Editor’s Introduction to Tikkun Olam

by: Zvi Grumet

In some Jewish circles, tikkun olam is the essence of Judaism. Drawing from select passages in the prophetic tradition, it represents for them the ultimate Jewish value and the sum total of what being Jewish means. Take away tikkun olam and there is little left.

In other circles, however, the approach to tikkun olam is the polar opposite. “Sure,” the argument goes, “there is a value in helping others out. But don’t we Jews have enough problems of our own to take care of first?” For them, tikkun olam is a messianic dream, but we dare not even think about it until we’ve taken care of Jewish poverty, the safety of Israel, rampant assimilation of Jews into their host cultures, massive under-observance of mitzvot, insufficient commitment to Torah-study, and so much more.

At various points in my career I’ve had the opportunity to interact with student-led tzedakah committees in a number of schools. The formula was fairly simple – each month the students identified a cause, brought in speakers to encourage giving, and perhaps ran an activity. It was fascinating to watch the students debate the issue of giving to non-Jewish causes (cancer research, starvation in Africa, poverty in the South Bronx, etc.) in the different schools. In one school, a liberal Orthodox school with a population from a broad range of religious affiliations, the students struggled to keep a minimum of half of the causes specifically Jewish. The committee, including (religiously and politically) liberal and conservative students, was divided over whether Jews should get preferential treatment for tzedakah at all. In another school, however, the mere suggestion that one campaign a year should direct its funds toward a universal cause brought stares of bewilderment. “Why should we give our money to them?” they exclaimed.

On some level, the polarity of the two approaches should be expected. The recoil from ritual particularism which drove religiously liberal forms of Judaism in the 18th and 19th centuries naturally sought to fill the gap with a universalistic approach based on social needs. In turn, the adoption of that approach (and the tikkun olam label which was later attached to it) by the more liberal Jewish strands made it anathema to the Jewish traditionalists. One can only wonder what would have evolved had there not been an initial reaction to tradition and counter-reaction from traditionalists.

This issue of Jewish Educational Leadership seeks to address both of those polar positions as well as those who find themselves somewhere in the middle. It seeks to explore the question of, “How can I make tikkun olam Jewish?” That one question, however, raises very different challenges depending on where you stand. For those on the liberal side, it asks what the Jewish content of tikkun olam is. In what way does tikkun olam strengthen my Jewish identity? Does a Jewish version of tikkun olam look the same as a secular-liberal one, or of the tikkun olam of some other religious group? And here’s the paradox: If tikkun olam is Judaism itself yet I do not understand what makes it Jewish, am I fulfilling a Jewish imperative or not when I practice it?

For the traditionalists, the question challenges a re-examination of Jewish sources. Tikkun olam does appear in those sources, although not necessarily under that name. How can a particularist, conservative, inward-looking approach to Judaism embrace a piece of Jewish tradition that is distinctly universalistic and outward-looking?

Those interested in researching the origins of the tikkun olam, both in its original and contemporary understandings, should skip straight to Levi Cooper’s From the Classics article. It is rich in content and is a valuable resource for exploring and discussing its application. The Research section opens with Judy Sokolow’s research on the impact of service-learning programs in Modern Orthodox schools. Adam Berman and Shuki Taylor share the theory and practice of a relief program they run in South America under the auspices of Yeshiva University. Meesh Hammer-Kossoy shares ideas from the Social Justice track at the Pardes Institute in Jerusalem, and Shmuly Yanklowitz describes the rationale for founding Uri L’Tzedek, an Orthodox social-justice organization. Ira Bedzow rounds off this section with thought-provoking dream about building a Jewishly grounded, educationally viable eco-community.

In our Applications sections, Beth Cohen informs us of the work of Facing History and Ourselves, Lisa Exler shares a curriculum piece from the American Jewish World Service, Rachel Meytin explicates the mission and process of Panim, and Yonatan Neril shares a perspective on Jewish environmentalism. Examples of tikkun olam in schools are presented by Naomi Lev & Juli Kramer, and Shimshon Hamerman. We are pleased to reprint Barry Kornblau’s thoughtful ecological reflection, and gracing our Perspectives page is Yaakov Blidstein, winner of the prestigious Israel Prize.

Zvi Grumet

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