The Limits of Tikkun Olam: Questions and Answers*

, November 1, 2014

Elliot N. Dorff


Does the very act of positive ethical behavior automatically fall into the category of tikkun olam, and are there conditions where the term does not apply?

The question asks whether the phrase “tikkun olam” applies to any moral act, or whether there are limits to its correct usage. To answer this question, one must first understand the different kinds of definitions. Most definitions, such as those found in dictionaries, are attempts to describe common usage. They are thus “descriptive” or “empirical.” Occasionally, however, one seeks to stipulate a definition—namely, to determine that a given term or phrase, while possibly meaning other things, will be used only in one particular way. This often happens in deductive systems of thought such as logic and mathematics, where, for example, a “circle” is defined as the locus of equidistant points from a given point rather than a closed, curved shape or some other possibility. This second kind of definition is called “prescriptive” or “stipulative.”

When we ask then whether there are any limits to the use of the term “tikkun olam,” it depends on the kind of definition we are seeking. If it is of the stipulative type, then we may define the limits of the term however we wish. We can say that, regardless of how the phrase has been used in the past, we now will use it in a certain way. We may then include or exclude as much as we want. For example, we may apply the term to every moral act, in which case it would become the logical equivalent of “moral.” Alternatively, we may decide that tikkun olam will apply only to specific kinds of moral acts, such as those intended to repair what is broken in our society and/or the environment. We may also define it completely differently, for example, as referring only to ritual acts through which we make the world ready for God’s presence. (Some kabbalistic writers have come close to this definition.)

I suspect, however, that the questioner is asking for the empirical, descriptive kind of definition. In that case, the question is whether the term in past and present Jewish usage includes any moral act or only certain moral acts, and whether the actor must intend to carry out an act of tikkun olam in order for his/her act to be considered as such.

As I describe in the first chapter of my book, The Way into Tikkun Olam (Repairing the World),1 the phrase “tikkun olam” historically has had a variety of meanings. These include:

(1)   What rabbis do to change Jewish law so that it does not bring about injustice or other bad outcomes for society (as in M. Gittin, chapter 4)

(2)   What God does in ridding the world of idolatry (as in the second section of the Aleinu prayer)

(3)   What individual Jews do in fulfilling all of the commandments (including the ritual ones) in order to repair the brokenness not only of the world but in God Himself (Lurianic kabbalah)

(4)   Freeing the world of the desire to do evil (Maharal of Prague) by observing all of the commandments

(5)   Acting according to norms of accepted good behavior in order to fix a situation in the world even if reason and Jewish law do not require such action, such as returning a lost object to someone even after he/she has given up hope of finding it (Maharal of Prague)

(6)   Social action activities

This last meaning is what most contemporary Jews think of when they use the term “tikkun olam.” However, it is a recent and new use of the term that perhaps began only sixty or seventy years ago. This does not mean that traditional Judaism did not value social action activities; it simply described them by using a different term, namely, gemilut hasadim, acts of loving kindness. Indeed, in the very first substantive mishnah in Ethics of the Fathers, acts of loving kindness, along with study of Torah and worship, are the three pillars on which the world stands. Therefore, social action constitutes an important part of traditional Jewish commitments. In any case, it is this meaning that I presume the questioner wants me to examine when he/she asks whether the term has any limits in content and whether performing an act of tikkun olam requires intention in order for such an act to fall into this category.

We must consider how people use the term along the lines that I have proposed above and not how I or anyone else suggests that they use it. Therefore, to respond to the question, one would have to conduct a sociological survey. I believe that its results would show that some people use the phrase to describe any moral action, while others would apply tikkun olam to mean only actions that affect society as a whole and/or the environment. Similarly, some probably would require that only if one has the intention to perform tikkun olam, could a particular act be considered as tikkun olam. Others would use the term to describe any act of social or environmental benefit that others would recognize as such. Therefore, the actor need not use the phrase or even have the intention to fulfill a commandment for his/her actions in order for them to qualify as acts of tikkun olam. Common usage, I suspect, would not be precise about either of these situations.

Therefore, I find myself wondering whether I should suggest what would make sense to me about the issues raised in the question. That is: given that I can almost guarantee that the term is used imprecisely in common parlance, I will discuss what makes sense to me about the limits of the term in content and intent. Here, though, I must advise the reader that I am shifting from a descriptive, empirical definition to a stipulative, prescriptive one, while others may find good reason to do otherwise.

