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Tikkun Olam: A Case of Semantic Displacement

Filed under: World Jewry
Publication: Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review
Volume 25, Numbers 3–4


An American Jew makes his first trip to Israel. Greeted at the airport by his Israeli cousin, his first question is: “How do you say ‘tikkun olam’ in Hebrew?”

The term “tikkun olam” has become the shibboleth of American Jewry, and like other Jewish words such as “chutzpah” it has entered English vocabulary without translation. American politicians, including President Barack Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, readily invoke it. During the 2012 election campaign, pundits from both sides tried to convince potential Jewish voters that their candidate—be it Obama or Romney—was the “real tikkun olam candidate.” As leading African-American scholar, Cornell West asserted: “It’s tikkun olam all the way.” In documents articulating a joint Jewish-Christian agenda for social action, various American Catholic and Protestant groups mention tikkun olam. Jewish advocacy organizations, synagogues, federations, rabbis, Jewish communal service workers and others, not only incessantly use this term and incorporate it into institutional “mission statements,” but also depict it as an essential
component of Judaism, if not as a term synonymous with “Judaism.” Thus, a diverse potpourri of activities, from the sublime to the ridiculous, has been identified with tikkun olam.

What is the linguistic, syntactic and historical genealogy of this term?1 How did it acquire its current popular meaning? Is its contemporary use related to the meanings ascribed to it throughout classical Jewish religious literature? If so, how is it so; if not, then what informs its present usage?

Google “tikkun olam” together with terms such as: same sex marriage, abortion on demand, ecology, eco-kashrut, animal rights, Palestine, redistribution of wealth, and count the considerable number of entries. As it is often used today, tikkun olam denotes a form of social action that articulates a “progressive” social, economic and political agenda.

In her sociological studies of contemporary American Jewry, Sylvia Barack-Fishman refers to “coalescence” as a major feature of contemporary American Jewish life and thought prevalent among both the Jewishly committed and the Jewishly disaffected, among both secular and religious Jews. “Coalescence” means that Jews are no longer conscious of the possible differences between authentic Jewish values, ideas and texts derived from classical Jewish religious literature and non-Jewish values, ideas and texts adapted from the general culture. Consequently, non-Jewish values are embraced by Jews as “Jewish” values without any awareness of their origin. Ironically, various authentic Jewish values and texts that do not coalesce with those imported from outside, are considered “un-Jewish” by Jews, even by committed Jews.

As a primary example of “coalescence,” Barack-Fishman writes that American Jews “tend to look to social action and universal principles of tikkun olam as the sustained mission of Jews and Judaism in modern times, selecting from traditional Jewish rituals and behaviors those elements which may contribute to a meaningful (but episodic) Jewish experience.”2

Besides “coalescence,” a term relevant to the present discussion is the “category mistake.” Formulated by the British philosopher Gilbert Ryle, a “category mistake” means committing a semantic or ontological error by ascribing to an entity or an action features it could not properly have, features that are inappropriate to its essential nature.3 An example would be: “Last night I played five ounces of Mozart. Then, I went to the deli and ate a glatt kosher ham and cheese sandwich.” A category mistake may also be committed when one engages in what John Dewey called “conversion by redefinition,” which attempts to represent something as that which it is not by redefining it. For example, a Jewish vegan once informed me that tikkun olam requires me to consider the glatt kosher brisket I serve on Rosh Hashanah to be treif, not kosher. Ironically, many contemporary advocates of tikkun olam who reject the binding nature of Jewish law offer the teachings of tikkun olam as an alternative. Saying “no” to Jewish law, they attempt to replace it with a new tikkun olam-based system of acceptable Jewish norms. As we shall see, current use of “tikkun olam,” is an example of a category mistake and of conversion by redefinition.

Today, tikkun olam is usually translated as “to repair the world,” “tikkun” being translated as “repair” or “fix,” “olam” being translated as “world.” However, tikkun ha-olam is the term used throughout classical Hebrew literature. Each word that constitutes that phrase has a variety of additional meanings. As a result, classical texts are often misread, mistranslated or simply ignored in the attempt to utilize them as proof-texts to justify current understandings of the term.


In classical Hebrew and Aramaic texts, the range of meanings of the word “tikkun” and of various declensions of its verbal root T-K-N, include: repair, establish, institute, edit, restore, prepare, legislate, improve, perfect, remedy.4 Though “olam” often denotes “the world,” which seems to reflect the universalistic meaning denoted today by tikkun olam, it is clearly not the meaning of “olam” in the term “tikkun ha-olam” in most classical Hebrew sources, beginning with Tannaitic literature. For example, after reviewing all Talmudic occurrences of the term “tikkun ha-olam,” Reform leader and social activist Eugene J. Lipman concluded that “none of the material adduced here could serve to bring me to the conclusion that the Talmudic sages were speaking of all humanity… [the referent here relates only to] the Jewish community.”5

