From Tikkun to Empowerment

One of the concepts that speak most to my activist mind, in the Jewish tradition, is the concept of Tikkun Olam (pronounced tee-KOON oh-LUHM).

Tikkun” literally means repairing and “Olam” means world. Thus, “repairing the world”. This concept inspired generations of Jews, especially in the last 100 years, to take on that task and see how they could make the world a better place. Within Orthodox Jewish circles it is used in the context of overcoming all polytheistic practices, while in other more reform and liberal Jewish heritage it is interpreted as a practice for behaving and acting for the benefit of all.

Its origins lie in the Mishnah, the first major redaction ad commentary of the oral Torah (the sacred Old Testament ) and also the first major rabbinic literature. Dating back as far as the Middle Ages, the first use of the term was mostly associated with more mundane concepts, such as divorce documents, exempting mortgaged property from other lien and forbidding purchasing religious articles from non-Jews.

Jerusalem circa 1900
Jerusalem circa 1900

As the Jewish religion evolved, so did the concept of Tikkun Olam. In the Jewish tradition of lively debate, I now give you “two Jews - three opinions” of this concept as it is understood in current times:

The first from Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (Rav Kook) in his address at the dedication of Hebrew University in 1925:

Two tendencies characterize Jewish spirituality. One tendency is internal and entirely sacred… The second tendency characterizing Jewish spirituality served not only to deepen the sacredness of Torah within, but also as a means for the propagation and absorption of ideas. It served to propagate Jewish ideas and values from the private domain of Judaism into the public arena of the universe at large. For this purpose, we have established as a light unto the nations. It has also served to absorb the general knowledge derived by the collective effort of all of the humanity, by adopting the good and useful aspects of general knowledge to our storehouse of a purified way of living.

Rav Kook approach was for one to transform their outer world by transforming their inner world. Jews see their role in the world as a Light unto the Nations, which could be taken as a problematic notion when taken out of context. I will expand on that and look at in a larger global perspective, as I believe it’s important.

A second perspective came from Rabbi Jill Jacobs, “The History of "Tikkun Olam," June 2007:

The most well-known use of the term Tikkun Olam comes from Lurianic Kabbalah, a sixteenth-century mystical school that revolved around Rabbi Isaac Luria. In the Lurianic creation story, God emanated God's-self into the world through ten sefirot – aspects of the divine presence or Alternative configurations of the sephirot are given by different schools in the historical development of Kabbalah, with each articulating different spiritual aspects. God contained these sefirot within vessels, but some of the vessels proved too weak to hold the most powerful of the sefirot . The vessels shattered, resulting in the mixture of divine light with the kelipot-shells of the vessels themselves. This process resulted in the introduction of evil into the world.

Thus the place of the Jews to restore and bring these aspects together within their religious practice.

In a third, and more comprehensive way, Rabbi Jill Jacobs summarizes and combines four understandings of the term from the traditional text sources:

I suggest a re-imagining of Tikkun Olam: 1) the Aleynu’s concept of Tikkun (Aleynu means on us or "it is upon us or it is our obligation or duty to praise God,") as the destruction of any impurities that impede the full manifestation of the divine presence; 2) the literalist Midrashic (rabbinic elaborations on the biblical text) understanding of Tikkun Olam as the establishment of a sustainable world (A few midrashim suggest a more literal understanding of “tikkun olam” as the physical repair or stabilization of the world; 3) the rabbinic willingness to invoke Tikkun Ha’olam as a justification for changing untenable laws; and 4) the Lurianic belief that individual actions can affect the fate of the world as a whole.’

In this way, Rabbi Jill Jacobs bridges the gap between the more traditional use of the term to the more common use of the term today.

The Fountain - Film - Darren Aronofsky
The Fountain - Film - Darren Aronofsky

The term tikkun olam more or less disappeared from popular usage between the sixteenth century and the turn of the 20th centrury , when the concept reemerged both in the establishment of the new state of Israel and in global Jewish communities as the new shorthand for “social justice.”

The term has gained traction in general American liberal circles through the magazine tikkun, a left-leaning publication founded in 1986.

In modern Jewish circles, Tikkun Olam has become synonymous with the pursuit of social justice and the notion of social action. Look at any major social movement in the past century and you will see this concept moving Jewish people to take -action for social economical etc issues. It’s part of the DNA of this diverse ethnic group, to which your humble writer, was born to. It’s an impulse a lot of Jewish people, living modern secular lives, are drawn to weave into their work in the world.

Harvey Milk Mural
Harvey Milk Mural

Examples are plentiful:

Harvey Milk, the first openly-gay person to be elected to public office in California and a pillar of the LGBT rights movement in San Francisco, was a son of Lithuanian Jew. Even though he was raised as a secular Jew, many Jews see his life work and commitment to Gay rights as living a Jewish life that embodyies Tikkun Olam.

