What Being Jewish Is All About

Tikkun Olam Alone, Is Not Judaism

I have noticed in the last few years that the most repeated Jewish phrase that I hear is tikkun olam. I hear it from Jewish celebrities who say their attachment to Judaism is through their acts of social justice which they then call tikkun olam, and that satisfies their attachment to Judaism.

I hear it from people who have converted to Judaism who say what attracted them to Judaism is tikkun olam. I hear it from the growing numbers of Jews of color who see in the advocacy of Black Lives Matter an expression of tikkun olam.

There are Jewish atheists who proclaim their connection to Judaism as cultural and values based, and chief amongst the Jewish values are … you guessed it, tikkun olam.

But what is tikkun olam?

The term began life as a Rabbinic term taken from the Aleynu prayer, “Litaken Olam Bemalchoot Shadai” to “repair the world under the kingship of God”. In context it is about the world abandoning idols and coming to acknowledge the Jewish God. I assume to the ancient Rabbis they felt that if everyone gave up idolatry the world would be a better place to live or literally repaired.

About 1300 years later the Kabbalists took the term and detached it entirely from its earlier meaning. In their esoteric teachings the spiritual world had been shattered and it was every person’s responsibility to repair it. The tools of the trade were mitzvot, but they were not seen as good deeds but rather ways of spiritually repairing a broken supernal world by doing mitzvot here on earth.

Shattered vessels of holiness from the past could be repaired and the divine sparks regathered in the spiritual world, bringing a healing and repair to God and the spiritual universe.

In modern times the term morphed again and became amongst liberal Jews in particular, the concept of social justice. There was now little difference between tikkun olam and the progressive agenda for change in the world. I sometimes think that the “squad” in the Democratic party are practitioners of this brand of tikkun olam. It is like a take on an old Levy’s Rye Bread advertisement. “ You don’t have to be Jewish to enjoy tikkun olam”.

I do not know this for a fact but from my experience and observation I believe that most of the best graduates of the Reform movement’s education in religious school and especially camps, see their religion as the performing of tikun olam.

In the manner of reductio ad absurdum, I could imagine a Saturday morning activity to clean up of the beaches, sponsored by a synagogue, with a break for cheeseburgers at lunch, considered a religious act of tikkun olam.

Some of these Jews and many others see their Judaism as a form of ethnic nationalism. They do not believe in God, and they may or may not partake in Jewish culture, but they identify themselves as part of the Jewish people.

Having the one Jewish state in the world is very important to them. In fact, supporting Israel may be their singular action in expressing their sense of being Jewish.

I understand all these different expressions of being Jewish, but in my not so humble opinion they are missing the essence of what being Jewish is all about and that is that Judaism began as and remains at its core a religion, and what is the purpose of that religion?

Stay tuned for my next blog.

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Rabbi Paul Plotkin

I am a retired Conservative Rabbi. I was a pulpit Rabbi for 40 years. I supervise a chain of kosher Delis called Ben's .