Tikkun Olam–Yom Kippur morning sermon

Over these High Holy Days, I’ve spoken about a number of the values that are a part of Beit Shalom’s mission. Today I want to talk about Tikkun Olam—repair of the world. We understand Tikkun Olam to be an imperative for us human beings to bring about the healing of a broken world. Although there are contemporary Jews who are impatiently waiting for the Messiah to come and fix all that is in need of fixing, Progressive Jews from very early in our history have rejected the idea of a personal Messiah. Instead, we have taught for several hundred years that redemption is up to us. It is an inspiring and timely message.

I recently received an application from a student interested in converting to Judaism who named the value of tikkun olam as one of the principle reasons why she was drawn to Progressive Judaism. And I feel the same way. Except that from an academic perspective, it is disingenuous to say that our current understanding of the term tikkun olam has any kind of grounding in ancient Jewish tradition.

The term tikkun olam first appears in the third paragraph of the Aleynu, when it speaks of a future time when God will l’taken olam bamalchut Shaddai—repair the world through the sovereignty of God. Our prayerbook Mishkan T’filah briefly traces the history of the term tikkun olam through the hundreds of years that have passed since the Aleynu was written: “Tikkun olam…originally (2–3 century) referred to rabbinic legislation to remedy social ills or legal injustices. In the Aleinu, composed about the same time, it represents acts by God to replace this imperfect world with the legal and moral perfection of divine rule. Sixteenth-century kabbalistic thought applied the term to human action, shifting the responsibility for perfecting the world onto us.”

My understanding of tikkun olam was shaken out of me four years ago at the Limmud Oz conference in Melbourne. One of the presenters was Rabbi Danny Schiff, an affable trouble maker whom I’ve known since my Pittsburgh days. Rabbi Schiff—whom everyone calls Danny—is a Melbourne native who delights in slaying sacred cows. On that particular day, the cow he intended to slay was tikkun olam.

Danny began by pointing out that the last thing on the minds of the 16th century kabbalists was social activism. For a brief, brilliant two year period, Rabbi Isaac Luria was the head of the Tsfat school of kabbalah, and during that time he developed what is now known as Lurianic kabbalah. It was he who conceived of a completely new creation myth: the idea that God intended to construct a perfect universe, formed of vessels which held divine light. But the vessels proved unable to withstand the power of God and so shattered into an almost unimaginably large number of shards. Those shards became embedded in the world we know today. They yearn to be reunited with their Creator. The way to redeem those shards is through the performance of ritual mitzvot, such as focusing intently while reciting prayers so as to do so with the proper intention. As is the case for much of kabbalah, the exercise of tikkun olam can only be carried out by strictly Orthodox Jewish men who also have an understanding of these obscure and esoteric teachings.

So how did tikkun olam—a mystical concept—come to be transformed to mean healing the injustices of our contemporary world? It seems entirely possible that Progressive Judaism basically made up a whole new definition. Rabbi Schiff is frustrated that our contemporary understanding of tikkun olam is so broad and ill-defined that basically any cause can be brought under its umbrella. So, for example, one person might argue that eliminating the use of coal is tikkun olam, because what could be more important than saving the environment? And someone else might argue that preserving the coal industry is tikkun olam, because what could be more important than preserving jobs and the dignity for those workers who otherwise would be left with no means of support?

Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin, a Reform rabbi for whom I have enormous admiration, agrees with Rabbi Schiff’s concerns that the concept of tikkun olam is far too wishy washy, and most certainly too malleable to be truly useful. In an article for Commentary magazine, Rabbi Salkin complained that, as someone who considers himself a political centrist, he often feels shut out by others within the Jewish world who use traditional Jewish language to make it appear that only left-wing approaches are Jewishly acceptable. One particular example he cites is one that happens to be particularly close to my heart: the idea of welcoming the stranger: “Who was the biblical stranger (ger)? Quite simply, a non-Israelite who lived within a Jewish polity, i.e., the land of Israel. Jews had to provide for the welfare of the stranger, often an impoverished laborer or artisan, “because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Israelites probably needed this cajoling. In the words of the late biblical scholar Nechama Leibowitz: “A history of alienation and slavery, the memory of your own humiliation is by itself no guarantee that you will not oppress the stranger in your own country once you have gained independence and left it all behind you.”

