Q. What is Tikkun Olam and why do we hear so much about it?
A. The phrase means the repair or restoration of the world. The second paragraph of Alenu looks forward l’takken olam b’malchut shaddai – “to the perfection of the world under the kingdom of the Almighty”. It clearly regards tikkun olam as a messianic concept, part of the climactic redemption of mankind and the world.
As found in the Mishnah, however, the phrase has a here and now connotation. Mishnah Gittin lists social ordinances made mip’nei tikkun ha’olam, which Danby translates, “as a precaution for the common good”; the Soncino Talmud renders it “to prevent abuses” and adds, “Literally, for the better ordering of society”. An example is the institution of the prozbul, which allowed a lender the right to collect debts due despite the sabbatical year, because unscrupulous borrowers might exploit the law to save themselves paying back what they owed (Gittin 4:3).
The messianic connotation of the phrase came as the result of the famous kabbalistic notion of sh’virat hakelim, the breaking of the vessels. Put simplistically, the earthly “vessels” were unable to contain the intense heavenly light and thereafter shattered. As a result everything was awry, and man’s task became that of reclaiming the holy sparks and putting the creation right (see Gershom Scholem’s book, “Kabbalah”, Keter, 1974, chapter 3).
A number of modern Jewish movements have adopted and adapted this concept and given it their own interpretation, urging human beings to improve society and enhance its ethical quality in order to help bring about a world that will be worthy of man made in the Divine image. While, however, one applauds the imperative for social justice in Jewish ethics, it is not the be-all and end-all of Judaism.