Author Archives: Dr. Lawrence Fine

Dr. Lawrence Fine

About Dr. Lawrence Fine

Lawrence Fine, Ph.D., teaches Jewish studies at Mount Holyoke College. He is the author of Safed Spirituality (Paulist Press) and Physician of the Soul, Healer of the Cosmos: Isaac Luria and His Kabbalistic Fellowship (Stanford University Press).

Tikkun Olam

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In contemporary parlance, “tikkun olam” (repairing the world) has come to connote social action and social justice work. In this article, the author surveys the use of this concept in the work of a number of Jewish writers and organizations in the past several decades, and explores some implications of the term’s wide-ranging use and development from its place in Lurianic Kabbalah. (He does not connect it with the use in classical rabbinic texts of the term “tikkun ha-olam,” referring to social legislation not strictly required but enacted because it was good public policy.) The following is reprinted with the author’s permission from “Tikkun: A Lurianic Motif in Contemporary Jewish Thought,” in From Ancient Israel to Modern Judaism: Intellect in Quest of Understanding–Essays in Honor of Marvin Fox, Vol. 4, ed. Jacob Neusner et al. (Scholars Press).

Bypassing Mystics for Scholars—or Ignoring Both

A philosophical thinker far removed from mystical interests such as Emil Fackenheim, an historian of modern Judaism such as Ismar Schorsch, [and] a rabbi/story teller such as Lawrence Kushner, find themselves drawing upon [scholar of Jewish mysticism Gershom] Scholem‘s expositions and formulations of esoteric materials in order to present their own creative views on a variety of questions.

heal the worldWhile these authors–scholars and teachers of Judaica in their own right–have adopted and adapted Lurianic ideas directly from Scholem (and from other scholarly expositions of the kabbalistic tradition), others, have clearly appropriated the notion of tikkun without recourse to Lurianism or Scholem.

Thus, for example, [editor-in-chief] Michael Lerner’s original editorial statement in Tikkun Magazine makes absolutely no mention of and betrays no interest in the kabbalistic tradition which is the source of his journal’s name. [Contemporary liberal Jewish thinker] Leonard Fein can write of tikkun as if it were a central conception of Judaism as a whole, one which any Jew should be able to recognize automatically. A middle-aged Jewish male searching for female companionship can place a personal ad in an Indianapolis magazine and identify himself as searching for a woman “committed to tikkun olam.”

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Tikkun in Lurianic Kabbalah

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Reprinted with the author’s permission from “Tikkun: A Lurianic Motif in Contemporary Jewish Thought,” in From Ancient Israel to Modern Judaism: Intellect in Quest of Understanding–Essays in Honor of Marvin Fox, Vol. 4, ed. Jacob Neusner et al. (Scholars Press).

Isaac Luria taught what amounts to a 16th-century version of a gnostic myth, organized around three main themes: tzimtzum [“contraction”], shevirat ha-kelim [“the shattering of the vessels”], and tikkun [“repair” or “fixing”].

God Contracts the Divine Essence

In contrast to the mythological conceptions of early Kabbalah, which conceived of the initial theogonic [self-creative] activity as an outward act of emanation, Luria describes the first action of divinity as an inward one. Tzimtzum refers to the process by which the Godhead contracts its essence, so to speak, by retreating “from Himself into Himself,” abandoning a space in order to create an “empty” region.

healing the world[The explanation of this] step inward sought to solve the question of how the existence of the world is possible if divinity, which is Infinite, fills all space. The answer which Lurianic Kabbalah provides is that by an act of withdrawal, a space–infinitesimally small in comparison to God‘s infinity–is created in which all dimensions of existence can unfold.

Prior to this event, the different powers of divinity were harmoniously balanced without any apparent individuation or differentiation. In particular, the opposing forces of Mercy (Hesed) and Stern Judgment (Din) existed in a state of complete unity. But in the course of tzimtzum, Ein Sof [God’s essence referred to by the name “There-Is-No-Limit”] gathered in one place all the “roots” of Stern Judgment, leaving them behind in the region now abandoned.

In addition, a positive residue of divine light, known as reshimu (“traces” [or impression]), remained in the empty space. This resulted in a separation between Din and Hesed and the establishment of a measure of independence for the forces of Din. Thus, from one point of view, the tzimtzum can be regarded as an act of purification in which the “dross” within God was purged from His innermost being.

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