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September 5, 2015 | 21st Elul 5775

Pluralism VIII

Galilee Diary #311, November 12, 2006
Marc J. Rosenstein

Pluralism VIII

Then will false gods vanish from our hearts, and the world will be perfected under Your unchallenged rule.

-Traditional Aleinu prayer, Gates of Prayer translation

Growing up in a Reform synagogue and NFTY, the concept of tikkun olam was central to my understanding of Judaism. A major item on our agenda, in the synagogue, in the youth group, in the summer camp, was social action, working to implement what we understood to be the values of Judaism in the real world around us, be it by collecting tzedaka, by marching in demonstrations for integration or against the war, or delivering food packages to the homebound elderly The words themselves came from the aleinu prayer: "letaken olam bemalchut shadai," "to establish, repair, perfect, the world as God's kingdom." Repairing, or perfecting the world seemed a perfect match between a desire to be part of the Jewish tradition and to live out the humane values that seemed right for our time and place.

Therefore I was taken aback when, in discussing the mission statement of our educational foundation with a friend and colleague who defines herself as a "secular Israeli," she objected to including the phrase tikkun olam; she said it carried strong overtones of Orthodoxy, and that it would turn off secular Israelis who might otherwise be interested in our programs of social action. The phrase has, it seems, definitely not taken on in Israel the humanistic, liberal, social action connotation that it has assumed in the Reform Jewish community. (Indeed, I wonder if it may have lost some of its universal appeal in North America, too, since being appropriated by Tikkun magazine…)

The kabbalists of Safed in the 16th century developed a new mystical conception of cosmology, based on a belief that during the creation process a kind of implosion occurred that resulted in sparks of holiness being scattered throughout the material world. Redemption will come when, through the properly conscious performance of the mitzvot, we succeed in rescuing all these sparks and returning them to their source, resulting in the reunification of the divine substance and the repair, restoration, perfection – tikkun – of the world. A custom developed in Safed during this period, as a mild form of asceticism, of getting up in the middle of the night to pray and study - on weeknights but especially on Shavuot and Hoshanah Rabbah. Specific sets of texts for these sessions evolved, and were called tikkun, in the sense of an established, set sequence of texts. The tikkun leyl Shavuot, in particular, has become a widespread custom, among all the varieties of Judaism and has even become popular in secular Israel. Outside the Orthodox community, the selection of texts is wide open – most people are not even aware of the fact that there is supposed to be a specific selection and sequence.

This year, the national network of secular batei midrash that organized study evenings in memory of Yitzchak Rabin called the project "tikkun leyl Rabin." The idea was, of course, to draw a parallel with the Shavuot custom – gathering for a night of study and fellowship that is intended to have some kind of spiritual significance beyond just another study group (and maybe to allude to the connotation of tikkun as "repair"). In any case, when we publicized our local Rabin evening, the vibes from the Orthodox community were negative – in part, it seems, because of the appropriation of the concept of tikkun leyl Shavuot for a secular context, even one with political overtones. Why couldn’t we have just called it “an evening of study in memory of Yitzchak Rabin?” they asked.

How are we supposed to repair the world when we can't even agree on who owns the words we use to talk about the process?

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