Thursday, June 19, 2003

Repair of the World? by Benjamin Kerstein
The Hijacking of Tikkun Olam

A recent brochure from a local Boston temple, which shall in the name of mutual goodwill remain nameless, seeks to entice youngsters into volunteering in inner city schools for the purpose of “learning about the Jewish obligation of tikkun olam”. The ex-‘60s radical and self-appointed rabbi Michael Lerner serves up a monthly journal called Tikkun, in which he seeks to prove that Judaism in its true form is, by astonishing coincidence, identical to the platform of the Socialist Workers Party. While I was a student in Israel last year I received a flurry of emails from an organization seeking to be “both pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian” that breathlessly declared itself “committed to tikkun”. This all leads one to wonder just what this tikkun thing is all about in the first place.

Its proponents in the more liberal circles of the Jewish world claim that the term means “repair of the world”, which is in the literal sense correct, and that the concept calls upon the Jewish people to do charity and good works in order to bring order and justice to our chaotic and unjust world. In the hands of Lerner and company the term is nothing less than a Utopian rallying cry, an obligation to restructure our existence in order to eliminate poverty, suffering, and injustice. This is, in any sense, utter balderdash.

The concept of tikkun olam has, in fact, nothing to do with earthly conditions whatsoever. It is a mystical term, or more precisely a Kabbalistic term. Its originator, it is believed, was the legendary 16th century rabbi Yitzhak Lauria, who lived in Safed in the Land of Israel and originated the tradition of Kabbalah which to this day bears his name. Among Laurianic Kabbalah’s most arresting and creative innovations was the concept of the klippot, the shattered vessels. Through an immensely convoluted dialectic, Lauria claimed that the sefirot – 10 vessels which together composed the Divine World – were shattered at the moment of Creation, their remnants making up the universe which we inhabit. These klippot are infused with evil, and the universe they created is our flawed existence of suffering and injustice. However, there is hope, trapped within the vessels are the sparks of the Divine Light which were captured at the moment of destruction. It is the job of the Jewish people, through religious fervor and pious observation of Jewish Law, to raise the Divine sparks back up into the Divine Sphere and thus dissolve the klippot, and with it our imperfect and corrupted universe, forever.

This is an understandably seductive concept to those convinced of both the higher moral calling of Judaism and entranced by the possibilities of a Utopian order. The idea of liquidating evil, of reaching a final, decisive victory over injustice itself, is a concept which has absorbed multitudes of great and lesser minds throughout the centuries. The temptation also to place one’s personal political beliefs in a religious context is often too much to bear even for those who ought to know better. It raises one’s beliefs into articles of faith, for those who dissent from your ideology are now not merely defying your will; they are in defiance of God himself. And, of course, it opens doors. Claiming you got your ideas from Karl Marx is unlikely to perk up the ears of the multitude in the same way as claiming you got your ideas from Mount Sinai. Wrapping otherwise unpalatable notions in the language of religion is an age-old political tactic. It is hugely dishonest and, some would argue, borderline offensive, but it works better than some people would like to admit. It has, after all, gotten “rabbi” Lerner, who thirty years ago was considered an unprintable buffoon by his New Left colleagues, a nationally distributed journal of opinion.

What is most ironic, however, about the misappropriation of tikkun, is how utterly the appropriators have misunderstood the concept itself. Tikkun, after all, does not want to bring order and justice to the world; it wants to destroy it outright, dissolving it back into the emptiness from whence it came. Rav Lauria – a real rabbi this time – did not want to rearrange the world to make it good and just, he considered it irredeemably evil and corrupted, the creation of a perverse aberration of the Divine System. It seems clear that, in actual fact, tikkun is a completely religious concept, devoid of any real-world significance beyond the exhortation to ritual observance and mystical fervency. The tikkunists even misinterpret the words themselves, for the “world” tikkun olam seeks to repair is not ours, but the Divine World disrupted by the shattering of the vessels. It may be that there is a very good argument for the ideas of the tikkunists, but there is precious little argument for taking an ancient – and in many ways beautiful – mystical concept and twisting into a perversion intended only to serve their political ends. They may believe what they wish, but before attempting to appropriate Judaism in support of it, they ought to make an attempt to know what they’re talking about.