Tikkun Olam can be translated as World Repair or Fixing the World and is a popular title utilized by progressive forces across denominational lines to root their social, economic, political, animal welfare and environmental work in the rabbinic traditions’ language and spirit. The function of this article will be to explore how Tikkun Olam was understood and employed in the Rabbinic tradition and to examine the relationship between this classical expression of Tikkun Olam and contemporary Tikkun Olam.
Tikkun Olam in Rabbinic Judaism refers to a broad array of rabbinic enactments (Takanot) both social and economic, embodying concern with the welfare of Jewish society. We cannot do justice in a brief article such as this to the full gamut of these enactments or all their details but we can get a sense of what their intent and scope was.
One of the issues that the classical rabbis had to address was that of ransoming captives taken by Gentiles. Should the Jewish community pay any demand that the captors set or should they only pay what would be considered a reasonable sum based on the labor market value of the individual? If they agreed to pay any sum that the captors demanded they could indirectly be encouraging more kidnapping, the consequent endangerment of individual lives and as well the impoverishment of Jewish society. If they bucked the demands of the captors they could be endangering the life of the kidnapped individual. Against the backdrop of this moral challenge the Mishna records the ruling, ”One may not ransom captives for more than their [Labor Market] value for the benefit of society -Mipnei Tikkun Ha’olam. ” (Talmud Bavli Gittin 45a). In concert with this Mishna the Shulchan Arukh (Code of Jewish Law) rules, ”We do not redeem captives for more than their [labor market] worth for the benefit of society -Mipnei Tikkun Ha’Olam- in order that enemies not exert themselves to conduct kidnappings…”(Yoreh Deah Laws of Charity 252:4)
Another challenge the classical rabbis needed to address was encouraging the wealthy to assist their impoverished fellow Jews through the granting of interest free loans. The Torah obligates a Jew or Jewess to grant an interest free loan to a fellow Jew or Jewess in need. (Deuteronomy 15:7-12) The Torah also obligates the cancellation of all such debts when the Sabbatical year arrives. (Deuteronomy 15:1-6) In reality, there came a time where the net effect on a collective level of these dual commandments was to discourage wealthy Jews from loaning to poor Jews as the Sabbatical year approached lest they could not recoup their loans because of the arrival of the Sabbatical year. In this context the Mishna records,” Hillel enacted the Pruzbul for the benefit of society-Mi’pnei Tikkun Ha’olam.” (Mishna Gittin 4:3) Pruzbul, a Greek abbreviation for the word prosboliboti which means: a court appointed to prevent harm and impoverishment (He’Arukh as quoted in Kehati commentary on Mishna Gittin 4:3) was a mechanism where the person who extended the loan was able to collect the loan even once the Sabbatical year had arrived. This because they technically handed this loan over to the Rabbinic Court who would collect it as the prohibition of collecting outstanding loans from the onset of the Sabbatical year technically fell upon the individual not the rabbinic court. (Melechet Shlomo Commentary on Mishna Gittin 4:3) Regardless of one’s opinion of rabbinic hermeneutics and casuistry and how that intersects with Biblical values the mechanism was a part of the economic safety net of rabbinic era Jewish society and is a primary of example of classical Tikkun Olam.
There are other several other examples of Tikkun Olam in the Mishna tractate Gittin which concern themselves with issues of: recapturing captives (4:6), purchasing stolen Torah Scrolls, Teffilin and Mezuzot (4:6), Family Law (4:2, 4:3, 4:7) and Purchases of land from Gentiles (4:9) among other issues (5:3).
The last example from the Mishna we shall explore concerns slavery. The Torah, as many are aware, had a system of slavery applying to both Jews and Gentiles — the details of which are beyond the scope of this article. (see Maimonides, Mishne Torah Laws of Slavery) There was, if you will excuse the term, a hybrid type of slave: one that was half free and half slave. The initial concern of the School of Hillel is resolving the issue of how this hybrid slave apportions his labor time with their view being that he works one day for his master and one day for himself. The School of Shammai was not satisfied with the mere concern with the Hybrid Slave’s labor and instead concerns itself with the hybrid slave’s marital predicament. By way of background a free person could not marry a slave nor could a slave marry a free person. The implications of this for our hybrid slave were: as he was half free he could not marry a fellow slave woman and as he was half slave he could not marry a free woman. The only option it would seem would be to let him remain without the ability to marry. The School of Shammai resolves that for the benefit of society –Mipnie Tikkun Ha’olam the master is obligated to free him entirely (with the former slave still owing half his value to his former master) for as scripture states, ”Not for void did [God] create [the world] rather to inhabit it.” (Isaiah 45:18) The School of Hillel, originally intent on keeping the slave in its no-marriage-land’s status reversed its opinion and ruled in accordance with the School of Shammai. (Mishna Gittin 4:5)
Let us take a considered look at these examples of classical Tikkun Olam and see what we can extract from them relevant to our own interests in this work of world repair. In the first example of fiscal limitations on the ransoming of captives, it is teaching us that the value of the community and preventing future harm to other individuals within it takes precedence over the value of any one individual. In the example of extending loans to the poor we see that the rabbis were willing to accept the dysfunctional reality of the Torah’s intended system in their present state and innovate a mechanism that would ultimately serve one of its core aims- helping the poor. In our last example of slavery we see that the rabbis were willing and able to see the humanity of a slave and to see through to a deeper Divine intention beyond that of the mere formality and technical concerns of labor law. I believe when you abstract the principle from each of these specific cases we have energizing ideas that link classical Tikkun Olam with contemporary Tikkun Olam.
