Why does the phrase tikun olam, repairing the world, stir up such negative reactions from some of our most committed Jews?
Growing numbers of Jewish organizations, both mainstream and start-ups, are investing in crisis relief, international development, environmental protection and other forms of social action termed tikun olam by their supporters. The UJC General Assembly devoted a session to this trend, explaining that “a recent study of American Jews found that making the world a better place ranked as their personally most meaningful activity.”
At the same time, many others in the Jewish world are crying out that charity begins at home. What about Israel’s security situation, child poverty, Holocaust survivors, terror victims, youth-at-risk?
As the founding director of Sviva Israel, an educational environmental organization that works with all sectors of society, including populations that have not traditionally seen a need for environmental protection, I often have to answer the question, “Why tikun olam?” Our Jewish tradition teaches that we should not ignore what is happening to other people in the world and to the natural world around us.
According to Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, Abraham was given the name Avraham Ha’ivri (Abraham of the other side) for his distinctive stand apart from his pagan neighbors. Hirsch dubs Abraham “the world’s first protester.” Abraham’s commitment to social action and acts of kindness moved the world from paganism and human sacrifice to one of monotheism and hessed (kindness). With these ideals of social action and hessed brought together in the person of Judaism’s first role model, why is it that tikun olam causes such uneasiness?
Part of the confusion is that the term is often used incorrectly. Much of what is today touted as tikun olam would in previous generations have been more modestly described as hessed, as in the phrase, “olam hessed yibaneh” (the world will be built through kindness). The term tikun olam was coined in the fourth and fifth chapters of the Talmud’s Tractate Gittin to explain the reason the rabbis enacted several laws. Rabbinical tikun olam was judicial and legislative and did not involve hessed, but instead was the impetus for enacting legislation to ensure the proper functioning of society.
An example of this is the pruzbul – a mishnaic legal enactment which ensured that Jews would continue to loan money to one another prior to the shmita year (when loans are cancelled, according to the Torah). Another example of tikun olamis the law enacted in the time of the Mishna against ransoming captives for outrageous sums so as to discourage furthur kidnappings.
Perhaps a contemporary example of tikun olam is that of those members of the Israeli environmental movement and government who helped draft and enact the Clean Air Law. By contrast, the Solar Cooker Project initiated by Rachel Andres, which provides solar cookers to female Darfur refugees, is a prime example of global hessed. Both are positive Jewish actions, but different. If we start defining our social action and hessed according to their traditional definitions, we will help our youth gain a greater understanding of the Jewish principles behind these actions.
One of the loudest objections to tikun olam is that “charity begins at home,” which is based on the Jewish law of hakarov karov kodem (he who is closest comes first), better known as aniyei ircha kodmim (your city’s poor take priority). Certainly we need to care about our own poor, because if we abandon them who will care for them? But does this mean that we should not give to people outside our community? Certainly not, according to the Rama, who wrote in the 16th century Code of Jewish Law that we have an obligation to provide for the needs of the non-Jewish poor (Yoreh De’a 251:1).
If helping others beyond our community is stipulated so clearly by Jewish law, why is there often such a negative attitude from committed Jews to tikun olam?
For thousands of years, the Jewish people struggled to survive physically, spiritually and culturally as a nation. A key survival mechanism was an ingrained feeling that a Jew could almost always find a network of caring fellow Jews who would come to his aid. How could one expect our struggling community to look outward to help others? Perhaps many Jews still hold a justifiable, deep-seated resentment for those centuries of persecution.
Today, even though we face severe security threats, assimilation and growing Jewish poverty, we are paradoxically in the midst of a Jewish renaissance. Having never experienced first-hand the struggle for survival of previous generations, young Jews in Israel and around the world feel a Jewish duty to reach out and help others. In doing so, they are following Abraham’s example of saving the world. Our challenge is to inspire the next generation to do its part to save the world while remaining distinct from the world at large.
Carmi Wisemon is founding director of Sviva Israel. He holds smicha from the Chief Rabbinate of Israel and an MSW. He is also the editor of The Environment in Jewish Thought and Law journal.