On the Centrality of Tikkun Olam in Jewish Thought and Practice

Read Ruth Messinger's (AJWS) essay published in the Peoplehood Papers: A 21st Century Peoplehood with Tikkun Olam at its Heart

The invitation to participate in this conversation included some fundamental questions regarding whether the concept of tikkun olam is or is not central to Jewish thought and practice in the 21st century. Should it be more central, and what might we do to make that the case?

Powerful questions…but for me the answer is, as ever, yes and no, on the one side and then on the other. This pull is always part of our human and very Jewish struggle to be the best we can be and to always demand more of ourselves. Especially in hard times, as we recognize that we may too often fall short.

I take seriously the original text examples of caring not only for ourselves, but for the other and the stranger. Of doing this because we are all equally made in the image of God, because we have an obligation rooted in morality—it is the right thing to do—and in history—we know what it means to be the other and stranger, and we should help others as we were helped or as we wish we had been helped.

And yet, I know that it is a stretch to ask people to be alert to an emerging genocide in Myanmar or to worry about the struggles of indigenous farmers to have title to their land in Guatemala. It is, fast forward to today, also a stretch to ask people to worry about the racial faults in our own society as these have been fiercely exposed again in the past year, when they are—understandably—worried about their own life during the pandemic and their own access to the vaccine.

In other words, as hundreds have said and written before, we are both particularistic and universal in our outlook on the world, and it is often not easy to make that
leap toward greater universalism or, even, to hold both of those ideas together as we make our individual and collective ways through life. But that is in fact who
we are and what we must do.

I have had the privilege of being raised in a Judaism that always told me to care for the other and the stranger, to fight for ever greater degrees of justice and equity because it was a Jewish thing to do. And I have had the extraordinary opportunity, during the almost two decades I was CEO of American Jewish World Service, to see this concern for the other, this determination to help in healing the world be the core motivation of not only our staff and our donors. It is an idea that resonates strongly with 21st century Jews and also the motivation of our grassroots partner organizations.

No, those organizations and their amazing indigenous leaders are not Jewish, but they are people who strive—often against odds that I cannot entirely fathom—to be
leaders in healing their parts of the world, to be battlers for justice. They have, in all the ways they go about their work, become role models for me. My Jewish commitment to thinking universally, to believing I need to participate in helping to make the world better has been expanded and strengthened a thousand times over by getting to know people whose lives are devoted to this work, who do it, it appears, as a matter of course.

My earliest example from the field came with the first AJWS project I visited. it was in El Salvador where a group fighting for land rights, human rights and economic development—a group significantly motivated by faith that the poor had an equal claim on the world’s resources—had received funds from us to help their participants become chicken farmers. The earliest funding went to provide individual and penniless households with two chickens [and with access to a rooster] so they could begin their own egg and chicken businesses. The organizers specified that every farmer who participated in the program was to give two chickens from each batch she or he harvested to someone less well off, so that the program benefits would spread.

Perhaps this is a trivial story to some, but for me it was dramatic: we had found a group we wanted to help, but they wanted to be sure that with the help they received they were thinking more expansively, taking on their own commitment to be both particular and universal, using their new and elevated position to help heal the world.

Over and over again—in many different countries—I have learned this lesson, and it has strengthened my Jewish commitment to work for justice and to fight for equity. It has also moved me to speak on these issues to Jewish communities and community leaders where it has had great resonance.

It has become a rallying cry for many in the Jewish community—they can work for a sustainable environment or for human rights or for fair immigration laws, and they can do it Jewishly, through a Jewish organization informed by Jewish values. For sure, this approach does not appeal to all [and sometimes it provokes arguments from those who suggest we must be more, not less, particular in an era of rising anti-Semitism] but it does seem to me to have deep meaning to many in our 21st century Jewish community especially at a time when we enjoy many aspects of privilege as compared to the world as a whole.

I would go further and say that the arguments themselves are healthy. After all we have survived through Biblical, rabbinic and more modern eras acknowledging being pulled in two directions, writing down many of our disagreements, recognizing that we have a fundamental obligation to ourselves and our personal and national and faith communities AND that we have a powerful set of reasons to help put the world to rights.

So, for some Jews all of the time [well, almost all] and for many Jews some of the time, we not only aspire to pursue and advance justice, but we actually commit ourselves to the task. We take seriously the teaching of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel that: “in a free society where terrible wrongs exist, some are guilty, but all are responsible.” We look to see what roles we might play in our time—how we might strive to make health care in the US less racially discriminatory, how we might provide for those at our borders the same welcome and care which others provided for our fore-parents—what hands-on work and what broader advocacy efforts are demanded of us.

It is my hope that these notions become more central to 21st century Judaism than they already are, that those who teach and preach and organize in our schools, our houses of worship, and our community organizations speak powerfully about tikkun olam. That they speak about it as an age old maxim of our faith, about an aspiration central to who we are, that we can act on today as we confront COVID or voter suppression or asylum seekers in order to be the best of who we can be.

I want more and more Jews and more and more others to think of and see Jews as a people committed to social justice—not as the only people committed to social justice and not as a people unable to also stand up for themselves—but as a people more than ready to reach across lines of difference for that healing that would matter for all of us.

My hope is that we recognize the wise words of not a Talmud scholar, but a Chinese poet, Lu Xun, who said: “Hope is like a path in the countryside. At first there is no path, but as more and more people walk again and again, a path appears.” As we walk the path of tikkun olam and commit ourselves to the work to be done, may more paths appear that lead us to a world of justice and equity.

Re-published with permission by the Peoplehood Papers. Launched in collaboration with OLAM partners American Jewish World Service, Gabriel Project Mumbai, JDC Entwine, and Repair the World, this new issue of the Peoplehood Papers (“A 21st Century Peoplehood with Tikkun Olam at its Heart”) explores Tikkun Olam, and why the Jewish community should commit to bringing justice and serving the world’s most vulnerable communities. Read the full publication here