Monday, December 22, 2014

The Place of Tikkun Olam in American Jewish Life

By Jonathan Krasner for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs


The symbolic moment when the now ubiquitous phrase “tikkun olam” entered the American Jewish mainstream probably took place during the visit of Pope John Paul II to the United States in September 1987. A crisis in Vatican-Jewish relations was precipitated by the Pope’s meeting in June with President Kurt Waldheim of Austria, whose activities as a Nazi intelligence officer were the subject of controversy. The meeting in Miami between Jewish leaders and Pope John Paul II on September 12, 1987 was meant to signal the desire of both sides to embark on a process of repairing their relations. In his public remarks to the Pope in Miami, the leader of the Jewish delegation, Rabbi Mordecai Waxman, chairman of the International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations, called for a spirit of reconciliation and goodwill. “A basic belief of our Jewish faith is the need ‘to mend the world under the sovereignty of God’—‘l’takken olam b’malkhut Shaddai,’” Waxman declared: “To mend the world means to do God’s work in the world. Your presence here in the United States affords us the opportunity to reaffirm our commitment to the sacred imperative of tikkun olam, the mending of the world.”2

Waxman’s remarks were notable mainly because he mentioned the term “tikkun olam” in public. By the mid-1980s, rabbis, educators, communal workers, ac­tivists and others were invoking tikkun olam as a value concept in support of a variety of humanistic and distinctly Jewish causes, ranging from environmentalism and nuclear non-proliferation to Palestinian-Israeli reconciliation and unrestricted Soviet Jewish emigration.3 For the most part, however, its use was confined to internal American Jewish discourse. Waxman’s introduction of tikkun olam to a broad international audience indicated the extent to which the term had become embedded into the fabric of American Jewish life. Before long, tikkun olam found its way into the pronouncements of non-Jewish public figures such as New York Governor Mario Cuomo and became the rhetorical motivation for service learning and social justice organizations such as AVODAH, American Jewish World Service and Panim el Panim. “Tikkun” also radiated from the masthead of a new, self-consciously intellectual, progressive Jewish magazine. By the 1990s, tikkun olam was everywhere.4

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