I think that the modern meaning of tikkun olam began as a synonym for social action. Therefore, it was limited to acts that were intended to benefit society as a whole, including the environment in which we all live. Thus, teaching people to read or to hold a job would qualify for this term, along with cleaning up beaches or working to stop pollution. I personally have no objection to limiting the meaning of the term to such endeavors, but I wonder whether it should not also be applied to at least some interpersonal situations, such as settling a dispute among friends or bringing about the reconciliation of a couple. While such acts affect only a few people and address their relationships rather than improve the conditions of society or the world as a whole, I would like to honor such actions and their importance for the persons involved and even for society at large by calling them acts of tikkun olam. (This somewhat reflects the passage in two varying manuscripts of a rabbinic source in the early morning liturgy of many prayer books that describe acts that benefit us in this world and also in the world to come. Some manuscripts omit “bringing peace to a husband and wife,” and some include it.)

I would not expand the term “tikkun olam” to refer to all moral norms and thus use it as a synonym for morality. Refraining from murder, theft, rape or fraud are certainly morally worthy, along with providing support and education for one’s children and paying one’s taxes, but none of these actions demanded by morality (and, in some cases, the law) suit my definition of tikkun olam because they are some of the minimum requirements for a moral person. In my opinion, tikkun olam has a supererogatory aspect: namely, acts referred to as tikkun olam must go beyond conventional, normative expectations and, therefore, are especially praiseworthy.

The second part of this question concerns intention and is reminiscent of a discussion in the Talmud (B. Bava Kamma 86b) about what constitutes shame: Must one acknowledge that he or she has been dishonored in order to collect compensation for shame, or is it enough for the members of his/her family or society to regard it as such? Is personal experience necessary for the category of shame to be applied, or is it enough that others think that the action falls into that category? The Talmud records disparate views on this issue.

I would use the term “tikkun olam” to describe even acts that the person performing them does not regard as such. Thus, I would use an objective, rather than a subjective, criterion to define an act as one of tikkun olam so that any act of social or environmental benefit qualifies for this category, even if the actor does not think of it as such. Although I would consider any act of social or environmental benefit to be an act of tikkun olam, even if those involved do not understand it as such, I would try to teach them to see their sacred work through this Jewish lens. Jews can add more meaning to their good deeds if they are taught to regard them not only as acts of humanitarianism but as the fulfillment of mitzvoth. That perspective links them to the Jewish community past and present, to the Jewish tradition, and to God.


Can there be tikkun olam without Torah?

Effectively this question asks not only whether non-religious Jews may be considered as performing acts of tikkun olam, but non-Jews as well.

It seems clear to me that non-religious Jews and non-Jews not only can, but actually perform acts we would call tikkun olam. For example, as a past president of Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles, I can attest that Catholic Social Services and equivalent agencies of other religions help individuals and families as much as we do—and often in the same way. Similarly, the Peace Corps performs acts of tikkun olam all over the world, and has done so long before the American Jewish World Service was organized. Objectively, tikkun olam may exist outside the context of Torah.

The motivations behind such acts and their meanings often differ markedly if one bases them upon Torah as opposed to a general humanitarian spirit. The motivations and meanings may be different for Jews who perform acts of tikkun olam out of a religious sense of Torah in contrast to those who do so from a general sense of Jewish culture. Those who view such acts in religious terms understand them as a way to connect with God in addition to connecting with other Jews and the Jewish tradition. In contrast, Jews who regard such acts only in cultural terms miss their theological and religious meanings. Furthermore, as far as Christians are concerned, what Jews refer to as acts of tikkun olam is not considered as a fulfillment of God’s commandments because in the Epistle to the Romans 7:11, Paul states that Christians are not bound by Jewish law. Therefore, such acts do not reflect a connection to Jewish culture or to the Jewish people. In fact, such acts constitute what it means to live a life in response to the words of Jesus—as the Evangelicals say: “WWJD—What Would Jesus Do?” Hence, the acts that we call tikkun olam can be and are being performed outside the rubric of Torah, but the specific Jewish religious meanings of tikkun olam can only be fulfilled within the context of Torah.

I should note that this variation in meaning with regard to the term “tikkun olam” is no different from the way that words and acts serve in other arenas of life. The same objective act may have radically different meanings for those performing it, depending on the way that act fits into their larger perspectives, convictions and goals.


Does tikkun olam (or, in rabbinic parlance, tikkun ha-olam) represent the affirmation of freedom of will and the rejection of fatalism? Can we consider the affirmation of human self-improvement as an optimistic concept that implies the rejection of fatalism and determinism?

