Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Repair Job

On Saturday I attended Shabbat services at the synagogue here in Metro-Manila. It so happened that there was a guest speaker who spoke about tikkun olam. This is an ancient Hebrew phrase referring to the Torah and Talmudic teachings which acknowledge that the world is imperfect, and so it is the duty of each Jew to try to repair it. (Side note: So if the world is imperfect, then that reflects on an imperfect and therefore non-existent God?).

Interestingly, the lecturer, a rather engaging speaker, was an Orthodox rabbi. Yet in the course of his address, I don't recall that he mentioned God even once. But even if he had, it wouldn't have made a difference in light of the subject matter. For historically, not only traditional Jews, but progressive and radical Jews as well have identified with or may well have been influenced by the creed of tikkun olam. This can be seen in the works of such great Jewish historical figures and thinkers such as Spinoza, Marx, and Freud, (none of whom were theists). In American history many Jews were active in the U.S. labor, civil rights, the anti-Vietnam war, and feminist movements. They likewise personified this precept and and although their respective paths were controversial to many people, they did try to make America and the world a better place.

As an atheistic Jew, tikkun olam is a principle in which I too have long been interested, and I believe that it is something that all of us, Jewish or not, can practice. It doesn't necessarily require a great personal sacrifice or struggle. It can simply entail such actions as living decent, humane lives, and respecting the environment, or as in the words of the Jewish sage Hillel "That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor".

If nothing else, it's in our own self-interest to to try to improve society and in turn benefit from these efforts. Moreover, through such responsible living perhaps people will mature ethically and will outgrow the need to look to an imaginary supreme being for guidance. Under these circumstances, "God" will wither away, and civilization can then advance, liberated at last from the constraints of theism.

The world will never be perfect. But what is there to lose by striving to leave it a better place than we found it?


Barry and Elma said...

While I agree with some of your conclusions, our difference lies in how we get there. The phrase "tikkun olam"(literally, "world repair") has origins in classical rabbinic literature and in Lurianic kabbalah, a major strand of Jewish mysticism originating with the work of the 16th-century kabbalist Isaac Luria. It figures prominently in the Lurianic account of creation and its implications. (It teaches that the imperfections of the world were created by that very creation.) It was first used to refer to social action work in the 1950s when I was studying for Bar Mitzvah. Thus, over time tikkun olam went from being part of the religious technology of medieval mystics to a standard part of the vocabulary of contemporary North American Jews. Its goal shifted from dissolving history to advancing it. But the phrase “tikkun olam” remains connected with human responsibility for fixing what is wrong with the world. It also appears to respond to a profound sense of deep rupture in the universe, which speaks as much to the post-Holocaust era as it did in the wake of the expulsion from Spain and other medieval Jewish disasters. We also must keep in mind Judiasm's purpose is to carry out what it holds to be the only covenant between God and the Jewish People. The Torah thus guides Jews to walk in God's ways (Duet 30:16), to help them learn how to live a holy life on earth, and to bring holiness, peace and love into the world and into every part of life, so that life may be elevated to a high level of sanctity (Lev 19:2). This will allow the Jewish people as a community to be a "light unto the nations" (Isa 42:6, 49:6, 60:3)(that is, a role model)over the course of history and a part of the divine intent of bringing about an age of peace and sanctitiy where ideally a faithful life and good deeds should be the ends themselves, not means. Thus the concept of "mitzvot" or "mitzvah" (translated covenant or good deed). This also plays into why Jews do not believe that the messiah has come. So, again, while I agree with some of your conclusions, a follower of Jewish history would put a different reason behind our actions.

Secular Guy said...

Barry and Elma, thank you for a very incisive and comprehensive reply. I will just say that Judaism has evolved from ancient and medieval times when its followers had a very limited understanding of the world around them and thus mistakenly attributed the forces of nature to a supernatural power. Thanks to such courageous Jewish thinkers as Spinoza and others who were later guided by the Enlightenment, we now know better.

But there are many ethical precepts of Judaism that have obtained through the ages and are just as relevant today as ever but for which as it turns out a belief in God is quite unnecessary to follow them.

The Society for Humanistic Judaism has captured this philosophy beautifully. For anyone is wants to know more about this organization and /or who wants to stay Jewish without God, I recommend visiting their website at http://www.shj.org.

Alan said...

Social justice, like justice itself, is a concept discovered by many societies in many places. It doesn't have to originate in mysticism, and Jews have no monopoly, though in modern times, they have been prominent and active in various rights movements. Some early Bolshevik idealists were Jews -- anything was better than the Czar.

Secular Guy said...

Alan, As you mentioned some of the Russian Jews turned to Bolshevism, others to Zionism (and still others to a combination of the above). It seems that what all these groups, along with the rights movements participants in the U.S., had in common were idealism and hope for a better (utopian?) society.