Little is known in mainstream channels about the Jewish connection to the great Nelson Mandela. Mandela apprenticed at a Jewish law firm, and his political life was profoundly intertwined with those of Jewish activists who, to varying degrees, found in their Jewish identity the imperative to object to a system that, while almost completely welcoming to them, treated blacks in a way that many of them, being children of European refugees, found tragically familiar.

My heritage is also South African, and from my family’s personal history, I can attest, that although the Apartheid government was never as discriminatory or violent to the Jews as it was to the African Natives--It was never trully accepting of the South-African Jews.

Southern trees bear a strange fruit,

Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,

Black body swinging in the Southern breeze,

Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

Another powerful story that drives home the story of Jews and the concept of Tikkun Olam, is that of the song, Strange fruit. One of Billie Holiday’s most iconic songs. Its words, and her voice haunting you and serving as one of the greatest protests of the inhumanity of racism.

Inspired by Lawrence Beitler's photograph of the 1930 lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith in Marion, Indiana, this poem first was published in 1937 by American writer, teacher, and songwriter Abel Meeropol, under his pseudonym Lewis Allan. Abel Merropol was a communist and he published the then “Bitter Fruit” poem in The New York Teacher, A union magazine. He also composed the music to it. Billie Holiday was introduced to the song a couple of years later and first performed the song at Cafe Society in 1939.

It was a milestone is the march for civil rights.

Beyond that story, Abel Meeropol and his wife, were part of another milestone event in American history of the 20th century. His pen name, Lewis Allen, were the names of the two children who were still born to him and his wife. The couple adopted two children, later in life, Michael and Robert Rosenberg. These were Ethel and Julius Rosenberg children, the Jewish Communist couple, who were sentenced to death for conspiring to give atomic secrets to the Soviet Union during the height of McCarthyism in the 1950’s. The boys then were 6 and 10 years old.

If you look at any social, environmental, human-rights, animal rights movement - I am sure you will find Jewish activists there, holding this idea of Tikkun Olam, as part of the narrative that drives them into action.

As we are evolving the New Human narrative and collective journey, there is a need to evolve this concept . The premise of the Jews as “light upon the nations”, which comes from an idea of opening the hearts and minds of the rest of the world to the idea of the one GOD, and later on, world repair, can be quite problematic. It suggests a dichotomy of light and dark, where Jews are considered the light and the rest of the world is in darkness. One can also read into it, that Jews are here to repair the whole world - it’s our responsibility and our burden. There is almost a sense of martyrdom in this idea. There is nothing empowering about that.

I have struggled with that concept for my entire existence. It holds promise for creating a world that works for all, but is framed in way that doesn’t truly promote unity.

I believe that the concept of Tikkun Olam is ready for a reframing.

Tikkun Olam is evolving and is moving beyond the religious and ethnic conversations.

We can bring it to the mainstream and hold it as a noble value to be practiced.

But one of the conversations that still stops me in my tracks around this idea, is the word “Repair”. It akin to the concept of “saving” which disempowers us.

In Breaking Away from the Hero’s myth” I discussed the over perpetuation of:

The drama triangle: an ever-present tension where characters in our narratives take turns putting on certain masks—whether knowingly or through circumstance—of the Victim, The Persecutor and The Hero/Savior. As an audience, we have no choice but to identify with one of those three angles.

To repair, we must assume that something is broken. To be clear, I am not proclaiming that our world is not full of issues we need to deal with. I am merely suggesting that coming from the place of wanting to “fix” things is disempowering to everyone involved. It’s assuming the role of the martyr sacrificing to fix or save something or someone while projecting victim and persecutor roles on the “others”.

We never get out of this dynamic.

I think it's time to evolve. And reinvent Tikkun along the way

So where do we begin?

As a narrative and culture designer, I believe we start with the stories and language we use. The great reframing and unraveling are upon us, and it’s time we use different words.

Thus, I suggest: Empowering the World or Regenerating the World.

Empowering the World in Hebrew could be: Haatzamat Olam.

Regenerate the World or Regenerative World could be Hashavat Olam or Chidush Olam - which comes from roots of coming back and renewing.

I can see both these terms starting to be used, but am particularly drawn to the first one - Empowering the World.

Imagine a world, where everyone is empowered. Where humans live their highest potential, which leads to total planetary regeneration. It speaks to a greater vision of the world. A self-actualized humanity, who is rolling up its sleeves to work together on the greatest challenges of our existence - and we are doing that together. The picture that is painted is so powerful.

Regenerative Culture is a human culture that leaves the world a better place than we found it. This should be the new Tikkun Olam.

By empowering and regenerating the world we can work together, all humans, nations, indigenous and native cultures to empower ourselves to make a world that works for all.

A world that is thriving, alive, beautiful. Where humans, animals, ecosystems co-exist.

The time has come. Let us “Empower the world”.

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