Is tikkun olam a genuine Jewish value or something cooked up for a woke generation?

An Orthodox and a Progressive rabbi discuss problems in contemporary Jewish life


QUESTION: My children, who both go to youth movements, speak as if tikkun olam is the primary purpose of Judaism. Is it a genuine concept or a fad cooked up for a woke generation?

An Orthodox view:

Tikkun olam, “repair of the world”, is indeed a core aspect of Judaism. The question is what is meant by tikkun olam?

In its earliest manifestation, tikkun olam appears in the Mishnah where it has a very narrow legal definition (Gittin chapters 4 and 5). It describes a series of adjustments to improve a range of laws from marriage and divorce to inheritance and personal status. In this context, tikkun olam reflects the improved state of those who are subject to these laws.

The term has a broader, universal sense in the liturgy. The Aleinu prayer looks forward to a future time “when the world will be perfected (letaken olam) under the sovereignty of the Almighty, when all humanity will call on Your name, and the earth’s wicked will all turn to You.” This hope reflects a deep human yearning for a perfect world absent of pain and suffering. It is an eschatological prayer, not a prescription for practical action.

In the 16th century, the great kabbalist Isaac Luria, known as the Holy Ari, imbued the term tikkun with universal, indeed cosmic, meaning harnessed to practical action. He introduced a profound and complex mystical cosmology in which God’s first attempt at creation results in an unstable world.

In Luria’s terminology, the primordial DNA of creation consists of “lights” and “vessels”. In this first attempt of creation the lights were too strong and vessels not robust enough to contain them and so they shattered.

This world of chaos, or tohu as Luria calls it, is replaced by the world of tikkun or repair, where the lights and vessels are better calibrated. However, deeply embedded within this world are the broken shards of the world of tohu with traces of the original light. The job of the mystic is to raise the sparks of trapped light and to restore them to their source. This is achieved through the study of Torah and the ritual practice of mitzvot.

It wasn’t until the 19th century that the term tikkun olam became associated with social justice. While the initial inspiration of this expanded notion may have originated with Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, it really caught on particularly within the Progressive Jewish movements.

Social justice, reinforced throughout the prophetic literature, is undeniably a core component of Judaism. More should be done, though, to anchor this important work in Jewish sources and to align it to Jewish practice.

Rabbi Brawer is Neubauer executive director of Hillel, Tufts University

A Progressive view:

In many ways your children are right and your reservations are unnecessary.

It is certainly true that tikkun olam has become a slogan in recent years, adopted by youth movements and activist groups, but in fact it is deeply embedded in Jewish tradition, going back centuries.

Many Jews will even say it three times a day when they recite the Aleinu and pray for the time when we will “set right” the world. It is part of the practical messianism of Judaism: that we do not accept that this version of the world is the final version, but there can be a better one.

Just as importantly, it carries the sense that we do not sit back and wait for the Messiah or someone else to do it for us, but that we each have a role to play in bringing that time closer through our own actions.

This is developed even more dramatically within Lurianic kabbalah, where repairing this broken world of ours links us into partnership with God. Thus tikkun olam is lifted from being a good idea to being a sacred task.

Curiously, this is not very far removed from being “woke”. The term is a relatively modern one and originally derives from the notion of being awake to what is going on in the world. It carries the same sense as the car bumper sticker that used to be fashionable: “If you aren’t angry, you aren’t paying attention”.

More recently, “woke” seems to have morphed into a term of insult for those who are socially over-sensitive, but its core meaning is seeking social justice. So the two concepts are much more aligned that might at first appear.

But, however worthy, is tikkun olam the primary purpose of Judaism? It is true that worship of God is high up the list, and ritual commands are important too, but surely improving the world we live in, turning it from a jungle into a garden, must be the main priority.

It is no accident that Progressive rabbis chose Leviticus 19 as the portion for Yom Kippur morning, a passage packed full of practical laws to do with charity, justice, business ethics, the vulnerable, personal behaviour and relationships. It is tikkun olam in detail.

Tikkun olam is neither a fad nor modern, nor limited to a particular generation, but something all of us need to pursue as a religious duty.

Rabbi Romain is rabbi of Maidenhead (Reform) Synagogue

This is the 200th question for Rabbi I Have A Problem and the last to be answered by Rabbi Dr Naftali Brawer, who has written for the column since  the start.

When it was launched in early 2003, the idea of an Orthodox and a Reform rabbi sharing a page still seemed a bold innovation at the time but it has proved its educational value in showing not only where rabbis from different streams differ but also where they agree.

Happily, this is not the end, for joining us next time will be the senior rabbi of Borehamwood and Elstree United Synagogue, Rabbi Alex Chapper.

If you have a problem to put to our rabbis, email it to

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