Tikkun Olam, lost idealism (and a brief digression into science-fiction)


By DLeigh-Ellis
March 15, 2010
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Tikkun Olam is a concept that has drifted in and out of fashion over the centuries. Generally associated with left-leaning political thought, the basic interpretation of Tikkun Olam is the manifestation of a desire to ‘repair,’ or ‘complete the world.’ It has led to many socially directed projects, not least the Yemin Orde youth village on Mt Carmel in Israel, which I will discuss later.

Jill Jacobs has written a short essay entitled, ‘The History of Tikkun Olam,’ in which she describes the concept originating possibly around the second century CE. The phrase is multitonal, morphing to suit the needs of time and place. Jacobs concisely explains some of the interpretations in her essay:

‘The words “tikkun olam” themselves defy easy translation. The Hebrew verb “t-k-n” is generally translated as “to fix,” but can also mean “to establish.” As we will see, this word takes on more specific connotations in particular contexts. The word “olam,” usually rendered as “world,” also signifies eternity, especially in biblical and other very early texts. Thus, the word “l’olam,” common in biblical, liturgical, and modern Hebrew, means “forever” (for an eternity). Even when referring to the physical world, the term “olam” also carries with it a sense of permanence. To these complications, we can add the question of which particular “world” any given use of the term “tikkun olam” might signify. In some cases, the term refers to the physical world, in others to the societal order, and in still others to the dream of a fully realized divine manifestation’ http://www.zeek.net/706tohu/

Tikkun Olam is therefore more than just a phrase describing a desire for social improvement. It is in itself a self-replicating ideology, established to provide a continuing context for the potential for social change. It is an ideology that has the ability to transcend short-term political agendas and provide a basis for an ongoing desire to ‘complete’ the world through reconciliation, goodwill and education.

I was reminded of the concept by a somewhat surprising source. I will readily admit to being a sci-fi nut, (books over tv, star trek particularly being way too utopian for my tastes.) In Arthur C Clarke and Gentry Lee’s ‘Cradle,’ (not as good as the Rama books,) the authors describe a galactic administration that directs culture and development throughout the galaxy. As you can probably imagine the Galaxy is a big place, as Douglas Adams famously described, ‘Space is big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind- bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it's a long way down the road to the chemist's, but that's just peanuts to space.’ Therefore any form of Galaxy-wide administration would clearly require not only a great deal of resources to affect its will but also a great deal of time to allow its directions to make an impact.

Clarke gets around this problem by ascribing the administration of his galaxy with a culture that recognises the need for long term plans. Their calendar is based on ‘cycles,’ which are broken down into millicycles and microcycles. Although the book does not make it abjectly clear, it is suggested that each ‘cycle’ lasts for somewhere in the region of 14000 to 17000 years. Each cycle begins with the administration releasing its agenda for the next cycle, all plans and policies designed to promote galactic development are relayed out to show the direction the civilization will take over the next several millennia. This is carefully woven with another sci-fi theme, the notion that any culture capable of advancing to a galactic scale would also have achieved similar advances in the social and philosophical spheres, granting it a benevolent and arguably, utopian existence. The policies of each cycle are therefore generally concerned with the expansion of knowledge and the further exploration of the cosmos. Short term political agendas do not even cross the minds of those who decide upon the policies. Neither do the destructive notions of war or conquest. The civilisation is firmly aware of the importance of considering the long-term effects of any action. Galactic societal engineering is therefore manifested at such a pace that it can observe, record and subtly affect smaller, more primitive planets, whilst the benevolent nature of the overarching culture dictates that it will only attempt to guide societies in a positive manner. Obviously, the real world is markedly different from this fictional universe, yet the notion of a guiding societal desire to improve and foster development over the course of generations, not simple political terms is undoubtedly reminiscent of what is described in Judaism as Tikkun Olam.

My first encounter with this ancient concept was full blown. The aforementioned Yemin Orde, founded by Chaim Peri took Tikkun Olam as one of its founding principles. Chaim Peri, who has been twice award the Israeli President’s Prize for Education is one of those truly inspirational individuals. Asked about his reasoning for running Yemin Orde as he did, he declared that he wished to ‘deinstitutionalise the institution.’ He argues that ‘youth villages aren’t boarding schools where the children who can’t go home sleep a few yards from their classroom, they need to be balanced places where the children can grow.’ The village was founded in 1953, providing homes for several dozen orphans from the war in Europe. It now provides a home for over 500 youths from over 20 different countries, around half of which come from dysfunctional, sometimes abusive families. A fifth of the children are orphans, often due to the ravages of war. Yemin Orde, to these individuals is much more than simply a residential school. It is a family, an institution that aims to support the children through their academic career, army training and anything else they may choose to pursue. As well as providing a network of support for its students, Yemin Orde also aims to instil within the youths a sense of Tikkun Olam, actively encouraging students to volunteer on social projects both within as well as outside the community. The village also aims to grant the students a sense of leadership, so that following their graduation students are capable of spreading the values learnt within the village to the wider world. Perhaps this is why, on a recent visit, Yemin Orde was described by Susan Rice (US ambassador to the UN,) as ‘a microcosm of Israel and humanity as it should be.’

