Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Meaning, Origins, and Evolution of the Jewish Concept of Tikkun Olam - Repairing the World

Tikkun Olam- Repairing the world

The Meaning and History of Tikkun

Tikkun is derived from the Hebrew verb "letaken", meaning to fix or repair. This verb is used all the time in everyday life and has no special meaning. The well-known spiritual meaning of this verb is inferred from two phrases: "Tikkun Olam", which literally means "repairing the world", and "Tikkun Midot", meaning "repairing the character". Both phrases are many times shortened and only the word Tikkun is used, the spiritual meaning being understood from the context. In the case of this post and generally in my discourse on this blog, I will be using the word Tikkun in the meaning of Tikkun Olam, or it's English equivalent "Repair" with a capital R.
But what does it mean, "to Repair the world"? Surprisingly, although this is a very important concept in Jewish belief, the meaning of the phrase remains obscure or at least disputed.The phrase "Tikkun Olam" itself is not mentioned in the Bible, and it appears for the first time in the Mishna, the first and most authoritative interpretation of Jewish law, codified circa 200 A.D. It is used there in a context meaning that we are obligated to do things not because the Jewish law so stipulates, but in order to Repair the world. Unfortunately the Hebrew sages never explained what, exactly, the expression means.

The phrase appears in the Aleynu prayer and was apparently first incorporated in the Rosh Hashanah (New Years) prayer book, and afterwards, perhaps during the Middle Ages or earlier, became a part of the thrice-daily prayer rituals every Jew is obligated to perform. This means that the Jewish people have been praying for world Repair for at least a thousand years. But for many years this was understood by the Sages to mean "Repairing the Character”, or perfecting the moral character of the Jewish believer. Many tracts were written about "Tikkun Midot" attempting to explain the working of the human soul and how to perfect yourself, one of the earliest being the Eight Chapters by Maimonides (12th century A.D.), and the most famous of these being Mesillat Yesharim, since it’s publication in the 18th century.

Much debated among the various writers on these matters was the following question: Can the world be Repaired by following Jewish law and only Jewish law, or does it entail something else, in addition to observing the law (never was it proposed that Tikkun may be achieved by not observing the law). In any case it is clear that for a very long time Repair was meant to be a very personal project. This first changed slightly in the 16th century when Rabbi Isaac Luria created his influential interpretation of Jewish Mysticism (Kabala), wherein he explained that the world, represented by a pottery vessel was, upon creation, shattered and the divine light of God scattered throughout the world, in which good is mixed with evil. According to Lurianic teachings, it is man’s duty to restore the world to its original whole, perfect condition. This can be done by observing the law and other more esoteric practices. Although it is clear that Tikkun here is still a personal project it is also the first time that World Repair is understood to be obligatory for every Jew, and perhaps the main reason for his existence at all: everything a Jew does is connected to World Repair and is supposed to further it.

Throughout this centuries-old discussion, it still was not made clear how exactly the world is supposed to be like after it is repaired, other than the well known idea, articulated in the afore-mentioned Aleynu prayer, that all the world will recognize the one true god, bow down to Him and accept His rule.This changed completely in the twentieth century, in America. Today, according to this article in Forward magazine, the phrase has become "an ideology of Judaism as a form of redemptive social activism", due perhaps to the efforts of Michael Lerner, founder of the Liberal-Progressive Tikkun magazine. In any case, in everyday usage in the States it has been stripped of it’s original religious meanings. The personal striving to perfection in the eyes of God has evolved into a personal striving to change the world we live in through various kinds of political activities. Some call this new version Tikkun Olam Paganism”.

Currently for secular Jews in Israel and for many Jews in the United States, Tikkun Olam is understood as the Liberal-Progressive version that equates redemption of mankind with the alleviation of all material needs and inequities. In fact, as a well-educated secular Jew (who as a child never willingly set foot in a synagogue, God forbid), I had never heard the phrase Tikkun Olam until I encountered Manhigut Yehudit, a Right-wing national-religious movement in Israel that uses the phrase as it’s motto “To perfect the world in the kingdom of the Almighty”, although, I must add, the movement is quite vague when it comes to the details of that perfect world.

The Common Thread Shared by All Repair-Workers

All in all, it should be clear by now that the Jewish world throughout the ages is unanimous in asserting that the world we live in is a world in need of Repair. The disagreements are in two areas:
(1) What is a perfect world, what does it look like, and what is the character of  life in this world? And (2) How do we get there? How can this be achieved?
But even though the answers to these questions can vary wildly, it is important to point out that there are a few underlying assumptions common to all those who are striving to Repair the world.

Anyone who is striving to change the world we live in has some kind of vision of the world that differs from the one that we currently occupy. In other words, these are people that are prepared to leave their known reality, in order to reach an abstract reality that exists only in their imagination. I think that is a leap of faith, and not a very easy one either. The ability to believe in something that does not exist in the material world, in something that cannot be touched or handled is a major, though not exclusive, component of faith. This means that a thread of faith or belief is common to all World Repairers, no matter how far apart their politics may be, although I do believe that there is a significant difference between belief in a Marxist utopia, and a belief in God, at least from a psychological standpoint (which I'll explain in future posts).

Fate or Freedom, Hope or Despair?
If you believe that the world can be changed or Repaired, than I think it is obvious that you assign some degree of freedom to the human agent. After all, if there is no freedom of choice then we have no control over our lives and over the world we live in and therefore it cannot be changed by our own hands. Being free means that we are not victims of predestination, that we can change ourselves, that a drug addict can be cured, that being a battered wife is not a sentence for life or death, that we can always hope for the better.