In her 1984 PhD dissertation, “Tikkun Olam in Early Rabbinic Literature,” submitted at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Sagit Mor examines the earliest appearances of the term in Hebrew literature, i.e., in Mishnah Gittin 4:1–5:3. According to Mor, the earliest appearance of the term “olam” refers to “Jewish culture and civilization” rather than to either universal humankind or to the natural world. It is linked here to the commandment “be fruitful and multiply” (Gen. 1:28) within the context of established Jewish legal norms. Based upon the assumption that a society and a culture—in this case Jewish society, law and culture—depends upon the traditional nuclear family for social stability and for the continuity of Jewish life and civilization, the Talmud seeks to clarify, and hopefully to remedy, the personal legal status of certain children and their parents.6 Specifically, this earliest use of the term aims at protecting the rights of women in divorce cases, shielding them from unscrupulous and extortionist husbands, and defending the legitimacy of such divorces, remarriages and of children born from such remarriages. This mechanism in Jewish legal ethics aims at establishing a family structure conducive to the spiritual and physical continuity of Jewish life and civilization. Like Mor, Lipman notes that this earliest use of the term is related to Jewish family matters because “marriage and the family were the matrix of Jewish communal life.”7

As Mor correctly indicates, after its initial application to divorce law, the use of the term “tikkun ha-olam” was expanded to include various other types of halakhic legislation which establish conditions aimed at supporting and sustaining various types of Jewish communal and individual needs. This observation correlates with Lipman’s conclusion that “in the Talmud, Tikkun Olam means ‘for the proper order of the Jewish community,’” rather than as contemporary views depict it: “to build a better world.”8

That current usage of tikkun olam is not only a departure from, but an outright rejection, distortion and even a repudiation of its original meaning, is eminently clear in contemporary attempts to identify the term with universalistic secular “progressive” causes such as zero population growth, abortion on demand and gay marriage. As we have seen, the term was initially promulgated to advocate Jewish propagation within the context of Jewish legal norms and the nuclear family, as well as for the purpose of maintaining and promulgating Jewish civilization.

In Tractate Gittin and elsewhere, we find the unfolding of the second stage of the use of the term in the Talmud, identified by Mor, where it is expanded to include various types of commercial dealings, economic transactions, liturgical practices, judicial procedures, tort and criminal law, and various situations related to clarifying personal legal status. In these texts, rabbinic legal decisions are justified as being “mipnei tikkun ha-olam.9 Sometimes these enactments are designated as “takkanot” (from the same verbal root as tikkun, i.e., T-K-N) denoting acts of rabbinic legislation aimed at amending existing Jewish laws and practices. Although the practice of issuing takkanot continued and was expanded during the Middle Ages and afterward, few were described, whether in the texts of such legislative decisions or in the responsa literature that discusses them, as being justified “mipnei tikkun ha-olam.”

In Tannaitic literature, various laws described as being “mipnei tikkun ha-olam,” were enacted in the wake of calamities suffered by the Jewish community, particularly in the Land of Israel, such as the destruction of the Second Temple and the failed revolts against the Romans during the second century. Many clearly were enacted in order to restore social, economic and religious stability to a community disrupted by such events. Here, as elsewhere, we see tikkun ha-olam as denoting the restoration of order and stability within Jewish communal life. Israeli jurist Menachem Elon characterized the Talmudic use of “mipnei tikkun ha-olam” as “reflecting the presence of a moral interest being translated into an enforceable legal norm… The legislation…is thus primarily designed to have a general [Jewish] communal benefit….the amoraim did not themselves use…tikkun ha-olam as a basis for further translation of morality into law.”10


Perhaps the best-known classical Hebrew text where a variant of tikkun ha-olam appears is the Aleinu prayer. This is unusual since the term is rare in Jewish liturgical texts. Attributed to the Talmudic sage Rav, Aleinu is rooted in the writings of the early Jewish mystics of the Merkavah school of late antiquity.11 The prayer has two distinct parts of which the earlier has ancient origins while the rest seems to have medieval origins. Standardized regular recitation of the Aleinu appears to have been introduced in the daily and festival liturgy around 1300 in response to historical calamity, in this case the martyrdom of Jews during the Crusades. Aleinu is known to have been sung or recited by medieval Jewish martyrs as they faced imminent death.12

The first paragraph is emphatically particularistic, distinguishing the Jewish people from all other peoples. The second paragraph is blatantly eschatological. The first paragraph depicts the people of Israel as exclusive worshippers of the true, One, God of Israel and Creator of the world, as distinct from the “nations of the world” who worship false gods, idols and “bow down to vanity and emptiness and pray to a god who cannot save” (apparently a reference to Christianity). The second paragraph affirms the hope in an eschatological future when idolatry and false gods will be uprooted, when the wicked will recognize and worship the true God, and will then come to accept “the yoke of divine sovereignty.”

While the first paragraph has a particularistic focus, the second has a universalistic one. Here, “tikkun” appears in its infinitive form (l’takein olam b’malkhut Shaddai), but does not mean “to repair,” rather “to establish,” i.e., in the eschatological future, the sovereignty of God over all humankind will be established.

This text offers an understanding of tikkun ha-olam that is completely unrelated to its contemporary understanding as social action, as politically “progressive,” as secular. Unlike the Aleinu, few, if any, contemporary expressions of tikkun [ha]-olam look forward to a remote eschatological future in which idolatrous ideologies will collapse and all humankind will live under the sovereignty of the Kingdom of God. In contrast to Aleinu, contemporary usage of the term is rarely theological or eschatological.

