Tikkun Olam is the hallmark of Jewish social action. Generally translated as “repairing the world,” it is often cited as the reason for engagement in social inequities and environmental issues. It ties Jewish tradition to modern dilemmas that many feel are significant and worldly concerns that require our involvement. Searching for a better understanding of the origination of this principal, I was surprised by the scarcity of sources citing tikkun olam, which lies in stark contrast to its prominence today.
One might be surprised to learn that tikkun olam is not a direct mitzvah or halacha (law) found in the Torah. One of the earliest uses is found in the Aleinu prayer, written in the time of the prophet Joshua, which reflects a more cosmic ideal than our modern action-oriented interpretation. The emphasis of the Aleinu is the fervent hope for idolatry and wickedness to be abolished and for the world to be restored under God’s sovereignty. The expression “l’takken olam b’malkhut Shaddai” (“to perfect the world under the sovereignty of the Almighty”) is a call to prayer — not a call to action— expressing a prophetic vision of the end of days. It describes a divine process — rather than a human one — of perfecting the world.
It is interesting that one of the few other places in Jewish text where this expression is found is in the Mishnah, the codification of Jewish Law, which invokes tikkun olam for a much more concrete application. Passages in tractate Gittin provide the explanation of certain laws relating to (among other things) divorce, the freeing of slaves and the redemption of captives “for the sake of tikkun olam.” In these circumstances, tikkun olam is used as the rationale for equitable treatment and social justice, preventing adverse individual or societal consequences. Unlike in the Aleinu, it is a limited and focused scope, not a theoretical ideal.
These two differing perspectives were not linked together until the mystic teachings of Rabbi Isaac Luria, known as the Ari, in the 16th century, in his Kabbalistic conception of the “Shattering of the Vessels.”
This teaching refers to the beginning of creation, when God created room for the darkness in which the first light was to be radiated (Genesis: “Let there be light”). This primordial light was held in vessels, which proved to be too fragile to contain this powerful, divine energy source. They shattered, scattering shards of the holy vessels throughout creation. Consequently, when we engage in and perform mitzvoth, we are repairing these broken vessels, restoring the world to its original state of perfection and holiness.
Within the few textual references that tikkun olam is found, it is used to describe both universal ideals and practical applications. The modern usage brings these two interpretations together beautifully: Through our actions, involvement and concern, we have the ability to bring the world closer to the perfection from which it was created. In the words of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of England, “Tikkun olam involves the recognition that the world does need repair. … Each religious act we do has an effect on the ecology of creation. It restores something of lost harmony to the cosmos.”
Aleeza Oshry is a local professional geologist, educator and sustainability expert.