Addressing our Obligation towards Others

Tal Orot: a Jewish Contemplative Society Forums Discuss Addressing our Obligation towards Others

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    The phrase Tikkun Olam has come to describe a certain approach to Jewish social and political activism. The phrase itself has gone through a series of transformations. In the Talmud it’s a legal term signifying adjustments made to legislation to facilitate business or to avoid negative unintended consequences of certain regulations, especially with regard to those who are socially or economically vulnerable. In the Kabbalah of Rabbi Yitzhak Luria z”l and his school the phrase takes on cosmic significance: to repair a spiritually fractured world through careful practice of mitzvot with mystical intent.

    In the late twentieth century, through an interesting philological compromise, these two usages of Tikkun Olam have been combined and readjusted. The national ethical concerns of the Talmud have been universalized, and the spiritual concerns of Kabbalah have been concretized, with the result that Tikkun Olam has come to express a program of social and ethical repair for the whole world.

    The question we would like to pose for discussion is whether the concept of Tikkun Olam itself is due for critical reassessment. Has the phrase accumulated certain political baggage that diverts its best intent? Is there an implied condescension or paternalism here? Is it a Western World concept that shares some of the same problems raised in current discussions of White Privilege? What view of human-being-in-the-world undergirds it? Might there be other visions of human purpose or mission that would be more fruitful? For instance, Avodah as service conveys a sense of responsibility and action from a position of humility.

    This is not simply a question of semantics. Tal Orot as a contemplative society is concerned to promote ethical awareness and commitment. The concepts we use help direct consciousness. Our search here is not for a phrase but for vision that guides action. Tikkun Olam or Avodah – are either of these concepts adequate expressions of the goal, do they need adjustment, or should we suggest another concept for the Jewish vision of mission. What do you think?

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