Despite the universalistic climax of this prayer, many contemporary liberal Jews find this prayer objectionable for two reasons: (1) its blatant and unabashed particularism in the first paragraph touting the politically incorrect claim of (Jewish) exceptionalism; and (2) its claim that God rather than human beings will be the primary agent in redemption. This current attitude reflects the position of the “civil religion” of American Jewry that avoids theology and “God-talk.” As Jonathan Woocher notes in his seminal work, Sacred Survival: The Civil Religion of American Jews, that although belief in God plays a central role in “American civil religion,” it plays a “thoroughly insignificant role in the civil religion of American Jews.” According to Woocher, American Jews largely consider belief in God as a cause for Jewish divisiveness rather than unity.13 Therefore, faith in God does not play a major role in contemporary Jewish identity, in Jewish communal activity or in Jewish social action, namely, in tikkun olam. Unlike the Aleinu which looks forward to a day when “God will be one and his name will be one,” the civil religion of American Jews focuses rather on oneness and unity of thought and action in the American Jewish community. Hence, the slogan “We are one,” replaces the Shema which affirms God who is one.

On numerous occasions cited in the present study, “tikkun” is related in classical Jewish literature to restoration. A major motif in Jewish eschatology envisages the “end of days” as a restoration of conditions that obtained in the past, often the distant past. For example, the traditional portrayal of the Messianic Age includes the restoration of the Temple, the Davidic monarchy and Jewish political sovereignty over the Land of Israel. As Gershom Scholem noted, restoration is the dominant motif in Jewish messianism. Less prominent is a utopian form of Jewish messianism that moves toward an unprecedented future, where humans often attempt to bring redemption by forcing God’s hand in history.14 Such ideas often lead to catastrophe, disappointment and despair when utopian goals remain unfulfilled, when false messiahs promise more than they can deliver.

Although the classical idea of tikkun ha-olam largely embraces a restorative messianism, the contemporary approach to tikkun ha-olam often embodies a utopian (and often secular) form of messianism, drawn from liberal political ideologies which promise a radical transformation of society, often through the efforts of a transformatory communal leader.

Utopianism and liberalism have a tendency to see change as a supreme value in itself. Coupled with the predisposition to believe that all problems are humanly solvable, these ideologies tend to embrace utopian policies on the basis of ideological principles that are either impossible to implement successfully or that proceed without due attention either to “facts on the ground” or to actual outcomes. As Conservative Jewish theologian Seymour Siegel wrote:

Judaism affirms that in historical time humans cannot solve all problems. Schemes for bringing salvation in historical time are false messianisms wreaking havoc and destruction. Those who promise a heaven on earth usually succeed in creating a hell on earth. At such point, Jewish teachings are contrary to liberal ideology.15

Utopian dreams often engender utopian nightmares. Aleinu reminds us that God is the “senior partner” in the process of redemption, that humans cannot and should not attempt to solve all problems, that until the time of messianic redemption we live in a pre-messianic, messy world. Or, as Abraham Joshua Heschel eloquently stated: “At the end of days, evil will be conquered by the One; in historical times, evils must be conquered one by one.”16

The term “tikkun ha-olam” appears more than forty times in rabbinic literature (Babylonian Talmud, Jerusalem Talmud, Tosefta, midrashim). For centuries thereafter its usage largely became dormant. Today it is described as a central teaching of Judaism, often equated with Judaism itself (thereby illustrative of “the reductionist fallacy”). However, until its reemergence in late medieval Jewish mystical texts, both the term and the concept remain marginal in classical Hebrew literature. In view of its contemporary portrayal as a vital and essential Jewish concept with rabbinic roots, it is revealing that in no significant scholarly study of early rabbinic literature, is it described as a major concept or feature of rabbinic thought.17 Hence, current attempts to inflate its rabbinic pedigree in order to justify its present prominence are unfounded.


In medieval Jewish philosophy, probably under the influence of Arabic language and philosophy, “tikkun” was often applied to human self-development, and to the quest for human “perfection,” self-actualization or moral/spiritual improvement. Terms like “tikkun ha-middot” (“Improvement of the Moral Virtues”—the name of a treatise on ethics by Solomon ibn Gabirol), “tikkun ha-guf” (“perfection of the body,” a term often used by Maimonides in his moral writings) and “tikkun ha-nefesh” (“perfection of the soul”—equated by Maimonides with moral development) became prevalent in medieval Jewish philosophical-ethical literature, in treatises originally written in Hebrew or translated during the Middle Ages from Arabic into Hebrew. For Maimonides and others, the achievement of these states often entailed the “restoration” of physical, moral and spiritual health by dispelling disease and moral vice and by inculcating physical wellness and moral virtue. This process of restoration and aspiration is often called “tikkun.”

This portrayal of tikkun as a process of spiritual and moral self-development reverberated throughout the Jewish ethical literature (Sifrut ha-Musar) that developed in medieval times, including the Jewish mystical-ethical literature largely composed during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In this regard, it may be noted that while medieval Jews applied tikkun to their own personal ethical and spiritual development, contemporary Jews often tend to put aside the arduous task of spiritual/moral self-development in order to “fix the world.” It’s like the old story of the parent who asks his (or her) teenage child to clean up his or her room before leaving the house to clean up the world.


