Andrew Silow-Carroll on Tikun Olam and Peoplehood

by Andrew Silow-Carroll

There are few things more satisfying than finding out that something you’ve been saying for years is actually true.

In a number of columns, I’ve written about the rise of tikun olam as a Jewish way of saying “social justice.” Although the concept of “repairing the world” has been in the Jewish vocabulary for centuries – especially among kabalists – I’ve confidently asserted that hardly anyone talked about it before the early 1980s.

Google’s nifty “Ngrams” tool confirms this. Plug in any word and Google will chart how often it appears among the millions of books in Google’s on-line database. I entered “tikkun” (the most common spelling). Google generated a hockey-stick shaped graph that shows few if any examples of the term before 1980, then a huge spike that plateaus in 2000.

Most people credit Michael Lerner’s liberal Tikkun magazine, founded in 1986, with the rise of the term, although, according to Google, the first time “tikkun olam” and “social justice” appear together is in a 1970 issue of Sh’ma, the journal of Jewish ideas.

I tried the same experiment with the term “peoplehood,” but there’s no way to limit Google to the Jewish uses of the term. Suffice it to say that “peoplehood” is having its moment. There’s a Global Task Force on Jewish Peoplehood Education. The Jewish Agency runs a Jewish Peoplehood Hub, part of what its chairman, Natan Sharansky, calls the agency’s new mission to build “the Jewish people into a tightly connected family that has the feeling of a [shared] Jewish identity.”

There’s even a Jewish “Peoplehood Index,” measuring “closeness” among Jewish communities.

The sociologist Steven M. Cohen essays a definition of peoplehood that includes “pride in being Jewish,” attachment to other Jews and Israel, commitment to “Jewish group continuity,” and “feeling responsible for Jews in need, locally, in Israel, and around the world.”

It’s an oversimplification to suggest that the emphasis on “peoplehood” is a direct response to “tikun olam,” but not much. It’s a new version of an old debate between the universal and the particular. “Peoplehood” people worry that too much Jewish attention and too many resources are going toward universal causes. Saving the world is admirable, they’ll say, but don’t forget Aniyei ircha kodmim (“the poor of your city take precedence”), the talmudic injunction that charity begins at home.

Proponents of tikun olam also quote the Talmud: “Sustain the non-Jewish poor with the Jewish poor, visit the non-Jewish sick with the Jewish sick, and bury the non-Jewish dead with the Jewish dead, for the sake of peace.” (Gittin 61a) Being a light unto the nations is not only a Jewish value, but it’s great PR.

And it’s considered an important way to engage young people who regard group identity as parochial and outdated. “If peoplehood means that we feel a connection to all Jews, we are all stuck, because young people feel responsibility to all people, and some might feel that the idea of peoplehood might be racist,” Aaron Bisman, founder of the hip Jewish music label JDub Records, told a philanthropy conference in 2007.

In some ways, this is already getting to feel like an old argument. There’s a tikun crowd and a peoplehood crowd, and rare is the Jewish convention that doesn’t include a debate between them.

It’s also feeling old because there seems to be a way to reconcile the two without compromising either vision. Ruth Messinger, who’s been a lightning rod for the debate as the president of American Jewish World Service, shows how by steeping her organization’s service to non-Jewish populations in deeply Jewish values. Even as they embark in service projects in Third World countries, AJWS volunteers study Jewish texts relevant to their tasks. Delegations of rabbis have gone on its missions.

And such service can lead Jews back to their Jewish identities, insists Messinger. “Compassionate global works expand the soul, deepen one’s sense of responsibility, and bring into sharper focus the Divinity resident within the world,” she and a colleague, Rachel Farbiarz, have written. “Such are the ingredients for binding people to their fellow humans and fellow Jews alike.”

Even an Orthodox organization like Yeshiva University’s Center for the Jewish Future has embraced this third way, between tikun olam and peoplehood. As its dean, Rabbi Kenneth Brander, explains, the center “sends nearly a thousand young adults on community initiatives, service learning trips, and experiential learning missions across the globe.” Last year student missions went to New Orleans and, with the help of AJWS, El Salvador.

Brander also talks about placing these missions to non-Jews “within a rich Jewish context.” Tikun olam and peoplehood aren’t in conflict – one vision enhances the other.

A universalist wants to know why he should give to a Jewish day school when children are starving in Africa. A proponent of peoplehood wants to know who is going to support a rich Jewish future if not the Jews.

The third way suggests that kids who go to day school will learn to fix a world where too many go hungry, and that by reaching beyond our own communities in a Jewish context, we learn the meaning of divine purpose and Jewish pride.

[For a response to this column, see “Taking care of our own.”]

Andrew Silow-Carroll is Editor-in-Chief of the New Jersey Jewish News. Between columns you can read his writing at the JustASC blog.

This column originally appeared in New Jersey Jewish News.