Let us assume the righteousness, and even the sanctity, of this idea. Let us also remember that, in the postbiblical world, the sages applied the notion of loving the stranger (ahavat ha-ger) not to resident aliens within a Jewish polity—which was the biblical emphasis—but to converts to Judaism.

But let us also acknowledge that, as it stands, “loving the stranger” fails to offer the concrete policy prescriptions that we might want from it. That hasn’t stopped some from using the quote as a basis for immigration policy…“Loving the stranger” says nothing about the proper disposition toward those who are neither residents in a Jewish polity nor converts to Judaism.”

I am quoting from Rabbi Salkin the morning after giving a sermon last night in which I suggested that welcoming both legal migrants and refugees could be considered forms of welcoming the guests. Most of you will also know that I was arrested in a civil disobedience action a number of years ago in which I used explicitly Jewish language to protest against Australia’s practice of keeping children in offshore detention. I’m pretty sure I talked an awful lot about our responsibility for loving the stranger. Should I now abandon this approach because the biblical understanding differs from our contemporary situation?

The larger question is whether we should discard the concept of tikkun olam because our understanding of it represents a departure from the traditional definition. What the Progressive movement has inadvertently done is what is called a chiddush—an innovation. We have transformed a concept that began life as a legalistic term and then much later grew into a spiritual idea. Now, in this age of urgent social and environmental needs, we may choose to claim tikkun olam as a call for each of us to do what we can to remake the world as a more just and hopeful place. In case you cannot guess, that is what I am advocating.

Just because tikkun olam has not previously been understood as healing the world doesn’t mean that this concept is entirely absent from Jewish tradition. Far from it. Each year, I celebrate the rabbis’ radical choice of haftarah reading for Yom Kippur morning. Rather than providing a soothing text about how good we are and how praiseworthy our fasting efforts, the rabbis instead chose a prophetic call to justice from Deutero-Isaiah: “Is this the fast I look for? A day of self affliction? Bowing your head like a reed, and covering yourself with sackcloth and ashes? Is this what you call a fast, a day acceptable to Adonai? Is not this the fast I look for: to unlock the shackles of injustice, to undo the fetters of bondage, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every cruel chain? Is it not to share you bread with the hungry, and to bring the homeless poor into your house? When you see the naked, to clothe them, and never to hide yourself from your own kin?”

The prophet here calls for individual acts of modest assistance—clothing the naked and sharing our bread with the hungry. But there is also an overarching call for a more just society—one in which the shackles of injustice are unlocked and the oppressed go free. He does not use the language of tikkun olam, but the message is the same: to live fully and completely as a Jew means to work for a more fair and equal society. This makes the rabbis’ decision to choose this as the haftarah reading for Yom Kippur morning all the more significant. There are plenty of readings about the detailed fulfillment of ritual commandments, but that’s not we are to remember on Yom Kippur. Rather we are to keep our eyes on a larger vision, entirely separate from the ritual realm.

Deutero-Isaiah, whose actual identity is unknown to us, spoke to a Jewish community in exile in Babylon. This was not a people who have any kind of power over their own lives, nor did they have the authority to bring about institutional change. The prophet exhorts them to transform the world around them despite their powerlessness to do so. If that is the case for them, then how much for so for us living as free people in this land?!

A number of years ago, I stumbled upon an article that someone had written about me for an online Orthodox website. The author excoriated me for standing up for asylum seekers from Muslim backgrounds. He insisted that my primary, in fact my only responsibility should be to work on behalf of the Jewish people. If I wasn’t doing solely that, I had no right to call myself a rabbi.

On the other side of the world, dozens of my colleagues, including the rabbis of prominent American synagogues, have been arrested in recent months. They have been protesting the American government’s intention to deport illegal aliens who have lived in the US since infancy and have never known another home. They have proudly employed the language of loving the stranger in their actions and believe deep in their souls that what they are doing is a legitimate expression of Jewish values. I’d like to think Deutero-Isaiah would agree with them. We have so much work ahead of us, but if we all join together, by this time next year we can celebrate the extent to which our world is a little less broken because of our work of Tikkun Olam. I wish you well over the fast, and may our hands bring about a world closer to Deutero-Isaiah’s vision. Shana tova!

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