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Builders, Fixers and Tikkun Olam (A Response)

July 21, 2008

So it seems like my “Jewish Builders. Not Jewish Fixers.” post generated some interesting feedback from a few individuals. I have a few posts to react to some feedback I received, but first and most interestingly was a comment from Jameel, who correctly points out that there is room for both fixing and building the Jewish community. But then he states, after an observation about the significance of tikkun, an interesting proposal:

“Maybe it should be the 80-20 percentage – 80% should be fixing, and 20% should be new building.”

An interesting thought, although I disagree. And it is not because I think that the percentages should be reversed, although I do think that putting such a low percentage on true innovation is imprudent. Why I disagree with Jameel is because I think a more sensitive analysis of what tikkun means is needed, because I think that we oftentimes use the concept of tikkun as a crutch when the more bold approach is to not fix an organization, but to create around it. Now I have to admit I have been thinking about this concept recently because of the excellent recent article by Hillel Halkin in the July-August, 2009 issue of Commentary magazine. In the article, titled “How Not to Repair the World,” Mr. Halkin articulates an interesting analysis of the textual and modern conceptions of tikkun olam, and ultimately makes a critical argument against the more clichéd use of the term by the progressive left. Now I consider myself more on the progressive left side of the political spectrum, and I generally find some of Mr. Halkin’s arguments to be a bit stuffy, but I can’t help be a bit persuaded by his reasoned analysis about the casual use of the term tikkun in modern contexts.

In partial agreement with Mr. Halkin, I find that I too am critical of the position that can often be found in the Jewish community that says we are obligated to blindly repair Jewish communal institutions for the sake of tikkun olam. This argument is often articulated such that individuals feel the essence of repairing that which is already built is the essence of Judaism. Yes, there is an element of this that is true, and as Jameel points out, we are reminded of the responsibility to perfect the world when we express it in the Aleynu each day. But I would also argue that so much of our modern organizations urges for their leaders to undertake acts of tikkun are based on an overwrought, self-serving and ultimately self-defeating reliance on a twist of he Lurianic conception of tikkun olam.

In the Lurianic approach, it is thought that we as Jew must gather up divine sparks and help return them to their place. But what if these sparks are to be found outside the organized Jewish community – shouldn’t we be seeking them out using new methods, approaches and experiences? Or are these sparks only found within the institutions that exist today? Rather, in gathering these sparks, aren’t we empowered with the act of creation – truly recreating what was – not simply fixing what is? I would suggest that the Jewish olam, and the olam in general is bigger than the existing Jewish organizations. By creating new efforts and recreating the essence of unity that once was (rather than spending a majority of time fixing existing organizations that represent what “is”), perhaps then we are truly gathering the shattered vessels of light that can bring about the unity of our people.

Yes, by fixing Jewish organizations, we might be engaged in an act of tikkun, and that is an important responsibility we have as a community. But in the act of creating, of building Jewish life in a myriad of new and diverse ways through new and innovative initiatives and organizations, perhaps we are then truly undertaking tikkun olam.

By building, not just fixing.

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