I follow synagogue mission statements the way some people follow the stock market. The congregation’s statement of purpose is its prospectus, the reason we should care it exists. Synagogues often promise tikkun olam. But what is that?
The term goes back to rabbinic times, but it took on technical importance in medieval Kabbalah, which pictured fault lines creeping into the fabric of creation from the very beginning. These cosmic fractures, as it were, engender all that is bad about the universe. Tikkun olam — literally “correcting the universe” — is the process of restoring creation to its intended state of wholeness.
The kabbalists were a highly trained elite of mystical adepts who practiced tikkun olam by performing mitzvot with esoteric meanings in mind. Saying the right prayer with the right intention, for example, would crank the world forward on its way to messianic perfection.
Chasidic masters extended Kabbalah by applying it to human psychology. The universe that requires correction is our own souls — the human psyche, we might say. We bear our own internal fracture lines, which affect the world’s goodness; we cannot be part of the solution until we admit we are part of the problem.
Take this week’s mandate to appoint “for yourself judges and officers in your gates.” On the face of it, the Torah is describing the establishment of a just society. But 16th-century kabbalist Isaiah Horowitz read it differently. The Hebrew “for yourself,” he said, is l’cha (singular), not lachem (plural), so it must be addressing us as individuals, in which case, the “gates” denote the sensory openings to our individual souls: our eyes and ears, which take in the world; our mouth, with which we give back to it.
Yes, said chasidic master Jacob Joseph of Polnoye: We must monitor how we observe the world around us and how we then give back to it; see to your own fractured state of being first. Do we open our eyes and ears to recognize the world’s evils? If we do not fix ourselves first, we will never fix the universe.
Synagogues that advocate tikkun olam have largely forgotten the kabbalistic/chasidic theologies that accompanied it. If they know them at all, they discount them as medieval superstition. Tikkun olam has been laundered free of any stains left by its original mystical context and has become a benign catch-all term for good deeds, charity, and social action.
The richly contoured metaphors of Jewish tradition are regularly given a secular bath by modern-day Jews who get queasy about anything theological. God’s “graciousness” (another example) was originally “grace” — not some ho-hum variety of pleasant benevolence, but the wow-inducing experience of knowing God loves us, even if everyone else lets us down and even if we don’t deserve it. God’s “grace” is closely associated with tikkun olam. When we are utterly broken, God actually fixes us, and then empowers us to fix others.
How is it that we Jews who do so much else with panache manage to lose our imaginative nerve when it comes to religion? We probably would have advised Marc Chagall to forego all those angels, donkeys’ heads, and heavenly brides. Some pretty clouds and sunsets are enough, we would have said.
A deracinated view of tikkun olam as some mere, modern impulse to do good has failed us. Sociologists have studied congregations that say they stand for social justice. Their members enjoy saying they belong to a synagogue that does “good deeds,” but, on the whole, they themselves do no more “good-deed work” than other people. The synagogue’s uninspired way of speaking just does not move them.
Synagogues are not mere secular bodies that provide life-cycle ceremonies and Hebrew hootenannies called services. Synagogues are to other not-for-profits what Chagall’s imaginative skyscapes are to ordinary clouds and sunsets. Without transcendently imaginative language to stir the soul, tikkun olam becomes banal, so does the synagogue, and so do we.
Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman is cofounder of Synagogue 3000 and a professor of liturgy, worship, and ritual at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.