I follow synagogue mission statements the way normal people follow the stock market. A synagogue’s statement of purpose is its prospectus, the reason we should care that it exists. For many synagogues, this raison d’etre features tikkun olam, some form of social justice.
Tikkun olam, however, is not the simple thing that they imagine.
The concept is rabbinic, but it took on special importance in medieval kabbalah, which pictured fault lines creeping into the fabric of creation from the very beginning of time. These cosmic fractures, as it were, engender all that is bad about the universe. Tikkun olam — literally, “correcting the universe” – was redefined as the process of restoring creation to its intended state of wholeness.
The Kabbalists were a mystical elite, however, less interested in helping the poor than in helping some metaphysical cosmic unity to come into being. The kabbalistic tikkun olam consisted in performing mitzvot with esoteric meanings in mind. Saying the right prayer with the right intention, for example, would crank the world forward on its way to messianic perfection.
Hasidic masters popularized kabbalah by applying it to human psychology. The universe requiring correction was now said to be our very own souls – the human psyche, we might say. We bear our own internal fracture lines that impact the world’s goodness; we cannot be part of the solution until we admit we are part of the problem.
Take this week’s mandate to appoint “for yourself judges and officers in your gates.” On the face of it, the Torah is describing the institutions of a just society. But sixteenth-century Kabbalist Isaiah Horowitz read it differently. The Hebrew “for yourself,” he said, is l’kha (singular) not lakhem (plural), so it must be addressing each of us as individuals, in which case, the “gates” denote the sensory openings to our inner selves: our eyes and ears which take in the world; our mouth with which we give back to it.
Yes, said Hasidic master Jacob Joseph of Polnoye. We must see to our own fractured state of being first. If we do not fix ourselves, we will never fix the universe.
Synagogues who advocate tikkun olam have largely forgotten these kabbalistic/Hasidic theologies. If they know them at all, they discount them as medieval superstition.Tikkun olam has been laundered free of any stains left by its original mystical context and become a benign catch-all term for good deeds, charity, and social action in general.
Other richly contoured metaphors of Jewish tradition have similarly been given a secular bath by modern-day Jews who get queasy about anything theological. God’s “graciousness” (for example) was originally “grace”: not some ho-hum variety of pleasant benevolence, but the wow-inducing experience of knowing God loves us, even if everyone else lets us down and even if we don’t deserve it. God’s “grace” is closely associated with tikkun olam. When we are utterly broken, God actually fixes us, and then empowers us to fix others.
How is it that we Jews who do so much else with panache manage to lose our imaginative nerve when it comes to religion? We probably would have advised Marc Chagall to forego all those angels, donkey’s heads, and heavenly brides. Some pretty clouds and sunsets are enough, we would have said.
Deracinated views of tikkun olam as some mere and modern do-good impulse has failed us. Sociologists have studied congregations that say they stand for social justice. Their members, it turns out, like the idea that their synagogue does “good deeds,” but, on the whole, they themselves do no more “good-deed work” than other people. The synagogue’s way of speaking is so uninspired! It does not move them.
Synagogues are not just secular bodies that provide life-cycle ceremonies and hootenannies in Hebrew called services. Synagogues are to other not-for-profits what Chagall’s imaginative skyscapes are to ordinary clouds and sunsets. Without transcendently imaginative language to stir the soul, tikkun olam becomes banal; so does the synagogue; and so do we.