Speaking at the annual AIPAC policy conference on June 4, 2008, several months before he was elected president, Barack Obama invoked the term “tikkun olam” (literally, repairing the world) in order to create a common bond with his American Jewish audience. Speaking again at AIPAC four years later, this time as president, Obama again mentioned tikkun olam, taking it a step further by referring to “the concept of tikkun olam that has enriched and guided my life.”
Indeed, Obama said the same as other American politicians before him, such as President Bill Clinton, who regarded the term as representing a core ideal of the Jewish faith. Conversely, the more Judaism came to be defined by American leaders by this term, the more Jews themselves adopted tikkun olam as a concept which helped define their own Jewish identity.
Tikkun olam entered Jewish thought relatively late. It does not appear explicitly in the biblical sources. Moreover, tikkun ha-olam is discussed in a very restricted sense in Talmudic literature, primarily in the context of divorce law. Over time, it became a concept that emerged in the Kabbalistic doctrines of Rabbi Isaac Luria of Safed (1534–1572), which views the cosmic order as having been shattered and then repaired by man’s actions. Here the expression “tikkun” was used, but this is not the idea of social action that has become associated with tikkun olam today.
Regardless of the historical question of when the words tikkun olam entered the Jewish religious vocabulary, the idea of improving the world has hardly been alien to Jewish thought. This is reflected in the simple meaning of the famous verse in Deuteronomy, “Justice, justice you shall pursue” (16:20). In Exodus, Moses, who is regarded as the greatest of the Hebrew prophets, stands up to oppression (of Jews and non-Jews alike), setting an example for future generations.1
How did the idea of tikkun olam become a central Jewish value in recent decades? The answer may be found in the practices of the Jewish people over time, especially since the Emancipation, when Jews began to participate in the surrounding Gentile societies. Generally speaking, elements that have become an authentic part of Judaism do not necessarily have to be rooted in Mosaic law. They may be a product of Jewish history. Over the centuries, customs and practices that were inspired by legal texts also served as a valid source for the development of Judaism. Perhaps, it is best to see the role of tikkun olam in this context.
Sometimes the Jewish commitment to “repairing the world” appears without the terminology of tikkun olam. On July 17, 1998, during the negotiations at the United Nations for the creation of the International Criminal Court (ICC), Judge Eli Nathan, the head of Israel’s delegation to the proceedings, issued an important statement as to why Israel could not support the emerging ICC Statute. He explained that, according to its preamble, the ICC was created to address “unimaginable atrocities” and “grave crimes which deeply shock the conscience of the whole international community.”
The text of the statute, however, had been politicized by UN member states, who decided to include settlement activity in the disputed territories as an international crime along with genocide and “the most serious crimes of concern to the international community as a whole.” Therefore, Judge Nathan stated:
It is no secret that out of the embers of the Holocaust against the Jewish people—the greatest and most heinous crime to have been committed in the history of mankind, came the calls of Jews throughout the world, and leading Israeli lawyers and statesmen, as far back as the early 1950’s, for the establishment of an International Criminal Court, as a vital means of ensuring that criminals who commit such heinous and terrible crimes will be duly brought to justice. This was, Mr. President, inter alia, our idea! (emphasis added)2
Judge Nathan’s words were important because they constituted a declaration before the UN that fighting against violations of human rights was essentially a Jewish value. He was speaking not only about his fellow Israelis but also about the Jewish legal community as a whole.
Indeed, as Judge Nathan argued, the Jewish people played a leading role in the codification of international law in this area. For example, the French-Jewish jurist René Cassin (1887–1976) played a major role in drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, together with Eleanor Roosevelt. Cassin helped found the Consultative Council of Jewish Organizations in order to mobilize support for the UN human rights system within Jewish communities.
The Polish-Jewish legal authority, Raphael Lemkin (1900–1959) first coined the term “genocide” as part of his analysis of the crimes committed by the Ottoman Empire against the Armenians. His advocacy led directly to the adoption of the international Genocide Convention. Shabtai Rosenne (1917–2010), one of Israel’s leading experts in international law worked tirelessly to advance the idea of an international criminal court.
Finally, Sir Hersch Lauterpacht (1897–1960), who came from an observant Jewish background, devoted his life to the development of modern international law, especially to the protection of human rights. The Jewish roots of these important jurists clearly influenced their public actions. Ultimately, they were all directly involved in repairing the defective world they confronted in the mid-twentieth century and in providing the legal mechanisms for protecting a more just global order.
Unfortunately, that legal order is increasingly under assault, as the words of Judge Nathan have attested. The State of Israel thus finds itself in the position of having to protect the parameters of global justice, which the Jewish people bequeathed to the international community, but no longer are acceptable to many of the member states of the United Nations.
Obviously, tikkun olam is not only about international law and diplomacy, although these areas may very well embody the truest expressions of this ideal. The prominence of the term in Jewish discourse today has created a demand that scholars continue to examine its meaning in order to ascertain if it is a truly Jewish ideal or a secular ideal that has had Judaism grafted onto it. The following essays in this special issue of the Jewish Political Studies Review seek to provide some clarity regarding this question that confounds many observers and commentators to the present.
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1. Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, The Book of Jewish Values: A Day-By-Day Guide to Ethical Living (New York: Bell Tower, 2000).