These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

Tikkun Olam by Elizabeth Chipkin

Posted on November 2, 2010 by Eryn

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This semester at Pardes, I am a participant in the “Social Justice Track.” The “Social Justice Track” is so named because it is more than a class that meets for a prescribed period of time each week. We do meet as a class, to read, to debate and to understand classical texts. However, we also leave the classroom to see how the principals and ideals we learn about are present in Israeli society. We started off the semester attempting to define “social justice.”  We read about Abraham and Moses, how they were chosen because they are socially-just people.”  Abraham in his attempts to save Lot, and Moses in stopping an Egyptian from beating a slave and assisting the Midianite girls at the well, “walked in the path of Hashem.”  We then worked to define the ultimate Jewish social action catch phrase: tikkun olam.  This is a word that is constantly used in Jewish communities, youth groups and schools encouraging participants to do community service and social-action projects.  It is colloquially translated as “healing the world” and is commonly displayed with a logo of a band-aid over the world.  It’s a beautiful idea, and as a class we wanted to learn more about its origin as a term.The first place it is used is in the Talmud, the oral law which is a collection of rabbinic discussions clarifying and flushing out the mitzvot of the Torah.  It is used predominantly in the section of the Talmud entitled “Gittin.”  These are the laws that deal with divorce…a strange place to have the term “tikkun olam” thrown about.  And yet, it appears almost 10 times in one chapter!  Chapter 4, starts out discussing the regulations under which a man can cancel a divorce and then goes on to discuss laws on how to appropriately assess the monetary value of slaves and captives. The rabbis go on to outline laws related to buying a property if it has forcibly been removed from the previous owner as well as the giving and collecting of loans in a “shmita” year. A “shmita” year is the last year of a seven year cycle and, according to the Torah, the year when all loans are mandated to be forgiven.  I have to say, while studying these texts, I was quite confounded as to why this would be relevant or important to our study of tikkun olam, or the section related to divorce proceedings.  And yet, the term “tikkun olam” is everywhere in this section.  Overwhelmingly, what we noticed as we read was that the rabbis constantly ruled in favor of the party who was in the least powerful position: the slave, the woman/wife.  They didn’t give them “power” per se, but they gave them a small step up, a little way in which they weren’t completely powerless.  They ruled that women have SOME protection in the divorce document, slaves have SOME protection from being further enslaved should they want to marry, those who are in a position to give loans have SOME protection that their money will be returned, hence encouraging them to loan money to those in need.But what was even more interesting than the tiny steps the rabbis were attempting, is the steps they are taking are in direct violation of the Torah.  For instance, the Torah is very clear that every 7th year (shmita year) all debts are forgiven.  This was designed to create a more socially equal society.  If you borrow money and after 5, 6, 7 years you still cannot repay it, your debts are forgiven. It’s like a fresh slate.  What a nice, wonderful idea…in a perfect world.  Unfortunately, we don’t live in a perfect world.  And in practicality, during the 6th or 7th years especially, people who are able to loan other’s money, were refusing to loan money for fear that they would not receive their money back.  Those who needed loans were unable to procure the funds.  So the rabbis said, you know what, the idea in the Torah, it was nice.  But it’s not working practically in our society.  So we’re going to change it for “tikkun olam,” for the “betterment of society.”  This is both completely understandable and yet completely unacceptable! Changing the laws of the Torah to fit our imperfect society?  But essentially, that’s what tikkun olam is about.  Realizing and accepting that we, as people and as a society, are not perfect.  And we must take steps, may they be tiny or larger, to make the world a better place.  I’m still not so sure how comfortable I personally feel with the ability and chuztpa the rabbis felt they had to deliberately rule against what Torah law specifies.  But it’s also kind of empowering, that the Torah is ours to use, not just to follow.