some slightly out of context notes on ‘tikkun olam’

yeah like i don’t think i would intrinsically mind if a journal wanted to call itself something out of mātauranga Māori but the fact that it’s the most unreadable do-nothingist self-justifying lazy dreck must be super irritating. – cannibality, on Tiqqun –

to me – cranky jewish 4th-generation secular leftist – the name is actually the least problematic thing about Tiqqun. and that’s because it’s actually perfectly consistent with their particular apocalyptic quietism.

“tikkun olam” (as the zionists render it) / “tiken oylem” (as yiddish speakers say it) [see note 1 below] has become a synonym in jewish liberal circles for /some ambiguous form of social justice through a jewish religious-cultural lens/ over the past twenty years, but that’s an entirely new meaning for it. jill jacobs (a liberal zionist rabbi well-regarded in the circles that use ‘tikkun olam’ most) has an interesting and detailed tracing of the term’s uses through time here (intended as a positive account), but the arc is very simple.

up to the 1970s or so, the term’s only political content is in a few places in the mishnah, where it designates small legalistic shifts that ease the conditions of the worst off, in order to ‘repair/maintain [tikkun] the social order [olam]’ without structural change. in the 1970s and 1980s, a new meaning for the term was invented more or less out of the whole cloth by a specific set of young liberal rabbis, and publicized through their participation in New Jewish Agenda, the main national progressive jewish organization in the u.s. during that period.

these rabbis – arthur waskow and michael lerner – were looking for a spiritual vocabulary for their liberal (or, at best, progressive-except-palestine) politics. like many assimilated ashkenazim, their vision of authentic jewish spirituality basically meant hasidism, and the 16th-christian-century lurianic kabala that is the source of much of hasidism’s formal theology. and that’s where they found the phrase “tiken oylem”.

but in lurianic kabala, and its offshoots in hasidism, “tiken oylem” means something very specific. it’s the process of repairing the broken vessels of the divine light, not the human world, and its tools are not efforts for social justice.

“tikkun” is accomplished through increased separation from the everyday world in order to perfect not only the most extensive forms of ritual practice but also specific contemplative forms to accompany them [halokhe and kavones, for those following along in the zohar at home]. the specific lurianic process of reincarnation, in which soul-shards of the prophets and heros reappear within contemporary spiritual leaders, is also central to the idea of “tikkun” and its advancement (there’s an implication of a certain spiritual eugenic strain in here that i’ve never really seen analyzed, but that may have to do with the rigorous attention to yikhes in hasidic matchmaking).

good works of any kind, and attention to the lives of oppressed people, is peripheral at best. it is only even potentially relevant when it involves fulfilling a ritual duty – giving tsedoke, for instance – but that fulfillment is itself valueless for the purposes of tikkun unless it is accompanied with the precise contemplative form prescribed for the ritual aspect of the action.

and what tiken oylem aims at is not a human world of justice: it is the re-perfection of the divine, freed from the accidental shattering of the vessels which allowed for the creation of the world in the first place. it is a condition purified not of injustice, but of human life. in the lurianic vision, the ultimate goal of human effort – “tikkun olam” – is to correct the mistake that led to our very existence.

it’s an amazing vision. and it’s one that Tiqqun’s apocalyptic quietism perfectly represents. all you have to do is hold this precise intention in your mind as you withdraw from practical activity, and the world will be made new, without any of these troublesome humans and their problems.

that apocalyptic quietism is also, i believe, directly reflected in the politics that “tikkun olam” has defined for u.s. jews. it tends to refuse any clarity of position; embrace deep confusion between providing services and organizing for change; see emotional payoff as the criteria for judging success; substitute individual abstract right-thinking for concrete collective action; and otherwise do all the bullshit that the NGO-industrial complex adores most, and which is death to effective organizing of any kind.

it’s also very visible in the evolution of the rabbis who redefined it. waskow has spent decades trying to create a neohasidism that could embrace ecological awareness and some aspects of jewish feminist theology, without sacrificing his exclusive role as its annointed rebbe and tsadik, and to preserve the fantasy of a two-state perpetuation of zionist colonialism. lerner has spent those decades trying to become the jewish cornel west, with all the liberal wishywashiness, none of the charisma, and an extra side dish of hating queers [see note 2 below]. waskow is notoriously awful to work with or for, reserving his best patronizingness and scorn for the women (and folks he thinks are women) around him. lerner is well-known in the gossip of the bay area jewish left as a longtime sexual harasser and assaulter. both exemplify the performative progressivism of “tikkun” that promises – if only they hold the proper kavone in mind – not only that individual feelings are the path to changing the world, but that even their own acts will surely be wiped away and forgiven, and they won’t have to lift a finger to do anything to make it happen. except maybe throw a conference sometimes.

as for me, i embrace tiken in the only way i feel is consistent with my political outlook – through its other hasidic meaning: a shot of liquor, especially one drunk in memory of a dead comrade on their yortsayt.

[note 1] sefardi and mizrakhi communities have their own pronounciations of hebrew/aramaic; i don’t know how they deal with תּיקון . i use the yiddish pronounciations of my own diasporic tradition. the zionist versions that are dominant in current u.s. jewish religious life erase all these historically specific ways of speaking our ritual language, rejecting the sibilants of ashkenazi useage as ‘effeminate’, and the sefardi/mizrakhi gutterals as ‘primitive’.

[note 2] for instance, in the mid-2000s, the founding conference of lerner’s multifaith (and largely inconsequential) Network of Spiritual Progressives included in its session on sexuality debate on the question: “Are there forms of sexuality between consenting adults that are not acceptable from the standpoint of a progressive religious or spiritual community? Must sex, for example, be covenantal and not merely recreational – and what exactly should be the dimensions of such a covenant?” a more relevent question might be at what point debating the ‘acceptability’ of sex for pleasure crosses the line between mere conservative homophobia and abjectly reactionary exterminationist queerhating. but let’s not even.

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