Tikkun Olam, “repairing the world,” has become one of the most popular concepts in modern Jewish thought. (On this website, one of the main subject tags is Tikkun Olam / Social Action.) A couple of years ago, my late friend Rabbi Dr. Sarah Tauber suggested that we teach on this subject at our annual OHALAH rabbinic conference, by delving into the earliest uses of the term in the Mishnah, almost two millennia ago. Although she was unable to join me at the conference due to family circumstances, Rabbi Tauber’s initiative got me interested in the subject. I knew that there was much more to it than social action, and I continued to learn and teach on Tikkun Olam in a variety of places, from the Chautauqua Institution to my latest mini-course on Zoom. May this teaching be a tribute to my late friend and colleague, who would have continued to add so much to our learning. For the convenience of my students and anyone interested in the subject, I’ve collected a variety of resources that are linked below, so that you can learn and explore this subject on your own (or invite me to teach to your group!)
A Bird’s Eye View of Tikkun Olam Through the Centuries
Rabbinic (Early Centuries of the Common Era) Tikkun Ha-Olam, repair of the world, is found in classic Rabbinic Texts: Mishnah, Tosefta, and Talmud to describe rabbinic rulings made to “regulate society,” “to adjust the system,” “for the public welfare,” or “for the good order of the world” (Prof. Jacob Neusner). In practice, these enactments protect the vulnerable while also safeguarding social stability and equilibrium. Those carrying out the repairs are the rabbis themselves, fixing and changing their own system for the common good.
Liturgical (possibly Third Century onward, Babylonia) The Aleynu prayer contains the phrase: לתקן עולם במלכות שדי Letaken olam be-malchut Shaddai (“to repair the world in divine sovereignty”) as an expression of a Messianic vision of a future world rid of idol worship. Here the job of humans was to be patient, acknowledge God’s sovereignty and rely on God to manifest it in the world.
Lurianic Kabbalah (16th Century, Land of Israel): The great Kabbalist Rabbi Isaac Luria, and his disciple Haim Vital, taught that a cosmic rupture during the creation process resulted in shards of divine light scattered in the world. These hidden sparks can be lifted up and repaired through human intention and exercises of prayer and meditation (yihudim, “unifications”), restoring a wholly spiritual creation. “The tikkun of which Lurianic Kabbalah speaks is not that of this world, but of ‘worlds’ beyond it.” (Prof. Lawrence Fine). Some human beings with the right esoteric knowledge and correct spiritual intentions can become partners in this divine project.
Hassidic (18th Century to present): Like much of its approach to the Kabbalah, the Hassidic movement offered a personalization of the concept of Tikkun Olam, with an emphasis on making individual rectification in people’s lives/families/communities and thus hastening the arrival of the Messianic era on earth. The mystical became more psychological, if you will. The ordinary Jew, with the help of their Rebbe (spiritual leader) can begin to do their own tikkun for their own life.
Contemporary Popularization: In the past century, especially in recent decades, Tikkun Olam has morphed into a popular term including social activism, social justice, and even general good deeds. Based on the thought of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, who drew on rabbinic and liturgical sources, Jewish educators begin to invoke Tikkun Olam as social activism, beginning in the 1940’s. The concept is also part of early Zionist thought and important to the theology of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, first chief rabbi in the years prior to the founding of the State of Israel, who was influenced by Lurianic Kabbalah. Both Kaplan and Kook had in common “a rejection of Jewish passivity” (Prof. Jonathan Krasner). Reform Jewish leaders embraced the term during WWII, as a call to activism and hope. Shlomo Bardin, founder of Brandeis-Bardin Institute, LA area, 1950’s, was influential in teaching about the Aleynu in a new way, as a a prayer for social justice and repair of society. By the 1970’s, the term was adopted by diverse national Jewish organizations. Rabbi Arthur Waskow wrote an influential article about it in The Jewish Catalog (1973).
Important to the modern concept was the launch of Tikkun Magazine, founded in 1986 by Rabbi Michael Lerner and Nan Fink Gefen, “to heal, repair, and transform the world.” Today, the term is so well known that it has been used beyond the Jewish community. In this modern approach, anyone can become a partner in repairing the world through social action and good deeds.
Resources to Learn about Tikkun Olam
Learn More About Tikkun Olam:
Overview of the Topic: https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/tikkun-olam-repairing-the-world/
History of Tikkun Olam by Rabbi Jill Jacobs, Executive Director of T’ruah: http://www.zeek.net/706tohu/
Article by Dr. Jonathan Krausner on “The Place of Tikkun Olam in American Jewish Life”; https://jcpa.org/article/place-tikkun-olam-american-jewish-life1/
Tracing the contemporary growth of the term and the growth of Jewish philanthropy and volunteerism: http://reut-institute.org/Publication.aspx?PublicationId=4064
About Rav Kook, early religious Zionist leader, and Tikkun Olam: https://jewishjournal.com/my-turn/325836/rabbi-abraham-isaac-kook-and-tikkun-olam/
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, of blessed memory, on Tikkun Olam from an Orthodox perspective: https://advocacy.ou.org/tikkun-olam-orthodoxys-responsibility-to-perfect-g-ds-world/
The Inner Work of Tikkun Olam (Sometime called Tikkun HaLev, repair of the heart)
How social activists can use the tools of Mussar (Jewish ethical development), Shabbat, and Jewish wisdom to engage in self-development and avoid burnout while working for social change:
Book: Changing the World from the Inside Out: A Jewish Approach to Personal and Social Change, by Rabbi David Jaffe (Highly recommended for those who want to balance social justice work with introspection and spiritual/ethical practice). A National Jewish Book Award winner.
Also see his Website and learn about groups doing this “inside out” social justice work: https://www.insideoutwisdomandaction.org/
Source Sheets and Learning Materials on Tikkun Olam:
Source sheets, articles, and in-depth study guides on Tikkun Olam by Rabbi Dr. David Seidenberg: https://neohasid.org/torah/TO/
Social Justice vs. Tikkun Olam: Old Wine in a New Bottle, or Vice-Versa, source sheet by Andrew Nusbaum, 2016: www.sefaria.org/sheets/28686
Go Deeper: Find these books at your library or order:
To Mend the World: Foundations of Post-Holocaust Jewish Thought, by Emil Fackenheim, 1982, 1994. A theologian asks what kind of Tikkun is possible post Holocaust.
“How to Bring Mashiah,” (Messiah) by Arthur Waskow, in The First Jewish Catalog, Siegel, Strassfeld and Strassfeld, 1973, pp. 29-30.
Bonus: A favorite poem on Tikkun Olam: “Holding the Light,” by Stuart Kestenbaum, Poet Laureate of Maine:
Some Jewish Social Justice Organizations
Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism: https://rac.org/
The Shalom Center (Rabbi Arthur Waskow): https://theshalomcenter.org/
T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights: https://www.truah.org/
Hazon (Jewish environmental organization): https://hazon.org/
Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life: http://www.coejl.net/
American Jewish World Service: https://ajws.org/
Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society: https://www.hias.org/
The Network of Spiritual Progressives (Interfaith): https://spiritualprogressives.org/
LGBTQ rights: https://www.keshetonline.org/
Avodah, a Jewish Service Corps: https://avodah.net/
Tikkun Olam groups and initiatives from Israel: https://www.israel21c.org/opinion-tikkun-olam-israels-most-ancient-and-modern-invention/
Tevel Betzedek, Israeli organization working in Nepal, Israel, and Zambia: https://tevelbtzedek.org/#about
New Israel Fund (promoting progressive causes in Israel): https://www.nif.org/