Others have extensively and precisely summarized kabbalistic teachings regarding tikkun, tikkun ha-nefesh, tikkun ha-olam and tikkun ha-olamot in Jewish mystical texts such as: the Zohar, the writings of Moses Cordevero, the teachings of Isaac Luria, Jewish mystical-ethical treatises, the writings of Isaiah Horowitz, Moses Hayyim Luzzatto and others, as well as those of various prominent hasidic masters. A review of these often complicated texts and teachings inevitably leads one to agree with kabbalah scholar Isaiah Tishbi’s claim that tikkun is “a central concept in the history of Kabbalah.”18

Of primary concern for the present discussion are not the intricacies of these teachings, but a comparison of some of their major features with contemporary portrayals of tikkun and tikkun ha-olam.

As has been noted, the “olam” of the Talmudic use of our term is the Jewish community. The “olam” of contemporary American use of the term is primarily humankind and the natural world (e.g., the application of the term to ecological concerns). For the kabbalists, however, the subject of “olam” is primarily “olam ha-sefirot,” “olam ha-elyon,” the upper world, the supernal realm, the world of the sefirot, namely the Godhead. The focus of the kabbalistic view is not primarily the social sphere, the terrestrial realm, but the divine realm. The kabbalistic approach is blatantly and unabashedly theocentric.

For the kabbalists, the goal of tikkun ha-olam is to restore harmony, balance and oneness among the forces that constitute the manifested aspects of God, i.e., the sefirot. In particular, the kabbalists aim at bringing about the “sacred intercourse” (zivuga kadisha) between the otherwise alienated “male” and “female” forces in the Godhead, restoring their initial union and balance, especially the relationship between the “male” sefirah called tiferet and the “female” sefirah of malkhut or shekhinah. In this view, everything, including God—especially God—is in a state or disarray, imbalance, alienation and “exile.” Embracing a theurgic posture, these texts assert the bold claim that it is the human task, the particular mission of the people of Israel and of every Jew, to engage in sacred activities aimed at restoring the Godhead, liberating the divine, especially the shekhinah and the sparks of divinity entrapped in the shells of the unholiness—and thereby accelerate the process of restoring the unity of God and the perfection of creation. For the kabbalists, the verse cited in the Aleinu from Zechariah (14:9) is taken literally—“on that day, God will be one and God’s name will be one,” meaning that currently God and his ineffable name are not one, not united, and that it is the Jewish mission to restore that unity though the performance of acts of tikkun.19

As Isaiah Horowitz wrote in the sixteenth century, “The purpose for all the commandments is tikkun ha-shekhinah,” the restoration of the shekhinah and her liberation from the forces of evil (sitra ahra) which obstruct her reunification with her male counterpart, tiferet.20 (Shekhinah is a “female” element in the Godhead and the aspect of the divine most proximate to us and to our world.) In addition to the usual means—prayer, performance of the commandments, ethical living and observance of Jewish law—the kabbalists introduced various additional contemplative and active practices such as “yihudim” (acts of unification) to bring this about, some of them demanding extreme ascetic behavior. In some hasidic circles, rather than ask after a person’s health when greeting someone, the question posed is: “Have you made a tikkun today?” The referent here, both to the means and the result, is not social action.

Kabbalists have offered a variety of explanations as to how things went awry. According to various kabbalists, creation entails destruction, while creation embodies intrinsic flaws that require rectification. However, all kabbalists seem to concur that flaws in all dimensions of existence, including the divine world, were either engendered and/or exacerbated by human sin. For this reason, a key ingredient in the process of tikkun is “teshuvah”—meaning both “repentance” and “return,” i.e., return and restoration of the primordial state of human, cosmic and divine existence before the inception of the initial catastrophe, before the presence of evil and sin. In this view, each human action either accelerates or retards redemption and restoration.

The kabbalists envisaged “channels” (“tzinorim”) through which divine power and grace flow down from the upper world to our world, providing potency, nourishment and material good to the world. When the upper worlds are unbalanced, when the channels are blocked, when sin pollutes the flow of the divine effulgence from above, the structure becomes flawed and dysfunctional. The task of the Jewish people and of every individual Jewish person is to correct the flow, to heal the flaw, to restore and to “draw down” the purity and potency of the divine effulgence (“ha-shefa ha-Elohi”) by acts of virtue, sacred deeds and repentance. For many of the kabbalists, this process of tikkun begins with tikkun ha-nefesh, repair of the individual soul, spiritually debilitated by sin, and requiring repentance—often by means of extreme ascetic practices, for the violation or neglect of Jewish law.

