Back in the day when I was a rabbinical student I had a very difficult and exacting teacher, Rabbi Zelig Starr (obm) who taught me a valuable lesson that has carried me through life: “know what you know and know what you don’t know”. For a student, that was a very difficult lesson to learn - after all students know it all. But ever since that time I had a diminished tolerance for anyone who spoke out without knowing what they were talking about. I noticed that in recent years whenever I heard the mantra of Tikkun Olam by my more liberal friends and rabbis, Rabbi Starr’s dictum began flashing in my frontal lobe. I understood their search for Jewish relevancy but I was conflicted: ought I let them dilute themselves into thinking and believing that they found the answer to their fading Judaism or should I call them out?
The ambivalence stems from the fact that they have good intentions. Their concern is to upgrade the practice of Judaism, to make it relevant to their lives and oddly enough to ensure that it is on par with their Christianity, which may be partially the source of the problem. I like the idea that our liberal community is fair minded and open to new ideas, contributing to the renewal of Jewish practice but I am nevertheless resentful of their ignorance resulting in the corruption of Jewish values.
Tikkun Olam, ironically, the new mitzvah of the decade has been propelled to center stage in the liberal Jewish community, overshadowing any and all Jewish practices. Everything seems to be measured by Tikkun Olam and where you stand on the fulfillment of this mitzvah. It’s ironic because reference to it is found in the Aleinu prayer, recited thrice daily and is far from being the enlightening liberating mitzvah that our liberal community believes it to be.
As we put our hopes in thee, o Lord our God, that we may soon see the glory of thy power, the earth rid of abominations and the idols cut down and the world repaired in the kingdom of God. (Letaken Olam Bemalchut Shadai)
Essentially, this rendering of Tikkun Olam discourages a pluralistic society where there are multiple approaches to spirituality and many formats of expressing belief in God. O you liberals, how do you feel about that?!!!!
The expression of Tikkun Olam is also found in the Mishnah where the phrase Mipne Tikkun Olam is used in a legal context. Here the understanding of the term is that although certain actions are not required by law, Mipne Tikkun Olam, one should behave in a certain manner in order to avoid potential promiscuity. For example, if a man sends a writ of divorce (Get) by messenger to his wife and changes his mind prior to her receiving it, technically he can cancel the Get without notifying her. The Rabbis, however, in their infinite wisdom, ruled Mipne Tikkun Olam, this isn’t advised. If she assumes that she is divorced she may have a relationship with another man. To avoid this, he must notify her of his change of mind.
It was only in the 16th century with the development of Lurianic Kabbalah did Tikkun Olam take on a more popular currency. Lurianic Kabbala gave absolutely no credence to “social” aspects of Tikkun Olam. The act of repairing to which they referred was cosmic in nature and implied no social action. Lurianic Kabbalist believed that the universe was in a shattered state and in need of repair and only by practicing mitzvot can the world be repaired. This act of aiding in the repair was intended to be accomplished by developing a deep personal and emotional relationship with God.
Michael Lerner, founder and editor of Tikkun Magazine, known for his Rainbow coalition politics and vicious attacks on Israel, exploited Lurianic Kabbala and gave new unlicensed expression to Tikkun Olam as a form of redemptive social action. Jewish Liberals hijacked Tikkun Olam; neither in its Mishnaic, nor Kabbalistic meaning was it ever intended as advocacy for social justice, environmentalism or redistribution of wealth.
This past month (March 2010) Commentary contributor Jack Wertheimer wrote an interesting piece on “The High Cost of Jewish Living”, commenting on the fact that we no longer contribute our money to Jewish interests but to global concerns based upon Tikkun Olam. The idea is that we will fulfill the mitzvah to a greater extent if we give our charity to non-Jewish causes. What a corruption of Tikkun Olam! And so there are now a plethora of so-called Jewish charities that focuses on the non-Jewish community. Forget the fact that so many Jewish families cannot afford day school tuition or membership to synagogues. Forget the high rate of intermarriage resulting from lack of Jewish education; it’s ok because we are on a mission of Tikkun Olam.
At the JTS convocation this past year the keynote speaker exhorted newly minted rabbis to nothing less than focus on eliminating world poverty even at the expense of the Jewish community. Ruth Messenger of the American Jewish World Services declared that “we embrace those with whom we do not share a faith or neighborhood, a country, a language…to help those most in need….” I’m trying to keep my cool as I review all of this in my head once again, and find it difficult to the extreme. Our liberal rabbis have become so corrupted that I wonder where it will all end. Rabbi Starr was so right when he said, “know what you know and know what you don’t know”. I miss him!