Tikkun Olam

See the Introduction to Sacred Slogans for methodology and goals 
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Sacred Slogans

Of the Sacred Slogans we have addressed so far, none are as socially significant as “tikkun olam.” Tikkun olam literally translates to “repairing the world,” which is ambitious as it is open to interpretation. Despite the fact that there is no commandment mandate anywhere in Biblical1 or Rabbinic literature for Jews to undertake tikkun olam,2 some have understood it as a universalist mandate for the Jewish people. For example, according to Mordechai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, “We cannot consider ourselves servants of the Divine King unless we take upon ourselves the task ‘to perfect the World under the Kingdom of the Almighty.”3 Nearly 60 years later, R. Richard Hirsch asserted, “God has chosen us for a sacred mission: Tikkun Olam, to complete the universe. This concept of Tikkun Olam as the collective mission of the Jewish people has permeated every movement in Jewish life.”4

To illustrate the pervasiveness of “tikkun olam,” Andrew Silow-Carroll and Jonathan Krasner both used Google’s NGram Viewer to find the frequency of “tikkun olam” in published books and found a huge spike in its usage starting in early 1980’s and continued with a consistent upward trend that continues to this day.

With the extensive literature discussing tikkun olam constantly growing, a discussion of how the term has evolved would be a worthy study in its own right.5 However, my focus here is what did the idiom mean in its original context, with a focus on its practical implementations.

The Sources – General Comments

Before addressing the sources of tikkun olam in Rabbinic literature, it is worth noting what is not mentioned. First, as mentioned, there is no general mandate for tikkun olam. Rather, tikkun olam is the explanation given for why the Rabbinic sages legislated certain enactments. This post examines some of these acts of Rabbinic legislation, particularly those which do not require as much background explanation to appreciate. By examining these instances, we may be able to extrapolate how these enactments were designed to achieve tikkun olam.

Second, despite the universalist implications of tikkun olam, to the best of my knowledge there is no Rabbinic instance of tikkun olam being applied to behaviors towards gentiles. We do find certain enactments relating to interactions with gentiles to prevent enmity6 or in order foster “ways of peace,”7 but none of the examples of tikkun olam apply to the general global population.8

The final point conspicuous by its absence is that even as tikkun olam is cited as the reason for certain enactments, the specific explanation for how these enactments achieve tikkun olam is not always explicit. Extrapolating from these cases to form a general rule will necessarily require some degree of conjecture.

I have decided to organize the examples by their functions to better illustrate the range of possibilities and will offer my own theories at the end.

Restrictions

I call the first category of tikkun olam enactments “restrictions” since these decrees prevent actions which would otherwise be permitted. For example, if a husband sent a bill of divorce to his wife via messenger, he was initially able to cancel the divorce while the messenger was in transit. This right of the husband was rescinded by Rabban Gamliel the Elder due to tikkun olam.9 The reason behind Rabban Gamilel’s decree is the subject of an Amoraic dispute between R. Yohanan who holds that it was done to prevent mamzeirim and Reish Lakish who holds it was to prevent agunot.10 In either case, Rabban Gamliel restricted a previously existing right in order to prevent some undesirable consequence.

There are several examples of the Sages imposing restrictions regarding how property is used to pay for damages or debts.11  According to the Bible, payment for damaged crops must be paid from the best quality produce.12 R. Shimon, explains that the reason for this Biblical law is because of tikkun olam, since paying from the best quality produce serves as a deterrent against intentionally causing damage.13

Finally, certain restrictions instituted in the name of tikkun olam are designed to prevent what might otherwise be considered positive actions. The Talmud calls redeeming captives a “great mitzvah,”14 but a significant limitation on this “great mitzvah” is that captives are not to be redeemed for excessive ransom due to tikkun olam.15 The Talmud asks if the concern is that excessive ransom will put too much of a financial burden on the community or if excessive ransoms incentivize kidnappings.16 The Talmud does not provide a definitive answer, but in either case, the “great mitzvah” of redeeming captives may be suspended if the cost is too high. A similar law applies to purchasing Torah scrolls, tefillin, or mezzuzot from gentiles.17

Another mishna restricts helping captives escape, though here there is a dispute if this is because of tikkun olam or a distinct “enactment for captives,”18 with the concern being if a captive is freed, the remaining captives may be subject to harsher treatment.19 The Talmud explains that the difference between tikkun olam or an “enactment for captives” is if the rule would still apply if there is only one captive.20 Still, the concern here is that the short-term benefits for one individual cannot come at the expense of others.

Obligations

Sometimes tikkun olam requires creating new obligations or additional requirements to existing laws. The divorce document was modified to account for any aliases of the husband or wife21 and to include witnesses22 for tikkun olam. While not stated explicitly, these changes are almost certainly to ensure the integrity of the document and to prevent anyone from contesting the divorce. While not stated explicitly, these changes are almost certainly to ensure the integrity of the document and to prevent anyone from contesting the divorce.

