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June 29, 2008

The use and misuse of Tikkun Olam

My old quip: "When I hear the words 'tikkun olam,' I reach for my wallet."

"Tikkun olam" is the Jewish concept of repairing or perfecting the world. It's been misappropriated by the Jewish left as a justification for trying to impose certain left-wing doctrine and policies on the rest of the world. (Hence, the reason for concern about theft of my wallet.)

In the new issue of Commentary magazine, July-August 2008, Hillel Halkin writes an extremely important article about this phenomenon: "How Not to Repair the World." Commentary usually makes its content available while it's current, but the magazine just came out and this is not yet available online. If you've been around Pillage Idiot long enough to read my rare serious posts, you'll realize I tend to understate things. But I don't want to understate this. The Halkin article is important enough for you to go out and buy the dead-tree version of the magazine, or at least, to go read it in the public library. Assuming a link becomes available, I'll update this post with it. [UPDATE: Sorry to report that Commentary is making only an abstract available, a short part of the opening of the article. UPDATE: Soccer Dad points out that many libraries have online access to Commentary if you have a library card.]

Halkin takes off from a collection of essays by Jewish leftists, many of whom invoke tikkun olam in support of their goals. But Halkin explains that there are several concepts of tikkun olam in Jewish thought, none of which supports the leftists' version. First, there's a religious, messianic version in the aleinu prayer, which is recited near the end of the morning, afternoon, and evening prayers. We pray that eventually, all the people of the world will recognize God's will. "We hope for the day when the world will be perfected under the Kingdom of the Almighty."

The second version of tikkun olam is a more pragmatic version found in the Talmud, a version Halkin describes as equivalent to the Jewish public interest. An example of it is the talmudic rule that if you are ransoming a kidnapped hostage, you must not, for reasons of tikkun olam, pay an excessive ransom. If you pay an excessive ransom, you'll "jack up the price" that others must pay to ransom their hostages. The public interest overrides your own.

Yet a third version is a spiritual one that was offered by the kabbalists of the 16th century. The idea was that the world was fractured at creation, and that individuals, through prayer and other spiritual activities, can help to repair it. As Halkin explains, this concept of tikkun olam is appealing to the political left, because it is open to reinterpretation.

Halkin then analyzes the essays I mentioned above, which he says are easy to caricature, because many of them caricature themselves. "They represent the ultimate in that self-indulgent approach, so common in non-Orthodox Jewish circles in the United States today, that treats Jewish tradition not as a body of teachings to be learned from but as one needing to be taught what it is about by those who know better than it does what it should be about."

There is much, much more of interest in this article, but I want to close the way Halkin closes, with a discussion of the prosbul, a subject I've ruminated about often and even written about myself. The prosbul (Halkin spells it "pruzbul") was a pronouncement from the great rabbi Hillel that created a huge loophole in the Torah's law of remission of debts. Halkin quotes a source I'd been unaware of, and he puts the entire issue into perfect clarity for me.

The Torah (Deuteronomy) states that in the sabbatical year, all debts will be cancelled. The sabbatical year is earth-centered, not loan-centered, so this doesn't mean you can always have six-year loans. If you lend in the sixth year of the cycle, the loan is cancelled the following year. The Torah itself recognizes that this is an idealistic law and contrary to rational economics. Deuteronomy 15:9-10 states:

Beware lest you harbor the base thought, "The seventh year, the year of remission, is approaching," so that you are mean to your needy kinsman and give him nothing. He will cry out to the Lord against you, and you will incur guilt. Give to him readily and have no regrets when you do so, for in return the Lord your God will bless you in all your efforts and in all your undertakings.
In an attempt to make this law cancelling debts work, God Himself issues a threat (you will incur guilt) and makes a promise (He will bless you) in order to motivate people to overcome their natural and rational economic behavior. But even when God speaks, the law doesn't work. People don't want to lend money in the sixth year.

So the law, which was clearly designed to protect the poor from incurring permanent debt, had the unintended result of hurting the poor by totally drying up credit as the sabbatical year approached. (You don't have to have a vivid imagination to note the parallel with modern social legislation.) Hillel's prosbul allowed the loan to be assigned to the court so that it could be enforced past the end of the sixth year, in spite of the remission of debts in the seventh year.

What I didn't realize until reading Halkin's article was that the Talmud described Hillel's prosbul as having been enacted "for the sake of tikkun olam." Imagine that: The great idealistic legislation of the Torah, which was supposed to benefit the poor, was changed (or, I suppose, more accurately, was "loopholed" out of existence) by a pragmatic rule that seemed to favor the wealthy but actually helped the poor. And the justification for that change was tikkun olam, in the pragmatic sense of the Jewish public interest.

It is critical to keep this in mind whenever we hear the modern Jewish left invoking tikkun olam.