These cases, and the principles latent within them, point us in the direction of concern with the collective good, not the enshrinement of individual convenience; the favoring of the innovation of the individual versus the stagnation of the establishment and the supremacy of the Divine intent over the Gordian technicalities of the Divine Law.
One important distinction between classical Tikkun Olam and our present direction of it is that classical Tikkun Olam was essentially concerned with the insular Jewish society. There are no rabbinic enactments of Tikkun Olam for Gentiles as it should come as no surprise that they were not under the religious jurisdiction of the classical rabbis. Another distinction worth noting is that classical Tikkun Olam was top down; that is to say, an educated, all-male rabbinic elite made rules for the masses of the Jewish people to follow. In our Tikkun Olam, it is more grassroots and egalitarian, individual men and women perceive inequities and suffering and seek to right wrongs; often their efforts blossoming into organizations and entire movements.
Let us address these distinctions straightforwardly: contemporary Tikkun Olam is not classical Tikkun Olam. The Jewish world today is for the most part integrated into the modern world and as such is more aware and concerned than ever with the plight and sufferings of other people (Yes Bubie and Zieda, other people suffer too!). The world that the rabbis sought to repair i.e. Jewish society while still existent is not what constitutes the sole world for most Jews. When a Jewish woman or man can turn on a television or watch a documentary movie and see what is happening in Africa this is part of their world, especially when they can get on an airplane and be there within two days. As well, while an educated rabbinic elite still exists, we live in a world where their power is largely persuasive not coercive. Today there is a certain truth to the notion specifically as it applies to aspects of Tikkun Olam that the people lead and the rabbis follow and this can at times be quite healthy and productive as rabbis are not the sum of all knowledge, wisdom and virtue even in understanding how to apply and evolve the Torah.
It is important to note that while there will always be reactionary and narrow views that seek to limit the definitions, directions and applications of a category such as Tikkun Olam to its classical expression or seeks to focus Jewish attention in and on itself, this by no means should be associated with Orthodoxy as a whole while it is certainly fair to associate it with Orthodoxy in part, admittedly, the larger part. Nevertheless, I think its important for Boulder’s Jewry to understand some of the Orthodox expressions of contemporary Tikkun Olam lest they are abrasively led to believe that Orthodoxy as a whole somehow wants to turn back the clock or neglect our obligations as privileged world citizens.
First, I point the reader to Uri l’Tzedek an Orthodox Social Justice Organization (www.utzedek.org) which was founded and is directed by graduates of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, a liberal and progressive Orthodox rabbinical seminary in New York. Its mission reads, ”Uri L’Tzedek is an Orthodox Social Justice organization guided by Torah values and dedicated to combating suffering and oppression. Through community-based education, leadership development and action, Uri L’Tzedek creates discourse, inspires leaders, and empowers the Jewish community towards creating a more just world.”
Second, I point the reader to the Green Restaurant Association (www.dinegreen.com) founded and led by an Orthodox Jew, Michael Oshman. The GRA’s mission reads, ”To create an Environmentally Sustainable Restaurant Industry.”
Third, I point to Rabbi Aaron Levy, another graduate of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah who is a board member of Rabbis for Human Rights whose mission statement reads, ”Founded in 2002, Rabbis for Human Rights- North America is an organization of rabbis from all streams of Judaism that acts on the Jewish imperative to respect and protect the human rights of all people. Grounded in Torah and our Jewish historical experience and guided by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we advocate for Human Rights in Israel and North America…”
These are but a small reflection of Orthodox Jewry’s interest in contemporary Tikkun Olam which has been a developing trend since the 1960’s, when Orthodox Jews and rabbis were involved in the Civil Rights Movement as today they have been involved in Darfur and many other just causes. Finally, I encourage people to read the book “Tikkun Olam: Social Responsibility in Jewish Thought & Law” published as part of The Orthodox Forum Series, part of Yeshiva University, the flagship institution of Modern Orthodoxy in America. Opinions and the knowledge base of individual rabbis will always vary; this work reflects what some of Orthodoxy’s most brilliant and learned minds have to say on the subject.
Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, one of the great Torah visionaries of the 20th century, once said, ”The old will become new and the new will become holy.” Tikkun Olam Boulder style is certainly new in comparison to classical Tikkun Olam. It’s worth exploring in what ways it already is holy and in what ways can more holiness suffuse and be fused to its already brilliant light.
Rabbi Zachary Goldman is the founder and rabbinic administrator of the EarthKosher Kosher Certification Agency and is the educational director of the Institute for Halakhic Conversion. The author of numerous books, essays and articles on a diverse range of Torah he lives with his wife and children in Boulder, Colorado.