The Politics of Repair

ON LANGUAGE

By Philologos

Published March 28, 2003, issue of March 28, 2003.
  • Print
  • Share Share

When a Hebrew expression that was unknown in the English language 20 years ago appears not once but twice in a column by Thomas Friedman about the war on Iraq, on the editorial page of The New York Times, that’s a linguistic success story. The expression is tikkun olam (pronounced “tee-KOON oh-LAHM”), and I don’t have to define it for you, because Friedman did it himself when writing on March 17:

What does Tony Blair get that George W. Bush doesn’t? The only way I can explain it is by a concept from the Kabbalah called “tikkun olam.” It means, “to repair the world.”… Tony Blair [unlike President Bush] always leaves you with the impression that for him the Iraq war is just one hammer and one nail to do tikkun olam, to repair the world.

Friedman’s grammar leaves something to be desired, since tikkun olam, a nominal rather than a verbal phrase in Hebrew, is more correctly translated as “repairing the world. “ (This is why he can legitimately speak in English of “doing” it.) Nor is it exclusively a “concept from the Kabbalah.” The expression is far older than that and is known to every observant Jew from the Aleynu prayer, with which Shaharit, Mincha and Ma’ariv, the daily morning, afternoon and evening services, are concluded. There we say:

And so we put our hopes in Thee, O Lord our God, that we may soon see the glory of Thy power, the earth rid of abominations and the idols cut down and the world repaired in the Kingdom of God [le-takken olam be’malkhut Shaddai].

One also finds the expression, in a more prosaic context, in the Mishna, where the phrase mipnei tikkun olam, “because of tikkun olam,” refers to regulations that are followed, even though the letter of the law does not require them, in order to avoid undesirable social consequences. In the tractate of Gittin, for instance, which deals with divorce law, we find a series of such regulations, such as one stating that although, halachically, a man who sends his wife a writ of divorce by messenger and changes his mind before she receives it can cancel it without first notifying her, this is not done “because of tikkun olam,” since she might not find out in time and — thinking she was divorced — might marry or conduct a liaison with another man.

But it is true that only in the kabbala did the concept of tikkun olam, or simply of tikkun, as it is generally called there, become a central one — and especially, in the 16th-century development of kabbalistic thought known as Lurianic kabbala. The version of tikkun adopted by the Lurianists was the cosmically redemptive one of the Aleynu prayer, a “repairing” being for them any premeditated act or thought that helps restore the universe or the individual soul from its fallen to a more perfect state. On the whole, Lurianic kabbalists did not pay much attention to the societal aspects of tikkun. The act of “repairing” as they conceived of it was more an inward than an outward one, dealing with one’s relationship to God, to one’s own self and even — reincarnation being a common kabbalistic belief — to the sins of a past life.

Yet the words tikkun and tikkun olam would have in all likelihood remained unknown in America to anyone not immersed in Jewish lore were it not for the efforts of Michael Lerner, the founder in the mid-1980s of Tikkun, a San Francisco-based Jewish bimonthly magazine that has served as an intellectual voice for left-leaning elements in the American Jewish community. Lerner, known for his Rainbow Coalition politics and attacks on Israel, combined the Lurianic sense of tikkun with the mishnaic one of tikkun olam to create a Jewish counterpart of Christian “liberation theology” — that is, an ideology of Judaism as a form of redemptive social activism. Marketed under the rubric of “the politics of meaning,” Lerner’s views attracted the attention of prominent members of the Democratic Party and even, reputedly, of Bill and Hilary Clinton.

It was through such channels, presumably, that the expression tikkun olam reached Friedman, as it has reached others who until recently had never heard of it. To some of us, this may seem a heartening demonstration of the continued relevance of Judaism to the contemporary problems not just of Jews, but of everyone. Others (and I confess to being one of them) will see it as an example of how authentic religious concepts can be cheapened when retooled and promoted for a mass audience. Neither in its mishnaic nor its kabbalistic sense does “repairing the world” have anything to do with the politics of either the left or the right, or with the differences between a British Laborite like Tony Blair and an American Republican like George W. Bush. The relevance we appear to give it by decontextualizing it in this way comes at the expense, it seems to me, of honestly dealing with what tradition is trying to tell us.






Find us on Facebook!
  • "If you want my advice: more Palestinians, more checkpoints, just more reality." What do you think?
  • Happy birthday Barbra Streisand! Our favorite Funny Girl turns 72 today.
  • Clueless parenting advice from the star of "Clueless."
  • Why won't the city give an answer?
  • BREAKING NEWS: Israel has officially suspended peace talks with the Palestinians.
  • Can you guess what the most boring job in the army is?
  • What the foolish rabbi of Chelm teaches us about Israel and the Palestinian unity deal:
  • Mazel tov to Idina Menzel on making Variety "Power of Women" cover! http://jd.fo/f3Mms
  • "How much should I expect him and/or ask him to participate? Is it enough to have one parent reciting the prayers and observing the holidays?" What do you think?
  • New York and Montreal have been at odds for far too long. Stop the bagel wars, sign our bagel peace treaty!
  • Really, can you blame them?
  • “How I Stopped Hating Women of the Wall and Started Talking to My Mother.” Will you see it?
  • Taglit-Birthright Israel is redefining who they consider "Jewish" after a 17% drop in registration from 2011-2013. Is the "propaganda tag" keeping young people away?
  • Happy birthday William Shakespeare! Turns out, the Bard knew quite a bit about Jews.
  • Would you get to know racists on a first-name basis if you thought it might help you prevent them from going on rampages, like the recent shooting in Kansas City?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.