January 15, 2006


Healing an injured phrase (Rabbi Avi Shafran, 1/16/06, www.JewishWorldReview.com)

The term [tikkun olam] has its roots in the Mishna, the earliest Talmudic source-material, where it is employed as the philosophical principle behind a number of rabbinic enactments intended to avoid social problems. For example, the institution of a legal mechanism that can circumvent the sabbatical year's automatic cancellation of debts is justified by the concept of tikkun olam. As is the requirement that divorce documents include the signatures of the witnesses. Similarly, whenever tikkun olam is invoked by the Talmud, it refers to actions taken by rabbinic authorities to address communal concerns.

The phrase also has an eschatological meaning, as in "lisakein olam bi'mal'chus Sha-dai" ("to repair the world through the kingdom of G-d") clause in the Aleinu declaration recited at the end of every Jewish prayer service. There it refers to the end-point of human history, when idolatries will disappear from earth and "every knee will bend to You" and all nations "will give honor to the glory of Your name."

And then there is tikkun olam's meaning in Jewish mystical literature, where it is used to refer to the cosmically redemptive power of personal actions, in particular the performance of mitzvahs, both ethical and ritual.

In recent years, though, the term has been widely employed by a number of Jewish groups and individuals in a novel way, made to mean the embrace of any of a variety of social, political or environmental causes — including, as one, tikkunolam.com, asserts, arms control, reproductive rights and campaign reform. Gay and lesbian rights are another item on that group's list, although the only quote from Leviticus cited is "Love thy neighbor as yourself." (Other pertinent verses in that book seem to have been overlooked.)

Hardly surprising that in order to make an amoral argument from biblical sources you have to give words their opposite meanings.

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 15, 2006 11:00 PM
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