Tikkun olam and tikkun Yisrael: Notion that Jewish people should help each other

The Zionist movement was built on an ideology of tikkun Yisrael, Jews looking out for their fellow Jews.

Tikkun Olam [Illustrative] (photo credit: PIXABAY)
Tikkun Olam [Illustrative]
(photo credit: PIXABAY)

Jews have never been selfish people. Throughout history, Jews have contributed not only to their own advancement but to the progress of the entire world. There are Jewish scholars who teach that embedded in the spiritual DNA of the Jewish people is a gene that pushes each Jew to help their neighbor and the world at large.

The popular term among the Jewish people for this need to help others is “tikkun olam” (fixing the world). The term and its importance have become so popular and therefore even lost its uniqueness that one American presidential adviser told me that he strongly suggested the president stop using the term.

As popular as the term tikkun olam is, it isn’t a new phrase. It was coined thousands of years ago and probably first used in the Aleinu prayer. The Aleinu prayer reads, “May we speedily see Your mighty splendor, to cause detestable idolatry to be removed from the land and the false gods will be utterly ‘cut off,’ to takain olam (fix the world) under the Almighty’s kingdom.”

Early scholars used the term, as well. Maimonides wrote in his commentary to a Mishna in Pirkei Avot, “Through wisdom, represented by Torah, and the elevation of character, which is represented by acts of kindness and observing the Torah’s commandments, and represented by the Temple offerings, one continuously brings tikkun olam and the ordering of reality.”

A more cynical person might look to other rabbinic literature to show how the phrase tikkun olam was used – and not in the feel-good way it’s employed today. The standard of evidence required for a Jewish court of justice to carry out an execution was impossibly high. The Rabbis wrote that a death penalty conviction was so rare in a Jewish court that any court that executed a criminal even once in seventy years was considered a murderous court.

 BIRTHRIGHT PARTICIPANTS visit the Western Wall. ‘When Judaism isn’t important, the Jewish state has no significance.’ (credit: FLASH90) BIRTHRIGHT PARTICIPANTS visit the Western Wall. ‘When Judaism isn’t important, the Jewish state has no significance.’ (credit: FLASH90)

This impossibly high standard of evidence allowed for murderers to walk free – something dangerous for society. The Jewish king was given the authority to extrajudicially execute criminals the court didn’t convict. The Rabbis called the royal judicial insurance tikkun olam.

Taking on a life of its own

Today, tikkun olam has taken on a life of its own. In an essay titled “Why Advocacy is Central to Reform Judaism,” Rabbi Marla Feldman quoted Rabbi Eric Yoffie’s February 1998 speech to the UAHC Executive Committee, “Reform Jews are committed to social justice. Even as Reform Jews embrace ritual, prayer and ceremony more than ever, we continue to see social justice as the jewel in the Reform Jewish crown. Like the prophets, we never forget that God is concerned about the everyday and that the blights of society take precedence over the mysteries of heaven. A Reform synagogue that does not alleviate the anguish of the suffering is a contradiction in terms.”

Rabbi Feldman wrote, “It has become axiomatic that to be a Jew is to care about the world around us. To be a Reform Jew is to hear the voice of the prophets in our head; to be engaged in the ongoing work of tikkun olam; to strive to improve the world in which we live.”

SOCIAL JUSTICE is a Jewish value and improving the world is to be emulated but critics question whether tikkun olam is central to traditional Judaism. In a 2018 column defending tikkun olam, Sndrés Spokoiny described the critics of tikkun olam, “The most strident critics and the most politically motivated say that tikkun olam is not a Jewish idea at all but merely liberal politics masquerading as Jewish values. In a slightly conspiratorial tone, they surmise that the communal agenda has been hijacked and make it subservient to progressive goals.

For them, the tikkun olam movement makes a marginal idea of Judaism into its core value. Jews, they imply, have responsibility for themselves, not for the world. True Judaism is deeply conservative instead of liberal and Jews should abandon their cosmopolitanism to go back to their tribalist roots. These critics accuse the Left of taking an obscure mystical term, changing its meaning and crowning it as the ruling principle of Jewish experience.”

Traditional Judaism includes an idea similar to tikkun olam: tikkun Yisrael. This is the notion that the Jewish people are charged to help each other and improve the Jewish nation. The idea of chessed (showing kindness) is tikkun Yisrael. Maimonides wrote that chessed is directed toward fellow Jews, “It is a positive commandment of Rabbinic origin to visit the sick, comfort mourners, prepare for a funeral, prepare a bride, accompany guests, attend to all the needs of a burial, carry a corpse on one’s shoulders, walk before the bier, mourn, dig a grave, bury the dead, bring joy to a bride and groom and help them in all their needs. These are deeds of kindness that one carries out with a person that have no limit. Although all these mitzvot are of Rabbinic origin, they are included in the commandment “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

That charge implies that whatever you would like other people to do for you, you should do for your friend in Torah and mitzvot.” Acts of chessed aren’t directed toward the global community but to fellow Jews and are acts of tikkun Yisrael.

The Talmudic principle of “Kol yisrael arevim zeh bazeh,” meaning all of Israel is responsible for each other, is another expression of tikkun Yisrael. The biblical prohibition of not standing by while your brother’s blood is being shed is yet another traditional Jewish principle of tikkun Yisrael. This prohibition does not allow a Jew to stand idle and not save their fellow Jew from physical, financial or emotional harm.

Tikkun Yisrael is an aspect of Judaism that focuses on improving the Jewish people, while tikkun olam focuses on helping the entire world. In a discussion on a podcast I used to host, Rabbi Leor Sinai, a master Zionist educator, juxtaposed tikkun olam and tikkun Yisrael. He advocated putting tikkun Yisrael before tikkun olam. Rabbi Leor’s point makes sense and I’ve been thinking about it ever since our discussion. Tikkun olam is an important aspect of Judaism but it hasn’t traditionally been central to Judaism’s focus.

The Zionist movement was built on ensuring a safe and secure place of refuge for the Jewish people. The Zionist movement was built on an ideology of tikkun Yisrael, Jews looking out for their fellow Jews.

The Jewish people have sufficient resources to help the global community while advancing the Jewish cause and the two aren’t mutually exclusive. It is problematic for the Jewish community to think that to achieve one form of tikkun it must come at the expense of the other. The Jewish people are able and should advance their own people and assist the world, as well.

The writer is a senior educator at numerous educational institutions. He is the author of three books and teaches Torah, Zionism and Israeli studies around the world.