The Banality Of Modern Tikkun Olam


follow synagogue mission statements the way normal people follow the stock market. Its statement of purpose is the synagogue’s prospectus, the reason we should care that it exists. Synagogues often promise tikkun olam. But what is that?

The term tikkun olam goes back to rabbinic times, but it took on technical important in medieval Kabbalah, which pictured fault lines creeping into the fabric of Creation from the very beginning. These cosmic fractures, as it were, engender all that is bad about the universe. Tikkun olam  — literally, “correcting the universe” — is the process of restoring Creation to its intended state of wholeness.

The kabbalists were a highly trained elite of mystical adepts, however, who practiced tikkun olam by performing mitzvot with esoteric meanings in mind. Saying the right prayer with the right intention, for example, would crank the world forward on its way to messianic perfection.

Chasidic masters extended Kabbalah by applying it to human psychology. The universe requiring correction is our own souls, the human psyche, we might say. We bear our own internal fracture lines that impact the world’s goodness. We cannot be part of the solution until we admit we are part of the problem.

Take this week’s mandate to appoint “for yourself judges and officers in your gates.” On the face of it, the Torah is describing the establishment of a just society. But 16th-century kabbalist Isaiah Horowitz read it differently. The Hebrew “for yourself,” he said, is “l’kha” (singular) not “lakhem” (plural), so it must be addressing each of us as individuals, in which case, the “gates” denote the sensory openings to our own individual souls: our eyes and ears which take in the world; our mouth with which we give back to it.

Yes, said chasidic master Jacob Joseph of Polnoye. We must monitor how we observe the world around us and how we then give back to it. See to your own fractured state of being first. Do we even open our eyes and ears to recognize the world’s evils? If we do not fix ourselves first, we will never fix the universe.

Synagogues who advocate tikkun olam have largely forgotten the kabbalistic/chasidic theologies that accompanied it. If they know it at all, they discount it as medieval superstition. Tikkun olam has been laundered free of any stains left by its original mystical context and become a benign catch-all term for good deeds, charity, and social action in general.

The richly contoured metaphors of Jewish tradition are regularly given a secular bath by modern-day Jews who get queasy about anything theological. God’s “graciousness” (another example) was originally “grace” — not some ho-hum variety of pleasant benevolence, but the wow-inducing experience of knowing God loves us, even if everyone else lets us down and even if we don’t deserve it. God’s “grace” is closely associated with tikkun olam. When we are utterly broken, God actually fixes us, and then empowers us to fix others.

How is it that we Jews who do so much else with panache manage to lose our imaginative nerve when it comes to religion? We probably would have advised Marc Chagall to forego all those angels, donkey’s heads, and heavenly brides. Some pretty clouds and sunsets are enough, we would have said.

Deracinated views of tikkun olam as some mere and modern do-good impulse has failed us. Sociologists have studied congregations that say they stand for social justice: Their members, it turns out, enjoy saying they belong to a synagogue that does “good deeds,” but, on the whole, they themselves do no more “good-deed work” than other people. The synagogue’s way of speaking is so uninspired! It does not move them.

Synagogues are not mere secular bodies that provide life-cycle ceremonies and hootenannies in Hebrew called services. Synagogues are to other not-for-profits what Chagall’s imaginative skyscapes are to ordinary clouds and sunsets. Without transcendently imaginative language to stir the soul, tikkun olam becomes banal; so does the synagogue; and so do we.

Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, co-founder of Synagogue 3000, and professor of liturgy, worship and ritual at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, is the author of “My People’s Prayer Book: Traditional Prayers, Modern Commentaries” (Jewish Lights), winner of the National Jewish Book Award.

Candlelighting, Readings:

Shabbat candles: 7:33 p.m.

Torah: Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9

Haftorah: Isaiah 51:12-52:12

Havdalah: 8:32 p.m.