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Tikkun Olam, Unpacked

I. Tikkun Olam – An Introduction

It’s become a commonplace in this generation of Jewish life that one of the core parts of the Jewish mission is “tikkun olam – repairing the world.”  But what does that really mean? Is it just a Jewish word for “what I believe will make the world better as a (choose one: Democrat, Libertarian, Republican, Socialist, Other)?” Or does our Jewish heritage have something to add to our understanding of “making the world better?” 

Where did that phrase, “tikkun olam,” come from?  The way most people use it today is actually, I think, only a generation old. I’m not sure it was used that way before the 1960s or 70s.  The phrase “tikkun olam” originated among the early rabbis (first couple centuries CE) and was originally usually applied to rules that were meant to avoid social confusion, especially with regard to various forms of personal status. Practices that were technically legal, but might lead to confusion about, for example, whether a woman was divorced or still married, or whether a slave had actually been set free, were banned “for the sake of tikkun olam.”  Sometimes the ancient rabbis used the phrase more generally to refer to making the world habitable and inhabited. Thus they describe God’s provision of rain as being an act of tikkun olam and they describe a mother bird on her nest as being involved in tikkun olam.  The most well-known ancient use of the phrase is in the Aleynu prayer, which expresses a hope “l’taken olam b’malhut Shaddai – to repair the world with/in divine sovereignty.” Given the other early rabbinic uses of the phrase, the prayer’s original intent would seem to have been to hope for a time when the world was orderly, habitable, and inhabited because of universal acceptance of and adherence to divine rule. 

With the advent of human ability to radically alter the face of the planet with nuclear weapons and climate-changing pollution, keeping the world habitable has become a literal focus of tikkun olam in a way our ancestors never imagined.  But not very many of us would consider the reinforcement of orderly definitions of social status to be core to our understanding of “tikkun olam.”  What was the journey from the origins of “tikkun olam” to today’s usage and what have we learned along the way?  I’ll come back to that.

Are there any guiding principles that Judaism offers that might help us think about the issues or challenge or guide us? Or inspire us to keep up the work?  I think there are. I’ll summarize them here, and expand on each of them in a separate section. 

  1. God is Good and So are We (mostly). Our Earth and all its inhabitants, including humans, are holy, and to be cherished. While Judaism isn’t naïve or wanting to stuff humans into a suit of “perfection” that doesn’t fit, our creation stories encourage us to be optimistic about humans and our capacity to live lives of love, justice, and peace.  We continue to work with hope because this can and should be a good world.
  2. We’re living on borrowed land. As the Psalms say, “the Earth is the ETERNAL’s.”  While we can enjoy the fruits of the earth and of our labor, our “ownership” rights are limited by the fact of our stewardship over resources (including both earth and self) that are not of our making.  We can and must demand of ourselves and of others actions compatible with that stewardship and with our “familial” relations with all the other children of the true owner.
  3. The Memory of Egypt. It is the Jewish way to derive particular lessons from the suffering we’ve experienced in our history: compassion for and solidarity with others who suffer, particularly the “stranger” and the powerless. We demand freedom and dignity for every human being.
  4. Absence of Rules means the Absolute Rule of the Most Powerful. Our Jewish heritage encourages us to reign in power through the rule of law, through regulation and systemic change that limits powerlessness, through checks and balances of multiple sources of power, and through the promotion of our moral obligations one to another.
  5. Covenant is Crucial. Two ways people can relate to each other are through power relations and through the mutuality of covenant.  Power comes in many forms, including political and economic power. Although power has its legitimate uses and may sometimes be unavoidable, Judaism puts a premium on the negotiated mutuality of covenant.  And while law can be a tool for the exercise of power, it can also be a tool for the exercise of covenant, and the absence of law practically guarantees the abuse of power.
  6. Praxis Makes Perfect. The Torah process of learning and thinking, being challenged by our ancestors and by each other, and acting out the mitzvah obligations we thus discover is freeing.  It frees us from the prison of our own habits, obsessions, assumptions and limited perspectives.  It frees us from the past. Torah-and-Mitzvah is the Jewish process of living consciously and doing tikkun olam – changing the world for the better.  An English word for that process is “praxis.”  So, “praxis makes perfect,” or, as the rabbis teach: “No one is free except they who engage in talmud-Torah.
  7. Love is All That Lasts. A good Jewish argument could be made for the proposition that love is what we are at the deepest level, and even that love is what God is. At its most basic level, tikkun olam involves arranging our personal lives as well as our politics, culture, and economy on the basis of love.

