Breaking the Torah for Torah’s sake

‘True tikkun olam doesn’t just shout empty slogans coated in ideology, it looks at the world around us deeply and inquisitively.’

Earth (photo credit: NASA)
(photo credit: NASA)
We’ve been hearing the phrase tikkun olam (repairing/healing the world) more and more lately – so much that many have grown tired of it, calling it a superficial concept that takes us away from meaningful discussion of the true essence of Torah and Jewish identity in our day.
In honor of Simhat Torah, for the sake of Torah, I would like to challenge the Torah itself, and return to this concept of tikkun olam, which for us, at BINA: The Israeli Movement for Jewish Social Change, signifies the most internal point of our understanding of our Judaism, a Judaism that demands justice and pursues peace through the daily work of tikkun – repair.
Tractate Gittin in the Mishna provides us with a series of takanot (rabbinic legislation) created by the rabbis for tikkun olam. Among them we find the legislation of Hillel the Elder who “established the prozbol [procedure to prevent remission of debts] for the sake of tikkun olam” in order to address a problem caused by the shmita (sabbatical year) commandment.
Shmita is one of the most important commandments in the Torah – so important that it appears in the Book of Leviticus immediately after the phrase: “God spoke to Moses at Mount Sinai, saying...” Rashi asks, “What does shmita have to do with Mount Sinai?” What does this very agricultural/economic commandment have to do with the desert mountain of revelation, which is perhaps the farthest point from agriculture and economy? I believe that the answer is to be found in the immense difficulty in the implementation of shmita.
Shmita poses a great demand on the farmer, who has invested all his wealth and strength, who has made it through the winter storms and the summer droughts, until he finally manages to coax life from the far-from-accommodating soil that we are blessed with here in the Land of Israel. And then the Torah comes and tells him: Stop! You are restricted from reaping the full potential benefit of your land; you are required to share it with all those who do not have: “your male slave, your female slave, your employee and the inhabitants who reside with you.”
All devotees of the free market should be appalled at this gross intervention of the legislator in the economy.
Yet the Torah stands its ground and establishes the eternal struggle for the diminishing of socioeconomic gaps as a priority over private ownership and economic liberty.
Because this feat is so challenging and so revolutionary, the Torah reminds us of the direct connection to Mount Sinai. This is not a temporary injunction of a flesh-and-blood king. You cannot pass a temporary amendment or request an exemption. This is an eternal law valid for all times. The Torah here brings forth the full weight of its authority in order to bring about a more just society.
SIMILARLY, IN the Book of Deuteronomy, another source for the law of shmita, the Torah promises that whoever follows the law and remits the debts that are due to him will be given divine blessing over all his labors. Again a gross intervention – a capitalist has legally lent money to a person who has understood all the terms of the loan, yet the Torah intervenes and says: “Stop! Remit! Cancel the debt!” Why? Because the nature of economics is such that the rich become richer and the poor become poorer as they amass more and more debt. This is an eternal vicious cycle of widening economic gaps that only gross external intervention can stop.
So what does shmita have to do with tikkun olam? Hillel the Elder observed that people were avoiding giving loans when they knew the shmita year was coming. Hillel understood that a market without loans is a cruel market in which whoever starts with nothing will never be able to stand on his or her own two feet.
Thus Hillel suggested a method that circumvented the shmita: the prozbol procedure, by which the loan is transferred from the individual lender to the beit din (court), which is not obligated by the law of shmita. This effectively renders irrelevant the sabbatical remission of debts.
One can view Hillel’s act as opportunistic weaseling around a clear law through empty-hearted legalistic mumbo-jumbo. But upon closer inspection of Hillel’s deed, we come to a fuller and deeper understanding of the very concept of tikkun olam. Hillel looked at the original intent of the law, which is undoubtedly the reduction of socioeconomic disparity, and he understood that in practice the law was accomplishing precisely the opposite of what it was intended to do. Thus he broke with the Torah for the sake of the Torah, annulling the sabbatical remission of debts in order to create a more just society.
Tikkun olam is the opposite of superficiality.
True tikkun olam doesn’t just shout empty slogans coated in ideology, it looks at the world around us deeply and inquisitively, asking if we are truly achieving what we are intended to achieve, and suggests practical solutions to make our world better and more just.
This is the Torah of Hillel the Elder. This is the Torah that we celebrate on Simhat Torah. 
The writer is the deputy director of BINA: The Israeli Movement for Jewish Social Change, which co-operates with the award-winning MASA Tikkun Olam program in Tel Aviv-Jaffa.