Democratic presidential hopeful Michael Bloomberg recently tweeted that his political program grows out of a Jewish religious teaching giving him the "responsibility" to use the government to "'repair the world' in the tradition of Tikkun Olam." While progressive Jews often use the phrase in this manner, rabbis warn equating politics with the faith distorts Judaism.
My parents taught me that Judaism is about more than going to shul — it’s about living our values to help others & to ‘repair the world’ in the tradition of Tikkun Olam.
— Mike Bloomberg (@MikeBloomberg) January 26, 2020
Distinguished rabbis say the former New York mayor has engaged in a common misinterpretation. "The roots of the term lie not in a modern understanding of social activism, but in an older Jewish understanding of what our purpose as Jews was, in finishing the ordering of the world and is boundup [sic] in our relationship to God," notes the UK-based Movement for Reform Judaism.
However, the term began to take on a life of its own during Bloomberg's childhood, according to MyJewishLearning.com:
The phrase “tikkun olam” was first used to refer to social action work in the 1950s. In subsequent decades, many other organizations and thinkers have used the term to refer to social action programs; tzedakah (charitable giving) and gemilut hasadim (acts of kindness); and progressive Jewish approaches to social issues.
As a consequence, "Jews, and now the general religious and secular communities, completely misuse and distort the term," wrote Grand Rabbi Y. A. Korff of Boston.
True tikkun olam is a bottom-up process of individual sanctification whose effects ripple throughout society
The notion of tikkun olam has become so synonymous with political intervention that Rabbi Michael Lerner - who forged his wedding rings out of the wreckage of a downed U.S. aircraft - named his interventionist magazine Tikkun. (He became so influential a counselor to Hillary Clinton that he earned the nickname "Hillary's guru.")
That term, Grand Rabbi Korff states, has become so alienated from its religious roots that "[e]verything today is Tikkun Olam. Enough with the Tikkun Olam."
"Some find a rationale for the broad conception of [social and economic] justice within the modern interpretation of tikkun olam," wrote Curt Biren expounded in an article written for the Acton Institute's Religion & Liberty Transatlantic:
However, while this modern version of tikkun olam may appeal to some, the traditional concept of tikkun olam is very different. The term is found in select parts of the Talmud, the ancient rabbinical commentaries on the Hebrew Bible and its interpretations. Typically translated as “for the benefit of society,” it is invoked to adjust particular laws in order to avoid certain perverse results. It’s in the Aleinu prayer, recited as part of the daily prayer service, but here it expresses the hope that the world will be perfected under the kingdom of God. It’s also found within Lurianic Kabbalah, but in this case the focus is on a spiritual mending of the cosmos, not on political solutions for the country or the world.
Truly engaging in this spiritual practice, Grand Rabbi Korff explained, means pursuing, "not simply socially or politically correct precepts," but observing all the commandments (mitzvos) of the Torah, from ethical statutes to dietary laws:
We cannot, and are not instructed to, save the world, or even to repair it. Judaism teaches no such thing. Rather, we are instructed to conduct ourselves properly, to observe the Mitzvos, the Commandments (which are not good deeds, but rather commandments, required imperatives), and in that way to contribute to society and civilization both by example and through practice and action.
These commandments, he adds, have been "ignored, if not openly denigrated and violated, in some segments of the [Jewish] community, as they substitute the false panacea of something they call Tikkun Olam for the authenticity of true Judaism, clinging desperately to Tikkun Olam to avoid their actual responsibilities as Jews to observe the Torah and the commandments."
Living God's commandments will transform individual lives, and transformed individuals repair the world. True tikkun olam is a bottom-up process of individual sanctification whose effects ripple throughout society.
It is only ironically encouraging that people of all religious backgrounds demand global change while resisting personal change. The temptation to outsource acts of mercy to the State - which I've dubbed "The Caesar Strategy" - is an ecumenical miasma. The potential to instrumentalize the faith to justify statist and interventionist policies is a bipartisan tactic. But repairing the world is an individual responsibility, rooted in the imperative to continually bring ourselves into communion with our Creator and renew His likeness within us by keeping His commandments.
Further resources from the Acton Institute on Judaism and economics:
Judaism, Law & the Free Market: An Analysis by Joseph Isaac Lifshitz
Judaism, Markets, and Capitalism: Separating Myth from Reality by Corinne Sauer and Robert M. Sauer
(Photo credit: Gage Skidmore. This photo has been cropped and modified. CC BY-SA 2.0.)