In Defense of Tikkun Olam

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Several years ago at a Jewish newspaper I was editing, the publisher and I had an idea for two competing opinion pieces to tackle what, for many, has been the animating force behind Jewish social justice movements of the last decade: tikkun olam.

A Reform rabbi in that community made no secret of the fact that he thought most people invoking the term didn’t actually know its history or meaning, and thus should not be using it to justify otherwise worthwhile pursuits. If we could get him to write an op-ed defending his view, the plan was for me — an Orthodox rabbi who happened to be a newspaper editor — to write the counterpoint, defending the notion of “repairing the world” as a necessary, though not sufficient, pillar of Jewish life.

Alas, we couldn’t get the rabbi to put these particular thoughts of his to paper, but the centrality of tikkun olam to Jewish communal activities has again been on my mind. For the record, I do believe that the phrase — which in the Kabbalistic tradition refers to redeeming the holy sparks of Godliness that are trapped in the mundane physicality of the world — is overused.

But to attack it, as recent press releases from an organization of right-wing rabbis calling themselves the Coalition for Jewish Values do, is to perversely imply that Judaism does not regard having a positive impact on the world at large as a moral calling.

I was thinking of this push and pull while attending the Nov. 19 banquet of the annual International Conference of Chabad-Lubavitch Emissaries, an event I’ve missed only once in the last 13 years. (Full disclosure: I attended this year as press, but for a few years while living in Israel I was a Chabad shliach.)

During the program, a Chabad supporter named Yisroel Schachter told a story about friends of his brother who had been scheduled to eat at the kosher restaurant in Barcelona the night a terrorist drove a van into pedestrians outside of it. An illness had the male half of the couple in the hospital, and they were in need of kosher food.

Schachter said that when his brother called him asking for help, he texted the Chabad rabbi in Barcelona, a man he did not know and who was already busy catering to the needs of his community. Five minutes later, the rabbi replied that everything had been arranged. He also texted, “Thanks for the mitzvah.”

Schachter hesitated to tell this story, he told the thousands of people inside a dockside warehouse in Bayonne, New Jersey because not a single person there would have hesitated to fulfill a similar request.

For myself, I like to believe that anybody who chooses to live Jewish values — regardless of his or her religious orientation — would have responded like the rabbi in Barcelona. And the fact is, though not a single speaker on the dais in New Jersey uttered the words tikkun olam, everyone engaged in communal work — whether of the Chabad shlichut or of the social justice variety — is actively making the world a better place.

And that’s a good thing, because we’re going to need a lot more of it in the days, weeks, months and years ahead. Whether or not Congress passes its latest top priority legislation, the tax reform bill — whether or not a repeal of the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate is part of that reform — each and every action the legislative branch takes creates winners and losers.

We can debate the merits of each particular plan — for myself, I’d like to see the tax burden shouldered more on those who can afford it — but neither side can guarantee a utopian existence.

As a rule, Democrats believe that government exists to provide for those whom the markets have either forgotten or taken advantage of. Republicans, on the other hand, uphold the individual freedom of contract as the best guarantor of an equitable distribution of scarce resources. The problem is, neither side can feed all those who are hungry nor house all those in need of shelter.

That brings us back to repairing the world. On the whole, we as a community do a good job of looking outward, whether in Israel where we plant trees and fight for peace, in Europe where we strengthen dwindling communities or even in and around Philadelphia where we feed the poor and counsel refugees.

But how well are we doing in such tasks as making sure someone has a place to stay for Shabbat or the neighbor in need of work gets a job? How well are we doing in the series of mundane favors that are actually mitzvahs in their own right?

I can’t answer that question, at least not for the community. The best any of us can do is to make sure we’re doing our part. The world just outside our door is as in need of fixing as the entirety of the planet Earth. 

Joshua Runyan is the editor-in-chief of the Jewish Exponent. He can be reached at [email protected]