The term Tikkun Olam, translated as repairing or improving the world, has become today a shorthand phrase for social justice, endorsed by elected officials (President Obama and House Leader Eric Cantor to name just two) and a plethora of Jewish organizations.
Tikkun olam projects, such as working with the homeless, programs in sustainable agriculture or monitoring workers’ rights, have been embraced as a means to help Jews, in particular younger ones, find meaning in their Judaism through social justice projects geared outside the framework of the Jewish community.
According to Dr. Lawrence Fine, the origin of the phrase “tikkun olam” in modern American Jewish history can be traced to Dr. Shlomo Bardin, the founder of the West Coast Brandeis Bardin Camp Institute. Writing in the 1950’s, Bardin looked to the expression in the Aleinu prayer le’takken olam be-malchut shaddai — when the world shall be perfected under the reign of the Almighty — as a religious imperative to engage in social justice. While we can debate whether Aleinu serves as a proof text for our contemporary understanding of tikkun olam, in the Jewish public’s mind it does, and provides a mandate for us to go out into the world and fix what is wrong, a hands-on way of promoting values of justice, dignity and compassion for all.
But it leaves us grappling with a perennial Jewish query: Is tikkun olam good for the Jews? There is no question that our community benefits when we help those outside the Jewish world merely by the fact that our involvement can create a kiddush Hashem (a sanctification of God’s name). For many Jews, their identity as a “citizen of the world” and giving to humanity as a whole becomes the sum and substance of being Jewish. (See the recent Pew survey where social justice is identified as a key Jewish marker). But is that enough? How else can tikkun olam benefit us if the emphasis is on work outside our community? How can we get younger Jews people excited and interested in giving back within our Jewish world if they neither feel connected to the community nor see connection with other Jews as either a worthwhile or necessary venture? And what impact will it have on long-range attachments to the Jewish community?
Perhaps an answer to this question can be found not from Jewish texts or communal workers, rabbis or sociologists, but rather from the great American muse, Bruce Springsteen. In a 2012 interview in The New Yorker, he provided a perfect, if unintended answer. He told editor David Remnick that “we’re repairmen, repairmen with a toolbox. If I repair a little of myself, I’ll repair a little of you; that’s the job.”
A 21st century version of tikkun olam should require us to emphasize that in order to help others, we also have to help ourselves. It is based on the simple reasoning that if we don’t pay attention to the needs of our own community, in the future there might not even be enough Jews around to help others. This appears counter intuitive, almost selfish. But it should remind us of the well-worn admonition we hear when flying–if we are traveling with those in need of assistance, in the event of an emergency, we are first to put an oxygen mask on ourselves so that we can then be in a position to help others.
Existing tikkun olam modules are doing impressive and necessary work in aiding the environment, the needy, hungry, and the disenfranchised both in this country and abroad. They are fulfilling our mandate to care about the world we live in and be an ohr lagoyim – a light to the nations, an example of concrete ethics-in-practice. But what many of these existing programs under Jewish auspices need to rethink is how to include outreach to Jews in need, whether in our own community or abroad or in Israel. By adding sherut la’am (Jewish community-based) programing, this would expose volunteers with little or no Jewish connection to two other values: that social justice must be based on an integrative model as well as a means of connecting with Jewish peoplehood.
If we take pride in Jewish volunteers tutoring under-served inner city youth with reading and math skills, then we need a concrete means of incorporating Jewish-based social justice including visiting Holocaust survivors, repairing Jewish cemeteries in disarray, staffing Jewish food banks or sending knowledgeable Jewish millennial volunteers to go into small communities to teach their peers topics ranging from Hebrew to Talmud to Kabbalah. (That would remind recipients that Jewish engagement with Jewish texts is not just the province of rabbis).
A balance between competing needs would reinforce the notions of compassion and tzedakah for all, while at the same time teaching the concept of kol Yisrael areivim zeh bazeh, all Jews are responsible for each other. Many have asked, if God created the world, then what gives us the right to improve upon it? Biblical commentators teach us that in Genesis we see that God ceased from all the work of creation “that God had done.” Yet, the literal Hebrew translation, “all the work God created to do” (la-assot) is a reminder that it is up to humankind to continue to do God’s work in this world. This gives us, then, the right and obligation as humans to partner with God to improve the entire world. That includes engaging in reparative work within our community, or else we haven’t really lived up to true tikkun olam. One should not be compartmentalized at the expense of the other.
If the words of the Torah are not convincing enough, consider the words of the Boss himself, Bruce Springsteen. After all, doesn’t our community also deserve a little repair with our spiritual toolbox?