Yemin Orde, has in recent years realised its dream in providing the resources and impetus for a full manifestation of the Tikkun Olam concept. It has supported the establishment of several new youth villages, including the Agahozo Shalom Youth Village in Rwanda as well as the rejuvenation of other similar establishments both inside and outside of Israel. Like Yemin Orde, Agahozo Shalom prides itself upon the concept of Tikkun Olam. Their motto, ‘a place where tears are dried,’ hearkens back to the 1994 genocide where 800 000 people were killed leaving 1.2 million orphans in less than a hundred days. The concept of Tikkun Olam recognises the need for grievous wounds to be healed through the efforts of aid and reconciliation as opposed to revenge and isolation. Agohozo Shalom, like Clarke’s Cradle administration, recognises the need for long-term planning in reconciling the terrible actions of the past. Furthermore, it understands that simple monetary reparations to the victims are not enough to heal the wounds of such a huge amount of destruction. The village itself is a physical metaphor, a phoenix rising from the bitter ashes of a destroyed past. Like Yemin Orde, it aims to provide not only food and shelter to the occupants but also a first class education with the intention of preparing the ‘youth to take on leadership roles in their society and enable them to move towards the mending of the world beyond them.’ This notion of sharing ones cards, using education to fix not only ones own situation but also the lives of neighbours and even those further away is the key principle of Tikkun Olam.

This attitude of generosity can be directly juxtaposed against the mentality of more established education systems. In the UK, education is viewed from a primarily economic viewpoint. Incentives are granted to those studying for careers which will ultimately serve to generate larger tax revenues for the nation. With the exception of certain professions such as nursing and certain subjects within teaching, the British university system finds itself in a position where degrees in humanities (with their proportionally lower costs,) subsidise the more expensive technology based courses. This, in a capitalist economy is a necessary provision, enabling studies in social sciences and humanities to exist alongside more expensive disciplines. However, it also provides a dangerous precedent in the philosophy of education, should education be primed for the economic development of a society or the social development. The emphasis on economic progress perhaps explains why projects such as Agohozo Shalom are so rare. However, the relative success of Yemin Orde in aiding the establishment of sister villages in a fairly short amount of time highlights the huge potential for emphasising the philosophy of Tikkun Olam within schools and colleges. Students need to no longer consider the value of their studies by the potential for earning a higher income in later life. Instead, the moral rewards and potential for improving the lives of those less fortunate must become the paramount focus in the education system. Tikkun Olam is a perfect expression of the snowball effect. As Yemin Orde has demonstrated, the tiniest spark of courage and generosity can serve to inspire further manifestations of selflessness and social improvement. Several Yemin Orde graduates are now working at Agahozo Shalom, helping to cement its reputation as a haven for the oppressed and persecuted. It may be an alien thought to the Capitalist, but it turns out that many individuals find that fostering renewal and development in society can be far more rewarding than any monetary returns.

One of the earliest modern references to the ideal of Zionism was by Moshe Hess, who perceived the potential for a Jewish state to grant Jews greater autonomy by enabling them to reconnect with their land through a concept he described as ‘redemption of the soil.’ Jews, he argued, had been forced by the rulers of European society to adapt to the positions of the merchant class. Hess believed that only through establishing a new class of Jewish peasantry with the aim of working and thereby knowing the land, could the Jewish population of the diaspora truly be able to provide for itself in its own land. Hess’s ideals obviously could not work in modern society but his notions served to inspire the first generation of Kibbutzim, which for all the hard work required of their inhabitants, at least provided a level of self-determination for the community. The earliest Kibbutzim were perhaps the greatest representation of community freedom ever observed in the early 20th century. In his book, ‘The Kibbutz: Awakening from the Utopia,’ (available on Google books,) Daniel Gavron relays the words of Shulamit, a female Kibbutznik whose passion for her way of life leaps from the page into the soul of the reader:

‘Oh, how beautiful it was when we all took part in the discussions, [they were] nights of searching for one another—that is what I call those hallowed nights. During the moments of silence, it seemed to me that from each heart a spark would burst forth, and the sparks would unite in one great flame penetrating the heavens…. At the center of our camp a fire burns, and under the weight of the hora the earth groans a rhythmic groan, accompanied by wild songs.’

The discussions (or Sicha,) that Shulamit refers to are described by Gayron with a profound sense of respect and nostalgia, ‘Everything was shared,’ he writes, ‘not just accomodation, food and clothing, but doubts and fears, pain and joy, anger and ecstasy. In the Sicha, nothing was off-limits; there were no secrets and the members shared their most intimate feelings with the whole group. All members disclosed their thoughts, exposed their anxieties and laid bare their characters. If two members made love, they were expected to share the experience with the whole community.’

