Tikkun Olam

In contemporary Jewish thought.

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From Dissolving the World to Repairing It

What is most fascinating about this journey of ideas is the change of meaning which has taken place.[In] its original context, tikkunhad to do with the repair of divinity, and was part of an eschatological vision of things which anticipated the end of history and nature as we know it. The tikkun to be achieved involved the dissolution of the material world in favor of a purely spiritual existence, similar to that which existed before intra-divine catastrophe and before human sin.

This conception thus bears little similarity to the kind of "mending" which most contemporary exponents of tikkun have in mind. For the latter, tikkun is a byword for social, moral, or political activism of one sort or another. For some [as the author explores elsewhere in the longer article from which this is excerpted], it has deeper theological or spiritual meaning. But for all of the individuals whose ideas were discussed [in this article], tikkun clearly involves "repairing" the condition of this world, rather than the Lurianic mending of olam ha-tikkun, spiritual worlds beyond our normal experience.

Moreover, if there is still mythical thinking taking place here, it is operating at a rather weak level. The highly charged mystical symbolism of Lurianic literature, with its endless anthropomorphic description of God's inner life, its multiple levels of reality, its impressive convictions about the power of the contemplative imagination, has given way to the bare bones of "rupture" and "mending."

Both Uses Focus, Appealingly, on Human Responsibility

Despite these essential distinctions, there are important resemblances between Lurianic theology and contemporary thought […] These resemblances, in my view, help explain the attraction which Lurianic language has for contemporary Jewish thinking.

The notion of an ontological rupture and shattering--which stands at the heart of Lurianic mysticism--has the capacity to strike a deeply sympathetic chord in a generation which experienced the destruction of European Jewry, or for a generation confronted by the unprecedented danger of global nuclear calamity. Similarly, the focus on human power and human responsibility, in place of divine power and responsibility, which characterizes Lurianism, is a potent theological tool in confronting the dilemma of theodicy [explaining God’s justice in the face of the existence of evil] in our own time.

Some, like Ismar Schorsch, appear to recognize this in rather deliberate ways. But even for others, who do not draw such connections, the language of "mending," by its nature, implies the centrality of human responsibility for improving the condition of things. For a community which has serious questions--to put it gently--about the quality of Divine Providence and Omnipotence, a preoccupation with the resources of the human spirit may be more a theological necessity than most are likely to admit.

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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).