HomeApril 2013What is Tikkun Olam?

What is Tikkun Olam?

A demographic survey recently issued by the Bay Area Jewish community of Oakland produced a startling statistic.  Some 6 percent of Jews see Jewish traditions such as Kosher observance as the most important aspect of Judaism, while 70 percent view “the Jewish value of Tikkun Olam” as the primary quality of Judaism.
What do the words “Tikkun Olam” mean, to repair the world?  The Torah teaches we must repair the world with the sovereignty of the G-d.  The very core of Judaism since Abraham was the concept of a belief in G-d.  The very word “Jew” in Hebrew is one who gives acknowledgement to G-d.  Struggling to follow Divine Commands is the essential core of Judaism.  Those commands are broad, touching all aspects of life, from helping the poor to observing Kashrut and Shabbat.  Tikkun Olam means we struggle to bring the Divine Mandate into the world, in all aspects of our lives, be it our spiritual obligations to fulfill traditions or helping others.  The Torah teaches us that we must help others, because every person has a divine soul, a quality of holiness.
Sadly, the concept of Tikkun Olam has been distorted.  It’s become a call for social action, at times reflective of certain political agendas.  The idea that we are struggling to fulfill a Divine Command has been subdued with a universalist agenda to do good for mankind.  In fact, what emerges from the Oakland survey is that most Jews who champion “Tikkun Olom” do not give to Jewish causes, nor are they formally involved in the Jewish community.  Their sense of connection to Judaism is very tenuous.
My son lives in the midst of LA’s Pico neighborhood, home to many Orthodox Jews.  Almost daily there are knocks on the door for a variety of needs — a fund to help families, a school in Israel, a community effort for a person who is sick.  In affluent Orange County we almost never see this.  We talk of charity, we make donations to community funds and other worthy groups, but rarely does anyone knock on our doors.  It’s safe to say that per capita giving in the more religious community is dramatically higher that the more liberal ones.
Why the difference?  One might argue that more observant Jews feel a stronger connection to the Jewish community and Israel.  There is no question that this is true, but I think there are more fundamental differences.  Religious Jews see giving not as doing another a favor, an act of charity, rather fulfilling the Divine Command of Tzedakah.
The word “Tzedakah” means justice.  Judaism teaches us that wealth is not just something we have earned.  Rather, it has been bestowed on us as a trust from above.  We are instructed to do justice with it, to use it responsibly.  First and foremost is our responsibility for our own family, our community, the Jewish people, Israel; beyond that, to the broader society.  Jewish tradition teaches us that we should set our priorities in concentric circles.  Once we have taken care of our own community, we should also undertake to share with others beyond our immediate circles.  The modern connotation for “Tikkun Olam” has become a sense of universalism that trumps our first responsibility for the Jewish community in Orange County and abroad.
No question there are times when as a community, we must extend our compassion to others.  In the wake of the tsunami in Japan and the earthquake in Haiti, I was personally involved in Chabad’s efforts to feed those suffering.  However, Sandy was a very different story where we dedicated our resources towards the Jewish community that had been so devastated.
The Ten Commandments had two tablets with two sets of commands.  One was between man and G-d; the other, between man and fellow man.  The modern universalist idea of “Tikkun Olom” insinuates the essence of Judaism focuses on the Mitzvos between one person and another, relegating the obligations to G-d as secondary or even irrelevant.  In truth, when we understand that the core of Judaism centers on the commands between man and G-d, then we see even a greater obligation to help mankind.

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