In the ongoing debate about tikun olam and its place in Judaism, two things are clear to me: the anti-tikun olam crowd is absolutely wrong; and their critique of the Jewish value to “repair the world” contains an important kernel of truth.
They’re wrong because, without a shadow of a doubt, creating a more just, more equitable world is at the heart of the Torah’s mandate to the Jewish people. Our tradition’s commitment to a just society is not something incidental, marginal or occasional. In fact, it’s quite the opposite – so much so that the phrase “tikun olam” may be too vague and toothless for the Jewish vision of social justice that runs through the Torah like a spine.
Is it necessary to remind ourselves that the Torah’s central story is about a people who are enslaved and then liberated? And that the Torah repeatedly, almost obsessively, warns us that we are constantly in danger of becoming Pharaoh-like ourselves if we oppress the poor and the marginalized by denying them equal access to justice, exploit them or allow them to drown in debt? What about the rules of yovel, concerning the redistribution of land in ancient Israel every 50 years? And have we forgotten that the Torah and the Talmud forbid charging interest? Rabbi Shimon Federbush, one of the founders of the Mizrachi religious Zionist movement, wrote: “At the foundation of the prohibition against taking interest is the Torah’s desire to prevent the formation of a class of extremely wealthy people who have gained their riches at the expense of the economically weak.”
As the founder of an Israeli organization working with poverty in the global south, I can say with certainty that applying just two of the Torah’s ideas – land reform and access to finance for all – would end most extreme poverty. The prophets’ passion for social justice burned so bright that they counterposed it to ritual and prayer. The first chapter of Isaiah indicates that oppression of the poor severs Israel’s relationship with God and makes the celebration of Shabbat, the bringing of sacrifice and even prayer worse than meaningless – an affront. Amos, along with Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Malachi and Hosea, agrees, writing in the fifth chapter of his book, “I hate, I despise your festivals and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
The Talmud’s style is less poetic and more succinct, but almost as radical. It regulates competition, forbids the commercialization of basic food items and their export, and calls speculators “evil.” Perhaps most strikingly, it calls for a firewall that would separate judges and legislators from special interests, indicating that the talmudists had a profound understanding of how financial gain infects the subconscious. The ties between corporations, extreme wealth and government that exist today would be rightfully understood by them as creating a world that’s ethically out of kilter, lacking the capacity to think clearly about the common good.
Fourteen-hundred years later, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the spiritual father of religious Zionism had this to say: “It does not bother us if a quality of social justice is constructed that has not even a spark of mention of God, because we know that the aspiration to social justice is itself the greatest divine influence at its most shining.” Rav Kook employed the term “tikun olam” in its broad, modern sense. He considered the “tikun” of society to be a fundamental form of collective teshuvah, or penitence.
And yet, the critics of tikun olam have a point, because when it is separated from the intricate fabric of teachings, ideas, associations, hopes, aspirations and practices that form the Jewish spiritual tradition, social justice can easily lose the thread that gives it meaning. The notion of humanity made in the divine image can be surprisingly absent in many modern iterations of tikun olam. Yet without the God principle, social justice can turn into a war of all against all, as in Stalin’s Soviet Union or Mao’s China. And without God, the messianic hope that the human heart can and will transform, that we have the capacity, as a collective, to reach new levels of understanding and grace, may also disappear.
The eagerness of some in the tikun olam camp to embrace the prevailing “progressive” stance by adopting a narrative in which the Jewish people’s return to their homeland is seen as the last bastion of Western colonialism is another pitfall of contemporary social justice movements. At the very least, many in that camp fail to sufficiently identify and empathize with their own people’s internal understanding of the Jewish story.
Judaism without tikun olam is like a car without an engine. In this postmodern age, our task is to reintegrate the Jewish passion for social justice rooted in Jewish tradition. Separated from the deep textual context and historical experience of the Jewish people, the imperative for social justice alone can lose its way. The truth is that devotion to social justice, when combined with a deep knowledge of tradition and a rich Jewish life, can strengthen both.