The emergence of Jewish mystical-ethical literature in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries focuses on the cultivation of the moral virtues and the dispelling of moral vices as a path to tikkun ha-nefesh. Clearly, this is a discipline for moral and spiritual rehabilitation, not a program for social or political action. Ironically, some of the sins considered in this literature as the most heinous and requiring the most extreme forms of repentance, are defined by contemporary liberal Jews as acts of tikkun olam, such as homosexual relations, abortion on demand and refusal to bring children into the world. Conspicuously absent from many contemporary discussions of tikkun ha-olam are precisely those activities that are critical for the kabbalists: observance of Jewish law; observance of the commandments; cultivation of moral virtues such as humility, ascetic practices, earnest repentance and observance of the Jewish holy days. It may also be surprising that contemporary advocates of tikkun olam often incorrectly identify it as a religious commandment, as a part of Jewish law, as an expression of “prophetic” or biblical Judaism, though none of these is the case.


From the preceding sections it should be readily apparent that the contemporary usages and understandings of tikkun ha-olam have little or nothing in common with the various understandings of the term in classical Jewish literature. Any similarity seems to be in name only rather than in substance. Even contemporary advocates of tikkun olam admit that most of the meanings ascribed to the term today cannot claim a legitimate pedigree from its earlier usages in Jewish religious literature.21 Indeed, some place the origin of the current usage of the term in the teachings of the eminent Jewish educator, Shlomo Bardin in the 1950s.22

As prominent Reform leader, Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf observed, the current use of the term “tikkun ha-olam” should itself be repaired and restored to its original meanings, rather than be a kabbalistic doctrine manipulated “to support political views of the soft left in our own time.” According to Wolf, “this strange notion has become a huge umbrella under which our petty moral concerns and political panaceas can come in and out of the rain.” Wolf further suggests that the program of tikkun olam as it has been utilized in contemporary Reform and other forms of liberal Judaism, resembles more the mission of the ACLU or the left-leaning platform of the Democratic Party than authentic Jewish thought and practice.23 Indeed, the current “verbal abuse” suffered by this ancient term has led some to suggest a moratorium on its use in that it has become used so promiscuously and randomly as to have become meaningless. When, in March 2012, President Barack Obama said, “the concept of Tikkun Olam has enriched and guided my life,” he clearly was not referring to the meanings ascribed to this term by Talmudic or kabbalistic texts.

The question now remains: If classical Jewish understandings of tikkun ha-olam are not the source of contemporary usages of the term, especially in liberal Jewish circles, then where can we locate the actual intellectual precedents for the current use and meaning of the term?

One place to look might be the 1999 reformulation of the “Ten Principles of Reform Judaism.” There, we read: “Partners with God in tikkun, repairing the world, we are called to help bring nearer the messianic age…. In doing so, we reaffirm social action and social justice as a central prophetic focus of traditional Reform beliefs and practices.”24 As we shall see, this linkage between “tikkun olam” and “Prophetic Judaism” is most telling and indicative of the actual origins of the contemporary understanding of the meaning of tikkun olam.

Since the nineteenth century, the agenda of “social justice” and “social action” of politically and religiously liberal Jews has often been justified by an appeal to Prophetic Judaism, taken to be the essence of Jewish religion and practice. Today, it would seem, these concepts have merged into the idea and practice of tikkun olam. The claim that the essence of Judaism is Prophetic Judaism, which serves as the forebear of the contemporary understanding of tikkun olam, has roots in the scholarship of Julius Wellhausen, a leading, innovative nineteenth-century liberal German Protestant Bible scholar, historian and theologian, who was a major influence on subsequent critical studies of Hebrew Scripture.

According to Wellhausen, the religion of biblical Israel was established by the “classical” or “literary” prophets such as Isaiah and Micah, who introduced the idea of universalistic ethical monotheism. According to this view, these prophets were radical, revolutionary, religious individuals who rejected particularism, nationalism, legalism and a focus on ritual observance. For Wellhausen, the essence of biblical Judaism, epitomized by the teachings of the classical prophets as he understood them, was corrupted by the legalism, particularism and ritualism of the biblical priesthood. It was then further distorted by the teachings of the Pharisees and subsequent rabbinic tradition. As a liberal Protestant theologian, what was now required for Wellhausen was a return to the religion of the classical prophets, particularly as it had become manifest in the teachings of Jesus in the Gospels.25

As with Wellhausen, modern liberal Judaism identified the essence of Judaism with Prophetic Judaism, with the “ethical monotheism” established by the classical biblical prophets.26 This approach also rejected the binding nature of Jewish law and all “non-essential” Jewish theological ideas and religious practices. Claiming that universalistic ethics is the essence of Judaism, early Jewish Reform thinkers identified the ethics of Prophetic Judaism with Kantian ethics. Like Kantian ethics, Prophetic Judaism stressed values of the European Enlightenment such as: individual moral autonomy, antinomianism, rationalism and universalism.27

In America, unlike Europe, Jews did not have to fight for fundamental civil and political rights, i.e., political emancipation. With the founding of the American republic, Jews were granted the same political rights as other citizens. Therefore, they felt comfortable in expanding their activities to include universalistic ethics in the fight for “social justice.” In America, Jewish ethics became not only theoretically universalistic but also programmatically universal, moving far beyond the boundaries of specifically Jewish social issues. For these reasons, unlike German Reform, American Reform—beginning with the 1885 Pittsburgh Platform—consistently emphasized the centrality of social action to its mission.28 Today, that tradition of “social action” derived from Prophetic Judaism is known by a new name: tikkun olam.