For another example of an obligation created because of tikkun olam, a person who sells land in Israel to a gentile and buys it back must still bring an offering of the first fruits from the land.23 Practically speaking, this obligation in the name of tikkun olam prevents people from evading their religious responsibilities through an otherwise halakhically valid mechanism.24

Accommodations

Tikkun olam is also invoked to accommodate the needs of individuals. We find leniences regarding feeding orphans or minors from tithed produce out of tikkun olam.25 Landowners are permitted to repair their fences during the sabbatical year, despite the obligation to leave one’s land alone,26 due to tikkun olam.27 Finders of lost objects are exempted from taking an oath that they did not find more than they claim and that they pocketed the rest out of tikkun olam.28

Resolving Competing Interests

The final category of tikkun olam is in my opinion the most interesting. In these cases, the enactments of tikkun olam serve to resolve conflicts among legitimate competing interests, and do so by addressing the needs of all parties regardless of status.

Probably the most well-known example is that of Hillel’s prosbol, which requires a bit of explanation. According to Biblical law, the sabbatical year nullifies all financial debts between Jews.29 This presents an obvious problem for the lenders, particularly closer to the sabbatical year, since any money lent out would be shortly irretrievable. The Bible anticipates this objection and specifically warns against withholding loans from the poor as the sabbatical year approaches.30

However, as is often the case, people do not always follow what the Bible commands. Hillel noticed that people were disregarding the Biblical commandment to lend money. Hillel’s solution was to create the prosbol contract which transferred the debt from the individual lender to the court, in which case the debt would not be abrogated. This enactment of Hillel was in the interests of tikkun olam.31

The Biblical law as written protects the poor, but it also creates an imbalance where borrowers can demand loans which lenders would be obligated to provide, with both parties knowing in advance the loan will not be repaid. But as the Talmud explains, the positive effects of the prosbol are embedded in the name itself, in that it addresses the needs of the wealthy and the poor alike;32 the wealthy would not lose out from last minute lending and the poor would not lose out from a lack of capital. The poor technically lose their advantage over the lenders, but this advantage is irrelevant if lenders choose not to embrace the asymmetrical exchange. The optimal solution is one in which both relevant parties have their legitimate needs accommodated.

Conflicting interests aren’t just limited to transactions, but also include those acting in official capacities. The Mishna states that priests who intentionally invalidate offerings in the Temple are personally liable.33 The Tosefta elaborates saying that priests who invalidate offerings inadvertently are exempt, but those who do so intentionally are liable due to tikkun olam.34

Similarly, agents of the court who are charged with meting out corporal punishment are exempt if they caused excessive injury accidentally, but liable if they did so intentionally because of tikkun olam. Expert doctors who operate under the authority of a court are exempt from accidental injury in the course of treatment, but not intentional injury because of tikkun olam.35

There is no mention if the tikkun olam in these cases is due to indemnifying officials for accidental injury or for liability for intentional injury. I suggest that it could be both simultaneously. On one hand, those who serve in official capacities may choose to avoid risks if they would be held personally liable for mistakes. On the other hand, officials who are not held accountable for intentional injury would be more likely to abuse their power.36

A Theory of Tikkun Olam

As mentioned earlier, there is no Biblical or Rabbinic commandment for Jews to “repair the world,” and that tikkun olam is given as the reason why certain enactments or decrees were made. Given this fact, my suggestion is that tikkun olam is best understood not as an independent universal ethic, but subject to the halakhic process itself.37 Meaning, the reason for tikkun olam is secondary to the process by which decrees and enactments become normative law.

I believe this is apparent from a Talmudic debate over the prosbol. Recall that we saw a case earlier where tikkun olam was employed to prevent the circumvention of a Biblical obligation. Here, Hillel’s prosbol, also done in the name of tikkun olam, achieves the opposite effect in that it creates the loophole to bypass one’s Biblical obligations. Instead of enforcing the law on the books, Hillel essentially created a mechanism to avoid it.

The Talmud debates in detail the propriety of Hillel’s enactment, and the course of the discussion we find the following passage:

B. Gittin 36b
Come and hear: Shmuel said: This prosbul is an assumption (term of insolence) on the part of the judges; if I am ever in a position, I will abolish it. “I will abolish it?” How so, seeing that one Beth din cannot annul the decision of another unless it is superior to it in wisdom and numbers? — What he meant was: If ever I am in a stronger position than Hillel, I will abolish it.
R. Nahman, however, said: I would confirm it. Confirm it? Is it not already firmly established? — What he meant was: I will add a rule that even if it [the prosbul] is not actually written it shall be regarded as written.
תלמוד בבלי גיטין לו:ב
ת”ש, דאמר שמואל: הא פרוסבלא – עולבנא דדייני הוא, אי איישר חיל אבטליני’. אבטליני’? והא אין ב”ד יכול לבטל דברי ב”ד חברו – אלא א”כ גדול הימנו בחכמה ובמנין! הכי קאמר: אם איישר חיל יותר מהלל אבטליניה
ורב נחמן אמר: אקיימנה. אקיימנה? הא מיקיים וקאי! הכי קאמר: אימא ביה מילתא, דאע”ג דלא כתוב ככתוב דמי

Here we find conflicting perspectives on the prosbol. Shmuel thought it was presumptuous and would have preferred to abolish it altogether. R. Nahman would have taken it further and made the prosbol in effect by default, with no need for a formal contract. However, despite their sincerity and conviction, both Shmuel and R. Nahman acknowledge they lack the halakhic authority to nullify or modify Hillel’s decree.38 Even if they thought their way could have “improved the world” better than Hillel, both had the humility and integrity to submit to the established Jewish law.  

