Dear Jew in the City-
I heard a lot about the concept of “tikkun olam” growing up as a secular Jew, but Orthodox people don’t really eeention it. What does it really mean and is it a Torah value?
Still Trying to Do Good
Dear Do Gooder-
It’s definitely a Torah value, but there’s a reason it hasn’t been bandied about in Orthodoxy as much as in some other streams of Judaism. For starters, to quote Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
Let’s start with translating the phrase. “Tikkun olam” literally means “repairing the world.” But what does it mean to repair the world? Historically, this has nothing to do with building houses for hurricane victims, bringing clean water to African villages or fighting global climate change. (That’s not to say that those aren’t worthy endeavors, just that it’s not to what “tikkun olam” traditionally refers!) Originally, tikkun olam had to do with divorce.
The phrase first appears in the Mishna, in the fourth chapter of tractate Gittin, which deals with divorce. In mishna 4:2, we are told that, originally, a man could send a bill of divorce to his wife in another city and, before she received it, convene a beis din (court) to cancel it. Rabban Gamliel prohibited this because of “tikkun haolam,” repairing the world. The mishna continues with another example: Originally, a man writing a bill of divorce could use one of his several names or one of his wife’s several names. This could throw things into confusion, so Rabban Gamliel instituted that the divorce document specify “The man so-and-so – and any other name by which he is known – and the woman so-and-so – and any other name by which she is known…,” again because of “tikkun haolam.”
The Bartinuro (a commentary on the Mishna) explains the meaning of “tikkun haolam” in each case. In the first scenario, the messenger (who is already en route) doesn’t know that the man has canceled the divorce. He delivers the document, the woman thinks she’s divorced when she isn’t, and gets remarried. That’s bad. In the second situation, there would be repercussions for the children of the woman’s second marriage. Their parentage would be called into question because people would think that their mother wasn’t divorced from Joe, not realizing that he also goes by Mike.
This chapter of the Mishna continues with many other examples of tikkun olam, most of which have to do with divorce or freeing slaves. (The Torah version of slavery hasn’t been practiced for a millennium or so and even when it was current, it was very different from what we think of when we use the term, but such is beyond our scope.) For example, mishna 4:5 discusses the case of a man who is half-slave and half-free. (For example, he was freed by one of his two masters.) Such a person can’t marry a freewoman (because he’s half-slave) and he can’t marry a slave-girl (because he’s half-free). We therefore compel his owner to free him because of “tikkun haolam.” (In this case, “building the world” literally as the reason to do this is so that he can marry and reproduce in order to populate the world.)
There are a few examples of tikkun olam in this chapter that do not involve divorce or freeing slaves. For example, in mishna 4:6, we are told not to pay exorbitant ransoms for captives or for religious articles because of tikkun haolam. There, the issue is that we don’t want to provide a financial inducement that would encourage hostiles to take captives of steal religious items in order to sell them back to us.
We can see how all of these are examples of “tikkun olam” in that they improve society – women can remarry, children’s parentage is blemish-free, slaves can marry and we don’t have marauders constantly scooping up people or Torah scrolls in order to make a quick buck. So how did the phrase come to refer to cleaning up after a flood or feeding shut-ins?
Grammatically, this is what we call metonymy. This is a figure of speech in which a thing is called by another thing’s name because of some attribute they share. For example, if I say “Frankenstein,” most people will think of Frankenstein’s monster rather than Dr. Victor Frankenstein. The monster is known by his creator’s name because of metonymy.
Similarly, I believe that tikkun olam has become closely identified with building houses and other public-works projects because “tikkun,” literally meaning to build or to repair, conjures images of such physical activities.
Now, as to your anecdotal experience that secular Jews have a greater emphasis on tikkun olam. That may be so, but it may also be a question of mere percentages. I’ll explain. Orthodoxy has a lot of ritual practice – Shabbos, davening, Torah-study, etc. We also have what we would traditionally call gemilus chasadim – acts of kindness – that people now popularly refer to as tikkun olam. Other streams of Judaism may have less emphasis on ritual – secular Jews may have no ritual practice at all! – with the result that tikkun olam activities may represent a greater percentage of their work. (Some organizations specialize to the extent that a particular activity may be all they do.) So Orthodox Jews also engage in gemilus chasadim (tikkun olam) as one out of a perhaps dozen Jewish things they do. For others, it may be one out of six Jewish things, or one of three Jewish things or the only Jewish thing! We all do it, it’s just a question of what else is on the docket. Orthodox Jews don’t value it less, it merely has to compete with more other interests.
So, even if the name is a misnomer, we all engage in acts of tikkun olam. (While that name has been popularized throughout all streams of Judaism, in certain more traditional circles it probably still suggests facilitating divorces and freeing slaves. In such circles, they would probably refer to building houses as “gemilus chasadim.”) It’s important for everyone to engage in “tikkun olam” but it’s also important for us to remember the One Who put mankind on earth and commanded us to work it and to protect it (Genesis 2:15). In Aleinu, we express our hope “l’takein olam b’malchus Sha-dai” – “to establish the world under the dominion of the Almighty.” We should build the world as much as possible but we should not focus on what we’re doing to the exclusion of why we’re doing it.
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz, JITC Educational Correspondent