Jewish communities often pride themselves on tending to the temporary and chronic needs of their weaker (or temporarily weakened) members. Larger communities throughout history have often created voluntary organizations that undertook to fulfill one or another of these mitzvot, which fall into the category of gemilut hasidim, doing acts of lovingkindness. In the welcoming “host societies” of modernity, many Jews have turned the tradition of Jewish self-help outward as well, transforming it into a concern for social welfare and social justice for Jews and non-Jews alike.
Fulfilling this mitzvah involves tending to the spiritual needs of those who are ill as well as assuaging their physical ailments. Visits, prayers for healing, and other expressions of concern can help relieve the anguish and isolation felt by those who are ill. Traditional texts offer guidance on how to perform–but not overdo–this task.
It is a major mitzvah to see to the burial of someone who dies, and communally healing the psychic wounds of death inflicted upon the mourners is the purpose of a highly elaborated set of rules and rituals. Jewish tradition mandates that one should provide mourners with their immediate needs (such as meals) and with unobtrusive companionship, interacting with them in a way that enables them to express their grief, whether in words or in silence.
In the pre-modern world, without ubiquitous hotels and rapid transportation, wayfarers were often dependent on those whom they encountered en route. Jewish communities traditionally provided for Jews passing through their locales, whether they were indigent or simply in transit. These traditions of hospitality persist. Some rabbinic writings on law and ethics offer practical advice on how to be a low-impact, appreciative guest as well as how to be a gracious and generous host or hostess.
Jewish communal efforts on behalf of the poor extend beyond charitable giving (tzedakah) that reaches recipients in the form of money. People in need of food, shelter, or clothing are often provided with these directly, whether by individuals or by community institutions. Even more specialized needs, such as those of families marrying off a child, have often been provided for by Jews who took this on as their personal contribution to the needs of others.
The concept of “repairing the world”–the notion that the world itself is somehow disjointed, incomplete, and in need of reworking so that it will function as it was meant to function–has ancient roots, but it is primarily a product of certain schools of Kabbalah in the sixteenth century. Its fascinating history has culminated in a new, broader usage. Since the mid-20th century, it has come to be associated with modern social welfare efforts and even with a liberal agenda regarding social policy. Tikkun olam does not strictly fall into the category of gemilut hasadim, which usually refers to acts which help individuals rather than working towards larger societal change.
© 2003 70 Faces Media