I believe that keeping tikkun olam under the auspices of the halakhic process is most consistent with the sources and that it provides the best guidance for Jews of today. First, if Shmuel and R. Nahman recognized their halakhic limitations, then I believe we today should do no less, particularly when it comes to issuing sweeping statements about what Jewish law requires. But even when operating within the confines of Jewish law, the cases of tikkun olam compel us to consider not only what an ideal policy ought to be, but the range of consequences for our decisions.

Notes

  1. “Tikkun olam” does not appear in the Bible.
  2. Even aggadic references to a form of tikkun olam do not refer to human intervention but to God’s process in creating the world. Gen. Rabba 4:6 refers to the spitting of the upper and lower waters and Gen. Rabba 13:13 refers to rainfall. Deut. Rabba 6:5 refers to birds.
  3. The Meaning of God in Modern Jewish Religion p. 124. Kaplan references the aleinu prayer in which we find the phrase לתקן עולם במלכות שדי / l’taken ‘olam b’malkhut shaddai which he and others choose to translate as “to perfect the world in the kingdom of God.” An alternative translation of לתקן / l’taken in context would be to, “establish.” Additionally, not only is the ‘aleinu prayer not a normative source for Jewish obligations, the actual text says nothing approximating an individual or collective mandate. Rather, the paragraph is aspirational when we “put our hope in the Lord our God” to establish God’s kingdom. Other things mentioned in this aspirational paragraph are to see God’s glorious strength, to remove idols and false gods from the earth, and that all the wicked will turn to God. If there is indeed a mandate from ‘aleinu for Jews to proactive to perfect or fix the world, then there is no less of an individual mandate on all Jews to accomplish the rest.
  4. Tikkun Olam – Can we Repair the World for the Twenty First Century?” European Judaism: A Journal for the New Europe 29:2 (Autumn 1996) p. 89.
  5. There are about a dozen essays on tikkun olam collected here alone.
  6. B. Avoda Zara 26a
  7. B. Gittin 61a
  8. If anyone knows of a source to the contrary, please let me know via my contact page and I will happily correct my error.
  9. M. Gittin 4:2
  10. B. Gittin 33a
  11. Others examples are found in M. Gittin 5:3 and B. Ketuvot 56b.
  12. Ex. 22:4
  13. B. Gittin 49b. Note that the baraita which is cited in the Talmud does not mention tikkun olam to describe R. Shimon’s interpretation (T. Ketuvot 12:2)
  14. B. Bava Batra 8b
  15. M. Gittin 4:6
  16. B. Gittin 45a
  17. M. Gittin 4:6
  18. M. Gittin 4:6
  19. Y. Gittin 4:6 46a
  20. B. Gittin 45a
  21. M. Gittin 4:2. I studied Gittin with R. Eliyahu Ben-Haim at Yeshiva University who shared a wonderful contrast in how to understand this Mishna. Some interpret the idiom, “איש פלוני וכל שם שיש לו” /  “so-and-so and all names by which he/she is known” to mean that every alias is written explicit in the get. Others read this line literally and actually write in the get, “so-and-so and all the names by which he/she is known” on the grounds that פלוני is the placeholder for the person’s actual name whereas the rest would be part of the text.
  22. M. Gittin 4:3, M. Gittin 9:4
  23. M. Gittin 4:9
  24. Cf. B. Gittin 81a where “later generations” were criticized for circumventing tithing laws via a halakhic loophole, yet there was no similar decree in this instance prohibiting the action for tikkun olam.
  25. T. Terumot 1:14, T. Terumot 1:15 (1:12 and 1:13 in the Lieberman edition).
  26. Ex. 23:11
  27. Mekhilta D.R. Yishmael Mishpatim 20
  28. M. Gittin 5:3 per B. Gittin 51a
  29. Deut. 15:1-2
  30. Deut. 15:7-11
  31. M. Gittin 4:3, B. Gittin 36a
  32. B. Gittin 36b-37a
  33. M. Gittin 5:4
  34. T. Gittin 3:13 (3:8 in Lieberman)
  35. T. Gittin 3:13 (3:8 in Lieberman)
  36. I find a conceptual parallel to the American doctrine of qualified immunity, though not as expansively applied.
  37. I made a similar argument regarding mar’it ha’ayin.
  38. This approach also explains why tikkun olam is employed by Tannaitic Sages for decrees as opposed to the later Amoraic Sages.

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