Creating Space for Tikkun Olam as Part of Remix Judaism
[Excerpted from Remix Judaism: Preserving Tradition in a Diverse World by Roberta Rosenthal Kwall (Rowman & Littlefield, 2020). Reprinted with permission by Rowman & Littlefield.]
It is fair to say that for many liberal Jews, participation in social justice endeavors ranging from activism to monetary support is the primary, and often the only, way in which they encounter Jewish tradition. Recently, my middle daughter and I were having a conversation about observance of Jewish tradition. Or, to put it more frankly, we were having a conversation about her lack of observance at this point in her life when she is balancing a full-time job and going to nursing school part-time. During our talk she observed: “Mom, to me being Jewish is really about being a good person.” Of course, she is not wrong about the importance of being a good person according to Jewish tradition. But as I explained – with the best balance of caution and advocacy I could muster – Jewish tradition is about so much more.
… The view that tikkun olam should be understood as a significant part of a remix approach to Judaism emphasizes the importance of maintaining the particularity of Jewish tradition as well as undertaking social justice types of activities. On many levels, tikkun olam by itself fits perfectly with the concept of remix as developed in this book. Recall that remix entails exercising individual choice concerning elements of ritual performance, infusing these choices with personal meaning, and practicing these choices with consistency and a degree of authenticity. For many Jewish Americans, social justice activities are a regular part of their lives, representing a consistent pattern of practice. Also, as is the case with so many of the other Jewish traditions discussed throughout this book, people can easily infuse their tikkun olam work with personal attributions, rendering these projects extremely meaningful for themselves and their families. As for authenticity, we have already seen that tikkun olam gets high marks given its strong roots in Jewish tradition.
On three things the world stands: on the Torah, on the service (worship of God), and on acts of lovingkindness. Pirkei Avot 1:2, Mishnah Torah (quoting Shimon the Righteous).
As discussed earlier, lovingkindness, hesed, has a unique Jewish history and application but the general concept is universally appealing and readily embraced today by liberal Jews. In contrast, many non-observant Jews have difficulty with Torah and worship. But with the proper framing of these concepts, Jews who struggle with Torah and worship can develop an appreciation for how they can work together with hesed to form a solid basis for a meaningful form of Jewish tradition, including the performance of tikkun olam. Regarding Torah, the results of a recent survey of Jewish social justice leaders conducted by the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable is instructive. This survey demonstrated that Jewish tradition creates “a layer of meaning” onto the experiences that energize social justice workers, and provides a fountain of wisdom that strengthens their operations. These findings suggest that even Jews who are not traditionally observant can still look to the Torah for useful wisdom.
Worship can also have relevance even for Jews who struggle with prayer. Jews choose to participate in formal worship for many different reasons including the opportunity to be part of a community or to experience a sense of quietude or disconnection from the daily grind. Recall my friend Terrie’s experience with her synagogue. She would be the first to agree that the community bonds created by a synagogue with an active social justice agenda will inevitably impact its members’ attendance at other types of functions, including worship. The larger point here is that Jewish tradition and ritual still provide valuable sources from which all Jews, regardless of their level of religiosity, can draw to sustain and strengthen acts of tikkun olam.
Given that Jewish tradition includes tikkun olam, it is clearly important to make room for a consistently utilized space in our daily lives for tikkun olam. Creating an individual and family culture of giving tzedakah and performing hesed allows tikkun olam to become an integral part of life. But it is also important to link tikkun olam to its Jewish roots by, whenever possible, pairing tikkun olam with specifically Jewish rituals and applications….
And thou shall speak to all the wise-hearted whom I have filled with a spirit of wisdom that they shall make Aaron’s garments to sanctify him that he may be a priest to me. Exodus 28:3
Although the context of this verse from the Torah does not have anything to do with tikkun olam, it illustrates the importance of emotional intelligence, a quality that is significant for performing certain acts of tikkun olam. The verse actually relates to those whom God considers appropriate to make sacred clothing for Aaron, the first Israelite High Priest. The italicized language is a fairly literal translation of the Hebrew that uses the phrases “wise-hearted” and “spirit of wisdom.” I believe a “wise heart” is an emotionally intelligent heart. The verse is telling us that only those with emotional intelligence are fit to fulfill the appointed task of creating an environment of holiness.
Drawing directly from this passage of the Torah, we should learn that striving to be “wise-hearted” also means developing our sense of emotional intelligence and mindfulness so that we can be more present for our family and friends. Although many people think of tikkun olam in terms of activist-oriented social justice work that is organizationally based, Elliot Dorff reminds us that there are certain types of social action with strong roots in the Jewish sources that are “often omitted when contemporary Jews think about tikkun olam.” He offers several suggestions under the rubric of “communal forms of tikkun olam” such as fulfilling the “duty to be present for people in their times of need or joy.”
Sometimes just the act of being a good friend, partner, child, or even parent can embody the very essence of what repairing the world is designed to do. The same can be said for showing kindness to a complete stranger. This is especially true in our fast-paced world in which we often are not as present – both physically and emotionally – for others as we might like. I am particularly drawn to Dorff’s sentiments because they enable us to keep the principles of tikkun olam foremost in our minds as we go through our days, helping us to pay more attention to how Jewish tradition can impact our behaviors, even with respect to the smallest of matters. Without intending to minimize the importance of the various social justice causes that are typically associated with tikkun olam, it is important to remember that these personal exercises of tikkun olam can operate as an important part of a remixed approach to Jewish tradition.
Roberta Rosenthal Kwall is the Raymond P. Niro Professor at DePaul University College of Law. She is the author of Remix Judaism: Preserving Tradition in a Diverse World and The Myth of the Cultural Jew: Culture and Law in Jewish Tradition (Oxford UP, 2015).
 Abby Levine, “Social Justice and Jews – An Open Letter to Jonathan Weisman,” eJewish Philanthropy, May 10, 2018, http://ejpprod.wpengine.com/social-justice-and-jews-an-open-letter-to-jonathan-weisman/.
 Elliot N. Dorff, The Way Into Tikkun Olam: Repairing the World (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2005).