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:
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.