The influx of Eastern European Jews to America around the turn of the twentieth century, introduced communistic and socialistic ideas that were also identified with the universalistic, cosmopolitan ideas of Prophetic Judaism. It is not surprising to find that by the early 1980s, sociological studies confirmed that most “American Jews had been raised with the understanding that liberalism or political radicalism constituted the very essence of Judaism, that all the rest—the rituals, liturgy, communal organizations—were outdated, vestigial trappings for a religion with a great moral message embodied in liberalism.”29 According to an astute observer of American Jewry, for American Jews, “politics is our religion; our preferred denomination is liberalism.” A slogan of this secularist approach is: tikkun olam.30

From a sociological point of view, Prophetic Judaism was developed to further Jewish integration in the post-emancipation era. However, as sociologist Charles Liebman wrote in the early 1970s, “more than ever before, the values of integration and survival are mutually contradictory.” With particular reference to universalistic ethics and political liberalism, Liebman observed that Jewish religious values are not unambiguously liberal: “they are folk-oriented rather than universalistic, ethnocentric rather than cosmopolitan.”31 Writing in the 1990s, he observed that liberalism “fails as a strategy for Jewish survival because it lacks the resources to justify Jewish cohesion and particularism.”32 Whereas in Talmudic literature, tikkun ha-olam refers to measures aimed at Jewish physical, cultural and religious continuity, the value system underlying the current use of the term proves to be counterproductive to such continuity.

Prophetic Judaism was neither the Judaism of the prophets nor of the rabbis. Wellhausen’s scholarly views on the prophets have been discredited by subsequent biblical scholarship. The prophets did not subvert biblical law and ritual, but advocated its observance. The prophets were not revolutionary designers of Judaism, but guardians of a tradition in which they served as a vital link between their predecessors and their successors—the rabbis. Rather than advocating a universalistic ethic, the prophets were fierce advocates and defenders of the national aspirations of the people of Israel.33 The idea of so-called Prophetic Judaism, adapted by significant segments of modern Jewry, is neither “prophetic” nor is it Judaism. It is an imposition of Enlightenment and liberal Protestant ideas upon Jewish theology and practice.34 Solomon Schechter, a leading founder of Conservative Judaism in the United States, has noted that its denial of the binding nature of Jewish law is reminiscent of Pauline Christianity which rejected Jewish law in the name of a universalistic ethic. Schechter satirically called Jewish advocates of this position “amateur Christians.”35 As Schechter remarked: “Our ‘prophetic Jew’: Bodily pilfers the Pentateuch / And, undisturbed by conscious qualms / Perverts the prophets, and purloins the Psalms.”36

The contemporary use of tikkun olam is an example of the semantic displacement of American Jewry, an expression of verbal abuse. Today’s tikkun olam is a metamorphosed version of the earlier, so-called Prophetic Judaism which like its predecessor has come to be understood as being synonymous with Judaism. The attempt by early Jewish reformers to equate Judaism with Prophetic Judaism is both an example of the reductionist fallacy and a category mistake.37 Contemporary use of tikkun olam likewise commits the reductionist fallacy by trying to equate Judaism with a distorted view of tikkun ha-olam. The promiscuous use of the term identifies it with an enormous range of social programs, artistic projects, and a plethora of political causes. However, it is, in effect, little but a Jewish counterpart to Christian “liberation theology,” albeit without the theology, thereby appealing to the largely secular nature of American Jewry.


Although he was no stranger to social action or to the teachings of the biblical prophets, Abraham Joshua Heschel did not use the term “tikkun olam” to describe either of them. Both in his theological writings and in his statements on social/ethical issues, Heschel drew from the spiritual and intellectual resources of Jewish tradition rather than from those of the general culture. Like theologian Eliezer Berkovits and others, for Heschel, the Holocaust demonstrated the spiritual, intellectual and moral failure of Western civilization, particularly the philosophies that emerged from the French and German Enlightenment and from liberal Protestant Bible scholarship such as that of Wellhausen and his successors. Like Talmudic scholar Louis Finkelstein, Heschel maintained that the endemic, authentic spiritual and moral resources of Jewish tradition offer not only an authentic foundation for American Jewish life and thought, but also a wisdom-tradition “that the world is hungry to hear” and “needs to hear.”

According to Heschel, a form of Judaism rooted in foreign intellectual soil is a distortion and a fraud.

