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?