Yes. Tikkun olam means that we can repair the world and that we should do so. The nature of the concept of tikkun olam assumes the existence of free will and also the ability to act according to one’s free will in order to make changes in the world. Therefore, it is a strong rejection of both fatalism and determinism and another example of how much the Jewish tradition assumes free will. In fact, the whole system of mitzvot assumes that we can both understand God’s commandments and comply—or choose not to do so—and suffer the consequences. This differs from the Christian doctrine of Original Sin,2 which no one can overcome by performing good deeds, but only through faith in a supernatural intercessor. (According to Paul, there is no salvation by works, but only by faith.3) It also differs from Islam, where determinism and even fatalism are common, although not universal. (To my knowledge, Gersonides (1288–1344) was the only serious Jewish thinker who argued in favor of fatalism.)

Nonetheless, Jewish sources recognize the limits of our free will. For example, children are not held legally responsible for their actions. Similarly, those who are mentally unbalanced lack both legal agency and culpability. The Talmud tries to define insanity through specific acts (“he who goes out alone at night, and he who spends the night in a cemetery, and he who tears his garments”4) in order to determine who fits into this category. According to Maimonides, these types of behavior may be regarded as symptoms, but not as a definition, of insanity.5 The Talmud also recognizes that on occasion one may have moments of sanity and insanity and the rabbis refer to this fact when they permit a man, in a state of sanity, to appoint an agent to divorce his wife so that she may marry someone else or to act in other legal capacities.6

In addition to the mentally ill, deaf mutes and minors were not regarded as legally competent. Thus, they lacked complete free will. In fact, in the Mishnah, the three—the “deaf mute, insane and minor”—(heresh shoteh v’katan) appear together twenty times.7 Generally speaking, the acts of such persons are not legally binding nor are such persons legally liable for injuries or damage to property that they cause. However, adult, sane people who interact with them are fully liable for any injury8 or damage9 which they cause the disabled. In several instances, their acts are legally binding, for example, when they write a writ of divorce (get).10

According to the Torah, the validity of an oath of a woman is dependent upon whether the man of her household—her father or husband—has accepted the oath. For, in the patriarchal society of ancient times, women could not control financial affairs.11 The Mishnah establishes a principle that a woman is the equal of a man with respect to all civil laws of the Torah,12 but her legal position is clearly inferior to that of a man. She was usually incompetent to act as a witness13 and could not hold judicial office.14

At the same time, the Mishnah asserts that “an [adult] person is always [construed legally to be] forewarned” and therefore is fully liable for any damage or injuries he or she causes, whether intentionally or not, whether awake or asleep.15 If a man was temporarily deranged, delirious or intoxicated, he could not perform the necessary acts to divorce his wife.16 Conversely, someone who is under the influence of alcohol is legally responsible for his actions unless he has reached the state of oblivion attributed to Lot.17 It is not clear exactly why the Rabbis made this exception, especially when they hold those who are asleep as liable. Nor is it clear whether or how such an exception would apply to those who take hallucinatory drugs. Thus, in rabbinic law, there is greater presumption of free will and the responsibility that comes with it than in most other legal systems.

On a wider scale, no one may be held accountable to do what human beings are not usually able to do. Therefore, even if one wishes that someone who is seriously ill be healed, it is often not in one’s power to achieve this and no one bears responsibility for those who die of natural causes. Similarly, as much as Jewish law requires us to help the poor, the Torah recognizes that “the poor shall not disappear from the earth” (Deuteronomy 15:11). Thus, while it is our duty to alleviate poverty to the extent that we can, we are not expected to eliminate it altogether. There are material limits to our free will.

Recent discoveries in genetics and neuroscience have made the traditional Jewish ideas of free will and responsibility more complex. For example, the genetic makeup of certain individuals cause them to be susceptible to specific diseases and prone to certain behaviors. Therefore, those who are born with a propensity for alcoholism, have an obligation to avoid alcohol, not only for their health but also that they may behave responsibly.

However, questions arise in cases of new scientific discoveries, such as the fact there is a far higher propensity for violence in men who are born with an extra Y gene (XYY instead of the normal XY). Should they commit crimes, society must incarcerate them for reasons of safety. However, can such a man avoid violence as much as those who do not carry the extra gene and is he equally responsible for his violent acts, either legally or morally? He would not be imprisoned until or unless he committed a crime. In contrast, the Mishnah asserts that a stubborn and rebellious son is executed “for what he will do in the future so that he might die innocent and not guilty, for the death of the wicked is a benefit for them and a benefit for the world, while [the death] of the righteous is bad for them and bad for the world.”18 This assertion undermines the presumption of free will, for it assumes that one’s character is determined by early adolescence and therefore, the legal authorities can take a young man’s life if he is stubborn and rebellious even before he commits a crime because of those traits.