Nowadays, we are far more individualist. The idea of discussing ones private life would fill many people with dread. However, it must be accepted that this way of discourse worked in perfect harmony with the physical lifestyles of the Kibbutzniks. What we can glean from these stories however is the notion of a community providing a fully supportive familial institution, as opposed to the standing of many of the Kibbutzes in this day and age. Principles and values have been compromised, and many modern Kibbutzniks have become thralls to the State of Israel. In this process the socialist values of the Kibbutzim have been diluted and in many cases erased. Despite this, Kibbutzim provided a backdrop for subtle yet incredible moments of social progression, female members of Kibbutz Artzi do not use the hebrew phrase ba’ali to refer to their husbands as it can also be translated as ‘my master,’ or ‘owner.’ Instead they use the term ‘Ishi,’ simply my man.

Perhaps inevitable due to the circumstances, the pacifist principles of the Kibbutz movement were directly compromised by the emerging, more militant manifestations of Zionism, perhaps illustrated most profoundly by the 1946 Jewish Agency operation to establish 11 Kibbutzim in the Negev, with the aim of claiming the land prior to the Jewish/Arab partition of the land. This operation was conducted as a response to the Morrison Grady plan for partition which proposed that the Negev would remain as Arab land. It was undeniably, an overnight land grab, which would have been bad enough in itself. However, it was made worse by the fact that it compromised and undermined the very philosophy of Kibbutz establishment.

As the beaurocracy and economy of the new State of Israel grew in the decades following its establishment, Kibbutzim were forced to adapt their socialist practices to follow in greater accordance with the Capitalist direction of the Israeli state. As Israelis adopted the fashion of an urban society, settlement patterns moved away from rural communities towards the cities. Notions of self-sacrifice and collectivist thought declined. Coupled with the fall of soviet communism and the shift towards dependence on the American brand of Capitalism, the change in attitudes was perhaps inevitable. However, the new brand of individualist mentality that it promoted ultimately penetrated Israeli politics and foreign policy. Gone were the days of socialist principles and due to this, the concept of Tikkun Olam was sidelined, surviving in only a few small bastions. Writing in the mid 1950’s, Joseph Barantz, one of the early pioneers of the Kibbutz movement recognised this fall from grace, ‘We were happy enough working on the land, but we knew more and more certainly that the ways of the old settlements were not for us. This was not the way we hoped to settle the country—this old way with Jews on top and Arabs working for them; anyway, we thought that there shouldn't be employers and employed at all. There must be a better way.[

The modern State of Israel must aim to reconnect not only with those principles upon which it was established but also the foundations of thought that predate its establishment. Israel is a nation that faces threats to its existence every year. Since 1967 it has for the most part tried fighting fire with fire. This may have granted the state a moderate level of security but it has by no means generated a solution to the ongoing conflict. In this writer’s opinion, war very rarely leads to peace. The battles may end at some point, but the aftereffects often rear their ugly heads to reignite conflicts further down the line. The reperations imposed on Germany following WWI were instrumental in providing the climate for the rise of Nazism in the years leading up to WWII. The end of WWII provided the impetus for the later conflicts between Western Capitalism and Stalinist Communism that cropped up all over the planet. It may seem an impossible situation to remedy, but as Agohozo Shalom has demonstrated, the only remedy for the ravages of war is attempting to embed within the survivivors a desire not for revenge but for Tikkun Olam. Israel would be served so well if it chose to divert even 10% of its military budget towards social projects in Gaza and the West Bank. Many contributors to the JC blogs lauded the response by Israel to the recent devastation in Haiti. It was something that made Israelis and Jews worldwide proud of the nation that is supposed to represent them but often makes their lives in the diaspora more difficult through representing Jewish ideals as synonymous with right-wing aggression. The uncompromising critics of Israel would find it difficult to disagree with an Israeli sponsered programme of building schools and hospitals in the occupied territories. If the Israeli public could be convinced of the merits and philosophical grounding for such actions, then such projects could be the foundation for a far more optimistic future. Israel must hearken back to its original moral philosophy, community development supported by the concept of Tikkun Olam. The final four words of Susan Rice’s description of Yemin Orde, ‘as it should be,’ are perhaps the most enlightening examples of attitudes towards Israel. Rice recognises the potential for Israel to be the beacon of freedom that it has for so long aspired towards. The words also recognise that only a few places within this beautiful country have remembered what they are supposed to stand for. Two years ago, Chaim Peri, the founder and director of Yemin Orde stepped back from the day to day running of the village. Although his humility would probably prevent it, it would be fantastic to see him try and take his country in a new direction. Now, with support from the Israeli ministry of Education, Peri is promoting the Yemin Orde model of education. Perhaps though, he could use his inspiring character and clear vision for an even greater recasting of Israeli character in the eyes of the world’s media. The next set of elections, both presidential and Knesset are unlikely to be held until at least 2012-2013 (presidential in 2014,) but perhaps if Dr Peri is reading this, he might consider expanding his Mt Carmel based microcosm to encompass the whole of the Israeli nation.

http://forward.com/articles/123859/

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/middle_east/7016176.stm

http://www.yeminorde.org/index.html

http://www.agahozo-shalom.org/index.html

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