The only thing worse than no education is a little education. Folks who couldn't name a single volume of Talmud to save their lives but who know the term tikun olam often think they're qualified to discuss what it means. As Gary Rosenblatt notes in The Jewish Week:
Did you hear the one about the fellow on his first UJA mission to Israel who asked his guide, “How do you say tikkun olam in Hebrew?”Truth is, my vote for the most overused, least understood — even hijacked — phrase in Jewish life these days is tikkun olam, or, repair of the world.Now don’t get me wrong. I don’t want to sound like the Scrooge of American Jewry, throwing cold water on the concept of every Jew’s obligation to do his or her part, however small, to improve society through acts of kindness, ranging from personal charity to political activism.But the fact remains that while tikkun olam has come to symbolize the universal nature of mitzvot and been adopted as the mantra of advocates of social justice, it is really about the particular nature of fulfilling a Jewish ideal, namely, recognizing the centrality of God in our lives.This dissonance surrounding the two Hebrew words is not due to an oversight or misunderstanding, I’ve come to believe, but a telling example of how some liberal American Jews have expropriated the Judaic phrases and teachings they choose to base their values on, ignoring the inherent religious message in favor of a more universal one.Many of us would like to believe that our Western ideals are consistent with Jewish tradition, when that is not always the case. After all, modernity is about individual rights and freedoms while Judaism is about obligations — collective and personal. So in convincing ourselves that our Jewish morals reinforce rather than challenge our views on issues from abortion to gay rights, we tend to sometimes disregard or distort the texts.
This is something I have been saying for a long time. No Reformer or Conservative wakes up in the morning and thinks to himself: "I want to be a bad Jew today". Instead, he honestly believes that secular liberal values are Jewish values and therefore by being a good secular liberal he fulfills his Jewish imperative.
Tikun olam appears in two contexts in authentic Jewish texts. One is in the context of the Oleinu prayer where we talk about recifying the world in the image of the Kingdom of the Allmighty. The other is in the gemara where it far more simply refers to public works that keep society running like filling potholes and making sure cisterns are full at certain times of year for travellers making the pilgrimage to Yerushalayim. It never appears in an environmental or social context, despite having been co-opted by the Reformers and Conservatives in recent decades for that exact purpose.
But Rosenblatt notes that this is exactly the point. Although in the context of the Oleinu it appears there is a religious value to tikun olam, the non-religious have actually divorced it from that. We are to repair the world... because it's a great idea, not because it's a Divine imperative or for some greater religious truth:
Then there is the central message and most memorable phrase of the Passover story: “Let my people go.”We all know that Moses says this to Pharaoh. But what about the rest of the sentence? In Exodus 7:16, God instructs Moses: “And say to him [Pharaoh], ‘The Lord, the God of the Hebrews, sent to me you to say, ‘Let my people go that they may worship Me in the wilderness.’”The concept of freedom, then, in the Exodus story and subsequently in the Passover seder ritual, is not about man being freed from slavery so that he can pursue his own interests. Rather, it is so he can devote himself to God.Throughout history we have seen Jews drawn to universalist groups and causes, like Bundism and Communism, searching for ways to perfect the world without God. On the other hand, we see Jews who seem to focus only on religious observance and care little about the community outside of their synagogue or neighborhood, sometimes expressing contempt for non-Jews and little affection for non-observant fellow Jews.In truth, Judaism requires the observance of the universal and the particular, the mitzvot between man and his fellow man as well as between man and Heaven. Social justice is wonderful, and political activism is admirable, but they must be grounded in tradition to be authentically Jewish. As Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, the author and ethicist, has noted, “liberals and conservatives should ask themselves if there is anything in Judaism that challenges their political beliefs. If the answer is no,” he says, “then their real religion is liberalism or conservatism, not Judaism.”The beauty of our faith is in the recognition that to fulfill the mitzvah of repairing the world, both parts of the text are required. We must look outward and inward, as Hillel instructed, “If I am not for myself who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I?”
This is an important message for those who think they know what certain Jewish phrases mean. All mitzvos, even those between man and his fellow man, involve God in the process. Performance of those commandments without being aware of His presence or acknowledging that it is really to fulfill His will that we are doing this, irregardless of our own personal desires, removes any true spiritual significance from the mitzvah.