While it is true that the Rabbis narrowed that category to the point that even they acknowledged that such a person never existed and never would exist,19 the fact that they even entertained the idea that one could be put to death for something that he might do in the future presents major problems regarding the presumption of free will. Furthermore, it seems to undermine the rabbinic confidence that people can change, that they can go through the demanding process of teshuvah (repentance, literally, return) and thus be welcomed back into the good graces of God and the community—and that no one would remind them of their former misdeeds.20

Hence, the strong assertion of free will and responsibility built into the commandments of the Torah and the legal system of the Rabbis, including teshuvah has some major limitations and puzzling exceptions.

On a larger scale, the fact that depression or suicidal tendencies may be caused by the level of serotonin in the brain raises several questions. For example, will such people be able to recover and live active lives? Interestingly, although according to Jewish law, someone who commits suicide must be buried outside the walls of the cemetery, it is assumed that when the individual committed suicide, he or she was insane and therefore, the deceased is not responsible for his/her act and is eligible for burial alongside other Jews.21 This practice is a recognition that such a decision may not have been made on the basis of free will.

Neuroscience poses a further challenge to the Jewish idea of free will. Brain imaging techniques, especially MRI, have enabled scientists to determine within milliseconds the course of a decision within the human brain. Therefore, it is possible that what one may experience as free will actually constitutes the concurrent workings of multiple firings of the synapses regardless of one’s sensation of choice. In other words, it is possible—although not proven—that the behaviorists were correct in stating that man is the sum total of nature and nurture and there is little, if anything, that one can control. That, however, has yet to be demonstrated convincingly.

At present, the Jewish idea of free will and the responsibility that comes with it is, for the most part, scientifically plausible and legally and morally important. I believe that Judaism spells “responsibility” with a capital “R”. Therefore, we not only have the free will and ability to choose to repair the world, we have the obligation to do so.

Furthermore, although while one performs acts of tikkun olam, one may participate in self-improvement, that is not their major purpose. As “olam” or “ha-olam” indicates, the focus is on the society and world outside oneself. Self-improvement is good, but it is not part of the meaning of tikkun olam or tikkun ha-olam, which is about others, not about oneself.

* * *


*      Editor’s note: In order to facilitate the dialogue, the author and the editor adopted the question and answer format, as above. J.S.F.
  1. Elliot N. Dorff, The Way into Tikkun Olam (Repairing the World) (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights, 2005).
  2. Epistle to the Romans 5:12–21.
  3. Romans 3:20, 7:7–25; Epistle to the Ephesians 2:8–9; Epistle to the Galatians 2:19–21. Note that the New Testament assumes that once one has faith in Jesus, that faith should produce righteous actions. But actions alone cannot redeem a person because of the sinful nature of human beings. For example, James 2:14–26 asserts that “faith divorced from deed is lifeless as a corpse.” See also: Galatians 5:13–25.
  4. B. Hagigah 3b-4a; see also: T. Terumot 1:3; B. Shabbat 105b; B. Sanhedrin 65b; and B. Niddah 17a.
  5. M.T. Laws of Testimony 9:9–11, and see the commentary on that passage in the Kesef Mishnah.
  6. T. Terumot 1:3; B. Rosh Hashanah 28a; B. Yevamot 31a, 113b; B. Ketubbot 20a.
  7. E.g., M. Eruvin 3:2; M. Rosh Hashanah 3:8; etc.
  8. M. Bava Kamma 8:4.
  9. M. Bava Kamma 4:4.
  10. M. Gittin 2:5.
  11. Numbers 30:2–17.
  12. M. Kiddushin 1:7; cf. B. Kiddushin 35a–b.
  13. M. Rosh Hashanah 1:8; B. Shevu’ot 30a.
  14. B. Bava Kamma 15a.
  15. M. Bava Kamma 2:6; cf. also 1:4.
  16. M. Yevamot 14:1; M. Gittin 7:1; B. Gittin 67b.
  17. Lot: Genesis 19:31–36. That oblivion erases responsibility: B. Eruvin 65a.
  18. M. Sanhedrin 8:5.
  19. B. Sanhedrin 71a.
  20. M. Bava Metzia 4:10.
  21. That a suicide should not be buried as a Jew: M.T. Laws of Mourning 1:11; S.A. Yoreh De’ah 345:1–2. That someone who commits suicide “under duress like King Saul” is buried with full Jewish rites in a Jewish cemetery: S.A. Yoreh De’ah 345:3.

Elliot N. Dorff is a Conservative rabbi and professor of Jewish theology at the American Jewish University (formerly the University of Judaism) in California (where he is also rector), an author and a bio-ethicist.

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