It is a situation of ‘the voice is the voice of Esau and the hands are the hands of Jacob’…physically we are Jews but spiritually, a fearful assimilation is raging. Jewish leaders talk about social and political problems with the voice of Esau when the world is hungry instead to hear a new spiritual word in Jewish terminology…a Jewish approach to problems.38… This I surely know…the source of creative Jewish thinking cannot be found in the desire to compare and to reconcile Judaism with a current doctrine.39

Therefore, Heschel advocated the application of a particularly and authentically Jewish way of thinking both to Jewish and universal social, ethical and spiritual
issues. Unlike contemporary views of tikkun olam that begin with universalism drawn from non-Jewish ideologies, Heschel advocated the application of particularly Jewish claims and ideas to universalistic issues. Like the view of Aleinu and sub­sequent kabbalistic literature, Heschel moves from the particular to the universal. One could summarize what has been outlined above regarding the contemporary distortions of the meaning of “tikkun ha-olam,” with Heschel’s admonition: “We may accept or reject it [i.e., Judaism], but should not distort it.”40

* * *


  1. Note that in most current usage, the term “tikkun olam” is preferred, whereas in classical Hebrew literature, beginning with the Mishnah, the term is “tikkun ha-olam,” already indicating a distorted contemporary use of the term. For a comprehensive, concise, well documented presentation of the development of the term “tikkun ha-olam” in Jewish religious literature, which informs all subsequent studies of the topic including this one, see: Gilbert S. Rosenthal, “Tikkun ha-olam: The Metamorphosis of a Concept,” Journal of Religion 85, no. 2 (April 2005): 214–40. See also: Lawrence Fine, “Tikkun: A Lurianic Motif in Contemporary Jewish Thought,” chapter in: Ancient Israel to Modern Judaism, Jacob Neusner et al, eds. (Atlanta: Scholars, 1989), vol. 4, 35–53. A leading expert in Lurianic kabbalah, Fine offers a clear and thorough presentation of the Lurianic idea of tikkun and then traces its subsequent use in modern Jewish thought, including works by Emil Fackenheim, Ismar Schorsh, Leonard Fein, Lawrence Kushner and in Tikkun magazine, as well as its adoption as a title for various synagogal social action programs. As should be evident from my analysis, I do not agree with Fine’s conclusion that tikkun ha-olam “can easily be lifted out of its original context and transformed into a ‘normative’ Jewish value. A contemporary idea is thus legitimated and rendered all the more significant by clothing it in the garb of tradition, a process as old as ‘tradition’ itself.” Of course, when Fine wrote his article, the term had not yet been applied as randomly and broadly as it is today. In most of the modern usages he presents, it was used in the context of a shattered post-Holocaust Jewish world, where it had, in his words, “the capacity to strike a deeply sympathetic chord in a generation which experienced the destruction of European Jewry or for a generation confronted [during the Cold War] by the unprecedented danger of nuclear calamity,” a generation working out a post-Holocaust theodicy while retaining a presumption of divine omnipotence. See also: Levi Cooper, “The Tikkun Olam Catch All,” Jewish Educational Leadership 11, no. 1 (Winter 2013): 46–53.
  2. Sylvia Barack-Fishman, Negotiating Both Sides of the Hyphen: Coalescence, Compartmentalization and American Jewish Values (Cincinnati: Jewish Studies Department of the University of Cincinnati, 1995), 14.
  3. Gilbert Ryle, The Concept of Mind (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1949). For a more extensive analysis of the “category mistake” and contemporary American Jewry, see: Byron L. Sherwin, “The Assimilation of Judaism: Heschel and the ‘Category Mistake,’” Judaism 55, nos. 3/4 (Fall/Winter 2006): 40–50.
  4. See, for example: Abraham Even Shoshan, Ha-Milon he-Hadash (Jerusalem: Kiryat Sefer, 1970), vol. 3, 1473–4; Marcus Jastrow, A Dictionary of the Targumim, The Talmud Babli, The Talmud Yerushalmi, and the Midrashic Literature (2nd ed.: New York: Pardes), vol. 2, 1691–3.
  5. Eugene J. Lipman, “Mipnei tikkun ha-olam in the Talmud,” chapter in: The Life of the Covenant, Joseph Edelheit, ed. (Chicago: Spertus College of Judaica Press, 1986), 108. See also: David Widzer, “The Use of Mipne Tikkun Ha-olam in the Babylonian Talmud,” CCAR Journal (Spring 2008).
  6. See: Sagit Mor, “Tikkun Olam: Its Early Meaning and Influence on Divorce Law during the Messianic Period,” Mo’ed (2005): 24–51 [Hebrew].
  7. Lipman, “Mipnei tikkun ha-olam,” 108. See also: Rosenthal, “Tikkun ha-olam,” 218–20.
  8. Lipman, “Mipnei tikkun ha-olam,” 108.
  9. Also used in Gittin 5 and elsewhere in the Talmud are terms such as: mipnei ha-mizbeah (for the sake of the sacrificial altar), mipnei darkhei shalom (for the ways of peace). Though not the subject of discussion here, it would be instructive to compare use of these terms to mipnei tikkun ha-olam.
  10. Menachem Elon, ed., The Principles of Jewish Law (Jerusalem: Keter, 1975), 154.
  11. See: Gershom Scholem, Jewish Gnosticism, Merkaba Mysticism, and Talmudic Tradition (New York: JTSA, 1960), 27–9, 105–6.