Freedom of choice, even in a limited degree, implies a certain degree of responsibility for the choices that we do and do not make. Obviously, different philosophies of Repair assign responsibility for our current state of affairs differently. Some believe that responsibility resides for the most part in the hands of the State or society at large. Others think that responsibility lies for the most part on the individual, the former being typical of Liberal-Progressives, and the latter emblematic of Conservatives and Libertarians. But in either case, to some degree, the individual is deemed responsible for the world he or she lives in.

Ignorance of Psychological Knowledge
It seems to me that all the philosophies discussing Tikkun Olam are and always have been philosophies. In other words they are abstract arguments that make no attempt to ground themselves in reality. Some Sages assumed that man is evil; others assumed that he is inherently good, or at least can improve himself. Every participant in this age-old argument has never made an attempt to actually prove these assumptions. Liberal-Progressives thinkers usually assume that material goods are the source of all pain; their Conservative counterparts assume that ideas rule the world. Both sides refuse to make use of all the incredible wealth of scientific knowledge that we have accumulated in the West in the past one hundred years concerning human behavior, a branch of science otherwise known as Psychology.

In summary, as surprising as this may be to some, any Repair work implies a degree of belief and faith, an outlook that includes individual freedom, and individual responsibility, at least to some degree. In this respect all Jewish efforts to Repair the world are, regardless of  political outlook, inherently similar.

"Tikkun" - What Does it Mean to Me?

I've been obsessed with the idea of making a better world since high school, which was many years before I even heard of the concept of Tikkun Olam. At the time I dreamed of becoming prime minister of the country, who would right all wrongs and make everything all right, because like every other adolescent I knew better than anyone else what's wrong with the world and how to fix it.
Fortunately for my country I got drafted into the IDF where, after the initial shock, I had the opportunity to focus a bit on my own personal development and where I was first introduced to many of the ideas that later came to dominate my life such as Jungian psychology and the development of consciousness through different forms of Western and Eastern yoga (yes, this happened in my Army service, and long before such ideas became mainstream). After this I joined a commune (kibbutz) that aimed to create the perfect community (really, why strive for less?), which would accommodate individualism and collective life without negating either one, or at least that's how I understood it. However, this may have been only my personal interpretation and in any case putting theory into practice turned out to be too difficult; the commune was a disaster, or at least no better than any other kibbutz, and who needs another one? I certainly didn't.

How to Repair the world today

Finally, I have become convinced that there are two ways to Repair the world: Either change society or change the individual. Reformers and dreamers have been trying to change society at least since Abraham left Haran to settle in Canan and establish a new nation there (Genesis12). We have experimented with various political systems, economic systems, cultures, laws, rules and regulations for millennia. Often, the way to the perfect society was paved with the lives of millions - think Hitler or Stalin. I do believe that the world has indeed become a better place, but we are still very far from living in a world that has been mended, and it increasingly appears that many of our culture's best achievements - democracy and a free society - are being severely curtailed and perhaps will be reversed. Certainly there are enough people working to destroy our society, from within and from without. In other words, though we have created a better society, we have not yet created a better sustainable society, and we certainly have not created a Repaired society, at least not as long as people are dying of hunger in a world of unprecedented abundance (to mention just one terrible, unresolved issue.)

In my view, the problem with reforming society and its trappings is that people stay the same. A perfect society, with the perfect political system and perfect laws will still be manned by imperfect, un-Repaired individuals and will therefore, inevitably, fail. The building blocks of society are individuals. Thus any sustainable change must be a change in the psychological makeup of the individual and it must be replicable; we must be able to transfer it to the next generation, or else it will be lost. Through years of experience I have also come to the conclusion that individuals cannot be changed from the outside or against their will (my apologies to those who suffered from my preaching...). In other words, Mahatma Gandhi was correct: If you want to change the world - change yourself. The problem with this approach is that it is extremely difficult. It is much easier to blame and hate other people for ruining the world and delaying the arrival of the Messiah than to Repair yourself, and indeed most people choose to do the former.

The longing for Tikkun Olam, for a better world, still burns within me and constitutes an important part of my personal life, where I constantly strive to become a better, more Repaired person. It is also, obviously, an inherent part of my writing as demonstrated in the Jewminator and also in Captain Tofu and the Green Team (to be published soon), which both include, among others, themes of redemption and personal change. 

In the larger context of our society, I believe that we have today the tools necessary to Repair ourselves, and I believe that we can create a better world to live in, here and now, by changing ourselves. In the next few weeks, time permitting, I'll dedicate a few posts to the psychological theory and practices that you can implement in order to effect change in your life and make the world a better place to live in, for yourself and your environment. 
In fact, I have already begun to do this in a previous post How to Defeat Writer's Block With Transactional Analysis, which describes one useful theory and then details in practical terms, through specific exercises, how it can be implemented to solve a specific problem: writer's(artist's) block. Other problems that I will discuss in the same manner will include: The problem of evil in this world; why people have trouble finding the perfect wife/husband and what to do about it; why people fight with their spouses, how to stop and why they should stop; why people hate and what to do about it; what the West can and should learn from the East; what a Repaired world would really look like, and more. I hope you'll join me for the ride - just follow me on social media or subscribe to the blog feed/email to make sure you don't miss anything.

Photo: From Temple Beth Zion 

About the author
Joab Cohen is the author of the psychological thriller The Jewminator and
the vegan action hero novel Captain Tofu and the Green Team (coming soon!)

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  1. It's a shame that Islam, which borrows so heavily from the Jewish faith, seems to have missed this concept of Repair. Too many Muslims seem more intent on breaking the world than fixing it.

    1. Thanks for reading, Nic. I'm not sure yet what the problem with Islam really is. There are different versions of Islam, some of them very peaceful, and I know a lot of Muslims - clients and friends - who are wonderful people. So, I'm still figuring it out.


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