Tikkun Hayam, Repair the Sea is a Jewish organization that I support, whose mission is “to share the spiritual wonders of water and the Sea from a Jewish perspective, and to raise awareness and encourage action to address the many threats facing the aquatic environment.” They teach and educate about the importance of water to all of life as well as Jewish tradition, and offer programs such as “Reverse Tashlich” beach cleanups, planting corals in Israel, and teaching scuba diving. Enjoy this video made earlier this year by Tikkun HaYam about the meaning of water in Jewish tradition, along with some good news about coral reefs, and keep learning more about Jewish lore of the Sea in the Gateway of The Sea.
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!)
Juvenile Red-tailed Hawk, JHD
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.
In Jewish tradition, the Moon has been associated with women and the feminine. In today’s world, one of the most central social movements for Tikkun Olam (repairing the world) is that of achieving full equality and rights for the world’s women and girls. Some see the advancement of women as a symbolic fulfillment of the old Midrashictale that the moon (the feminine principal) will someday shine like the sun (the masculine principle). Appropriate then that the phrase “half the sky” has come to symbolize this movement.
The rainbow, with its varied and beautiful refracted hues has become the symbol of diversity, including in our Jewish communities: diversity of gender identity and sexual orientation, race and ethnicity, and physical or intellectual ability, among other factors. The Torah teaches that every human being is created in the divine image. Check into these organizations that foster diversity and inclusiveness in the Jewish world (I love noting how often retreats and camps are part of the work!):
It is all too easy to see so many situations in the world—on the local or global scale—that seem dark and bleak. Consider the old proverb, “Better to light a single candle than to curse the darkness.” Find one step that you can take for light,for healing, and do it today. (more…)
Although we often first learn the story of Noah as children, as if it is just a colorful tale of a floating zoo, it is actually a terrifying story of destruction, chaos, and survival. After Noah, his family, and the animals survive the Great Flood, God chooses the rainbow, an existing natural phenomena, as the sign of a covenant of forbearance not just with one person or even a nation, but with the entire planet.
Famed oceanographer Sylvia Earle explains that just a few decades ago, human beings imagined that the world’s oceans were so vast, there was no way that humanity could harm them. The ocean was seen as bottomless basket of resources for humanity, providing us with everything from fossil fuels to fish. (more…)