  12. See, for example, Ismar Elbogen, Jewish Liturgy: A Comprehensive History, trans. Ray­mond P. Scheindlin (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1993), 71–2; Steven Reif, Judaism and Hebrew Prayer (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 208–9, 383, nn. 4–5.
  13. Jonathan S. Woocher, Sacred Survival: The Civil Religion of American Jews (Bloomington: IN: Indiana University Press, 1986), 92. See also: Eugene Borowitz, Masks Jews Wear (Port Washington, NY: Sh’ma, 1980), 10, 208.
  14. See: Gershom Scholem, The Messianic Idea in Judaism (New York: Schocken, 1971), 1–36.
  15. Seymour Siegel, “An Anatomy of Liberalism: A Conservative View,” Judaism 21, no. 1 (Winter, 1972): 30.
  16. Abraham J. Heschel, God in Search of Man (New York: Harper and Row, 1955), 377.
  17. See, for example: Ephraim Urbach, The Sages, trans. Israel Abrahams (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987); George Foot Moore, Judaism, 3 vols. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1930); Max Kadushin, The Rabbinic Mind (New York: JTSA, 1952); Abraham J. Heschel, Heavenly Torah, trans. Gordon Tucker (New York: Continuum, 2005).
  18. Isaiah Tishbi, The Wisdom of the Zohar, trans. David Goldstein (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), p. 956; on tikkun in the Zohar, see: 955–61. On tikkun in Lurianic teachings, see, for example: Lawrence Fine, Physician of the Soul, Healer of the Cosmos (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003), and the sources noted and the discussion of them in: Rosenthal, “Tikkun ha-olam,” 223–34.
  19. See, for example: Moses Hayyim Luzzatto, Derekh ha-Shem (New York: Feldheim, 1988), 2:9, 14–41; 4:1, 260–1.
  20. Isaiah Horowitz, Shnei Luhot ha-Brit (Jerusalem: Edison, 1960), vol. 2, sec. “Rosh ha-Shanah,” 152b: “Ve-yadu’a ki kol ha-Mitzvot tikkunei Shekhinah Heim.” On Shekhinah, see e.g., “Shekhinah: The Feminine Element in Divinity,” chapter in: Gershom Scholem, On the Mystical Shape of the Godhead, trans. Joachim Neugroschel (New York: Schocken, 1991), 140–96.
  21. See, for example: Elliot N. Dorff, The Way into Tikkun Olam (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights, 2005), 7.
  22. As noted by Fine, “Tikkun,” 51.
  23. Arnold Jacob Wolf, “Repairing Tikkun Olam,” Judaism 50, no. 4 (Fall 2001): 479–82.
  24. See CCAR Journal 47:1 (Winter 2000): 4–5.
  25. See Julius Wellhausen, Prolegomena to the History of Ancient Israel (New York: Meridian, 1957).
  26. See, for example: Kaufmann Kohler, Jewish Theology (1918, 2nd ed.: New York: Ktav, 1968), 51, 104, 352.
  27. See, for example: Moritz Lazarus, The Ethics of Judaism, trans. Henrietta Szold (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1900), 123–38; Michael Meyer, Response to Modernity: A History of the Reform Movement in Judaism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 64–7.
  28. See: Ibid., 287–89.
  29. Steven Cohen, American Modernity and Jewish Identity (New York: Tavistock, 1983), 35; see also: Elliot Abrams, Faith or Fear (New York: Free, 1997), 146–52.
  30. Leonard Fein, Where Are We? (New York: Harper and Row, 1988), 225; see: idem on tikkun olam, 198–99. See also: Fine, “Tikkun Olam,” pp. 45–6.
  31. Charles Liebman, The Ambivalent American Jew (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1973), 150.
  32. Bernard Susser and Charles Liebman, Choosing Survival (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 69.
  33. See, for example: Edward Konig, “Prophecy [Hebrew],” Encyclopedia of Ethics and Religion (New York: Charles Scribner’s, 1921), 386; Yehezkel Kaufmann, Toledot ha-Emunah ha-Yisraelit (Tel Aviv: Dvir, 1964), vol. 1, 23; Joseph Blenkinsopp, A History of Prophecy in Israel (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1983), 23–30; Norman Podhoretz, The Prophets (New York: Free, 2002), 122–3. In Jerold S. Auerbach, Rabbis and Lawyers (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1990), 49–68, the author not only critiques the views of Wellhausen and his supporters on prophecy, but goes on to demonstrate how liberal Protestants and Jews, Jewish secular liberals, Jewish communists and socialists including Zionist communists and socialists, exploited Wellhausen’s understanding of prophecy for their own social, economic, political and religious ends.
  34. See: Byron L. Sherwin, Faith Finding Meaning: A Theology of Judaism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 11–37.
  35. See: Solomon Schechter’s letter to Rabbi Morris Joseph, quoted in Norman Bentwich, Solomon Schechter: A Biography (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1938), 303.
  36. Solomon Schechter, Seminary Addresses and Other Papers (New York: Burning Bush, 1959), 98.
  37. See: Sherwin, “The Assimilation of Judaism,” 40–3.
  38. See: Heschel’s 1948 Yiddish review of Aaron Zeitlin’s poetry and his 1963 interview with the Yiddish newspaper, The Day-Morning Journal, translated as appendices in: Morris Faierstein, “Abraham J. Heschel and the Holocaust,” Modern Judaism 19 (1999), 273–4. This is an intentional reverse paraphrase of Gen. 27:22.
  39. Abraham Heschel, Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996), 4.
  40. Heschel, Moral Grandeur, p. 3.