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    Tikkun Olam – mending the world

    Jewish leaders tend to seize on slogans – sometimes negative ones like antisemitism and assimilation – that pinpoint problems, sometimes positive ones like survival and revival that call for commitment and constructive effort.

    One of the most common phrases in the second category, especially in the United States, is Tikkun Olam, “mending the world”.

    Emil Fackenheim used it as a title for one of his books. Jonathan Sacks did the same thing, calling the book “To Heal a Fractured World”. Both books imply that there are great gaps and massive defects in contemporary society, and Tikkun Olam is the Jewish buzz-word for what to do about them.

    It’s an exciting, colourful phrase but though it regularly hits the headlines it is neither old nor new. In the Mishnah (Gittin Chapter 4) it indicated a set of legal enactments designed to make the world function well. Maimonides broadened the notion into a combination of Torah study and observance that enhanced the quality of society (Avot 1:2).

    In the sense in which Fackenheim and Sacks and many others use the phrase it is not novel but is an interpretation of a key phrase in Alenu, l’takken olam b’malchut Shaddai, the obligation to build the world into God’s Kingdom. In the Alenu sense it does not speak of repairing defects but of establishing order.

    The idea of mending derives from Jewish mysticism, which argued that soon after Creation, “the vessels were shattered” and fragments went everywhere. Man’s historic task was to rediscover, recapture and reconnect the broken shards. The way of achieving this is social action which works on those parts of the world which are broken.

    This gives us two ways of understanding Tikkun Olam. I believe there is a third, suggested by the Chassidic story of a cobbler who was still at work at night when his candle was almost out, and he said, “There is still time for more mending”.

    What the story tells us is that “Olam” is not just the world around us but the personal world of the individual. Yom Kippur gives us the opportunity of transforming Tikkun Olam into the personal task of attending to the defects in ourselves, and whilst the day lasts there is still time for mending.

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