and making amends with those we need to, in so far as we are capable, to promote peace and reconciliation in the greater world. The Gospels call us to be peacemakers. We are one human family, our brothers' and sisters' keeper, wherever they may be, regardless of our differences.

Some Jewish people recognize Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as an example of a Christian who personifies the ideals of Tikkun Olam in living practice. Dr. King was a Baptist minister who played a crucial role in the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, and he felt his calling from God was so much bigger than simply justice and equality for black Americans. He firmly believed that equality and justice should be extended to all people. His niece, Alveda King, has carried the torch forward with this message in saying, "I became a voice for Christ and a foot soldier for righteousness, life, and justice; for one human race, from the womb to the tomb; one blood (Acts 17:26, KJV)." 

There was a vocal Jewish civil rights leader and German-American rabbi by the name of Joachim Prinz, who spoke at the podium following a spiritual folk hymn being sung but immediately before Dr. King delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech. Rabbi Prinz indirectly spoke about how the principles of Tikkun Olam had a role to play in creating a more just and equitable society, especially in the contexts of the African-American plight in the USA and various minority groups persecuted under the Third Reich. 

"I speak to you as an American Jew," Rabbi Prinz said. "As Americans, we share the profound concern of millions of people about the shame and disgrace of inequality and injustice, which make a mockery of the great American idea. As Jews, we bring to this great demonstration, in which thousands of us proudly participate, a two-fold experience—one of the spirit and one of our history."

"In the realm of the spirit, our fathers taught us thousands of years ago that when God created man, he created him as everybody's neighbor. Neighbor is not a geographic term. It is a moral concept," Rabbi Prinz continued. "It means our collective responsibility for the preservation of man's dignity and integrity. From our Jewish historical experience of three and a half thousand years, we say: Our ancient history began with slavery and the yearning for freedom. During the Middle Ages, my people lived for a thousand years in the ghettos of Europe. Our modern history begins with a proclamation of emancipation."

It is for these reasons that it is not merely sympathy and compassion for the black people of America that motivates us. It is above all and beyond all such sympathies and emotions a sense of complete identification and solidarity born of our own painful historic experience. When I was the rabbi of the Jewish community in Berlin under the Hitler regime, I learned many things. The most important thing that I learned under those tragic circumstances was that bigotry and hatred are not the most urgent problems. The most urgent, disgraceful, shameful, and tragic problem is silence. A great people who had created a great civilization had become a nation of silent onlookers. They remained silent in the face of hate, in the face of brutality, and in the face of mass murder."

Because the Jewish people are used to persecution and being the underdogs, it is logical that they would take their historical experiences as a people group and channel them into a stand for other oppressed people groups, which at the time would have been African Americans, particularly in the South.

While the Aleinu prayer is the partial inspiration for Tikkun Olam as it has become today, beyond the narrow legal sense, backwards is the concept that man will help God repair the world. In reality, God is perfect and righteous and can and will use willing and consecrated men and women to advance His kingdom on earth. He does not need our feeble assistance, and has a thousand ways to provide whether man chooses to participate in the Great Commission or not. He certainly does often choose to manifest answers to prayers and problems on this earth through fellow mankind, but all the glory is His, and glory should not be deferred to man. We can only do our part, but the results are His.

That said, we should not turn a cold shoulder to suffering, injustices, inequalities, unbiblical teachings, or distress, especially if we are called by God to intervene in such situations. We can indeed, by His grace, make a difference in someone’s life or change the course of history, but we must remember who our Savior is and not usurp glory unto ourselves.

Two thousand years ago, on a rugged old cross, God delivered the ultimate repair needed in this sinful world - a world that will never be repaired in the here and now and will only be fully healed upon the Second Coming:

Surely he hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement for our peace was upon him, and with His stripes [not our own efforts to repair and heal the world], we are healed. Isaiah 53:4-5

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