“Tikkun Olam.” The Hebrew phrase has become ubiquitous, both within the Jewish community and in liberal circles beyond. It means “fixing the world,” and for many liberal Jews, it is a fundamental tenet of religious faith.
Yet the phrase has only been widely known for the past few decades. For thousands of years of Jewish history, it was a marginal idea, at best.
Two new books tackle the question of tikkun olam from different intellectual perspectives.
The first is Jonathan Neumann’s forthcoming To Heal the World?: How the Jewish Left Corrupts Judaism and Endangers Israel. Neumann argues that while the phrase “tikkun olam” only became popular recently, it is the extension of an effort by Reform (and, later Reconstructionist) Jews dating back to the late nineteenth century to replace the particularistic beliefs, traditions, and identity of Judaism with more modern, universalistic principles.
But whereas the early reformers knew that they were making a break with Jewish orthodoxy, Neumann illustrates, today’s reformers often insist that their beliefs are, in fact, the original, essential, and authoritative Jewish creed.
The definition of tikkun olam, he points out, is essentially identical to the political platform of the Democratic Party, aiming at the redistribution of wealth, the overthrow of traditional mores, and the dissolution of American power.
Tikkun olam actually has an older definition that is radically different. As Hillel Halkin pointed out in 2008 — when the phrase enjoyed an association with Barack Obama, who later embraced “tikkun olam” in the White House — the ancient Jewish texts use the term in three ways.
One, the “prophetic,” is a utopian vision in the daily Aleinu prayer, hoping monotheism will sweep the world, “when the world will be perfected under the Kingdom of the Almighty.”
The second, the “Mishnaic,” uses tikkun olam in a “pragmatic” sense to alter rulings in religious law to achieve a more sensible result in the public interest. One example: making it possible for wealthy creditors to collect debts through a rabbinical court rather than forgiving those debts in a sabbatical year. While the poor, in theory, benefited from debt forgiveness, it also meant the rich were less willing to lend them money, hurting the poor. (Ironically, that is the opposite of the kind of redistributive policy that today’s champions of tikkun olam would demand.)
The third use of tikkun olam, Halkin pointed out, was a kabbalistic one that saw each Jew as having a personal mission to perfect the world — in a spiritual sense. The Jewish radicals of the 1960s, he noted, appropriated that idea and read their own left-wing politics into it.
Neumann drives that insight home, exploring in detail how left-wing radicals have deliberately misinterpreted the meaning of Jewish texts to support a “social justice” agenda.
Neumann’s argument is at its most convincing and engaging when he diagnoses the problem. The solution is a bit more difficult. He argues for a Jewish political vision that prioritizes Jewish needs: “The first priority of the Jews in exile must be concern with the security, welfare, and ultimately the survival of the Jewish community.” At the ballot box, he suggests, Jews should “support that side that side of the debate that most greatly benefits the community.”
But it is hard to imagine the fractious Jewish community agreeing on how to define our common interest. Neumann also stretches a bit when he tries to assert the true meaning of Jewish texts the radicals have misinterpreted. The texts are too rich for that. They are open to all kinds of interpretations — even, perhaps radical ones. Where the radicals err is in imitating the dogmatic religious authorities they disdain, claiming they alone possess the truth.
Middle east expert Avi Jorisch takes a different tack in Thou Shalt Innovate: How Israeli Ingenuity Repairs the World. He takes the conventional definition of tikkun olam as given, then argues that Israel’s innovation and entrepreneurship are the best way of changing the world, using fifteen real-world examples of Israeli inventions.
Some of the Israeli discoveries are familiar from news headlines, like the Iron Dome missile defense system, which has changed the balance of power in the Middle East by essentially neutralizing the threat of short-range missiles from terror groups like Hamas and Hezbollah. Other inventions are less well known outside the region, such as the ambucycle, which Israeli paramedics use to weave through traffic and reach emergency sites before ambulances do.
What Jorisch’s approach suggests is that while it may be important to debunk left-wing concepts of tikkun olam, the fact is that those ideas have permeated Jewish and general culture, and it may be more productive to turn that term to positive use.
After all, the left likes to talk about utopian dreams — uplifting the needy, building peace, and so on — but it is the Israeli private sector, underpinned by a strong military and a capitalist economy, that has delivered.
Interestingly, Jorisch also incorporates religious tradition into his stories about Israeli inventions — not through tikkun olam, but by citing Jewish texts that seem to encourage innovation. For example, his chapter about Check Point, the pioneering Israeli firewall software, cites Zechariah 2: “For I, says the Lord, will be unto her a wall of fire round about, and I will be the glory in the midst of her.” Jorisch thus implies that ingenuity is central to Judaism.
He does not press his case too hard: his references to the Bible and other religious texts is primarily metaphorical. Yet he suggests, subtly, a different meaning to tikkun olam. The changes that human beings make through new technology are more profound, and more liberating, than the changes imposed by the dead hand of the state.
If Neumann offers the most cogent deconstruction of tikkun olam, Jorisch provides the more appealing replacement.
Joel B. Pollak is Senior Editor-at-Large at Breitbart News. He was named to Forward’s 50 “most influential” Jews in 2017. He is the co-author of How Trump Won: The Inside Story of a Revolution, which is available from Regnery. Follow him on Twitter at @joelpollak.