 II. God is Good and So are We (mostly)

The beginnings of a Jewish politics are “In the Beginning.”  I believe our creation stories can usefully inform our visions and hopes for social life. 

We actually have three creation stories. In the first (Genesis 1:1-2:4), God creates and orders the world in six days, checking the work as it progresses and declaring six times “that it was good.” And after creating human beings “in the divine image,” God “saw all that It had made, and behold, it was very good!”  I’ll come back to the second creation story at the end of this column.  The third creation story is the one told first by Rabbi Isaac Luria in the 16th century that became very quickly deeply entrenched in the Jewish consciousness. That story pictures the creating God pouring divine light into primordial vessels of not-God, which are not able to contain the power of the divine light and explode.  The resulting universe is studded with holy sparks of divine light, embedded or hidden in husks of “not-God.” Luria taught that the human and Jewish task is to liberate the holy sparks through mitzvot and spiritual attention, reuniting them with their divine source.  Luria appropriated the ancient term of “tikkun olam – setting the world right” for that process. 

Those basic stories have important implications.  The creation of the human being in the divine image teaches the immense value of the human individual.  It also is the basis for the practice of imitateo dei – imitating the good acts of God.  Those acts have been traditionally interpreted to be especially acts of hesed to our fellow human beings: acting toward them in a way that acknowledges our relationship with them, rejoicing in their joys, comforting them in their sorrows, visiting them when they are ill, making sure they have their basic physical needs met.  The bases of morality, the Torah’s injunction to “love your neighbor as yourself,” which is also expressed as the Golden Rule, find their narrative expression in the creation of the human “in the divine image.”  

The Lurianic story of the sparks teaches us that tikkun olam is not only a communal or social or political activity; It’s also a matter of internal, spiritual work.  It involves being able to recognize the “light” in ourselves and in others, and learning how to let that light shine.

I think the most important message of our creation stories for our attempts to set the world right is that they teach us to see the world as inherently or potentially good.  While our tradition doesn’t encourage a naïve assumption that no one wants to hurt anyone else, it also wants us to think things can be good.  The natural state is not the “law of the jungle” or “you can’t trust anyone” or “they all hate us” or “they (whoever they are!) only understand force.”  We’re all created in the divine image and the natural state is good. Our job is to move in that good direction.

That optimistic attitude has always, I think, been a core component of Jewish work-in-the-world and politics.  Sometimes it’s manifested itself in a messianic attitude: the hope and even confidence that the world’s social situation can and will be perfected.  And sometimes that attitude has had a dangerous side.  It’s led to several bouts of widespread trust in false messiahs, and in the last century, led many Jews to an uncritical acceptance of the secular messianism of Communism.

My teacher Ari Elon has written about the second Creation Story (Genesis 2:5-4:26) as an antidote or balance to that dangerous side of the first story. In the first story, an abstract and good and nameless God creates abstract and good and nameless people in an abstract and good and nameless world.  In the second story, within the first five sentences, we’re introduced to “bad” in the character of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad.  In that story, a God with the personal name YHWH creates Adam, who names all the animals and also names Eve, and the two of them taste the fruit of Knowledge of Good and Bad.  After the tasting and the expulsion and the first murder, the Torah says, “then they began to call on the name of YHWH.”  Ari teaches that the pursuit of abstract perfection doesn’t mesh well with real human beings in the real world and often leads to disaster.  Real human beings end up being sacrificed to the impossible ideal.

But I think a sensible, rooted Jewish approach to tikkun olam doesn’t abandon either the first or the second or the third story.  We maintain hope and affirm the value of the world and of each other.  We work with each other as real, partly divine, complicated individuals to find the holy sparks and repair our world.

III. We’re living on borrowed land.

We’re living on borrowed land. That’s the astounding claim of the Biblical tradition: Exodus 19:5 says “the whole earth is Mine” [i.e. God’s]; Leviticus 25:35 instructs, “the land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land/earth is Mine, for you are sojourners or temporary residents with Me”; Psalm 24:1 celebrates, “the Earth is GOD’s and all its fullness, the globe and all that dwell thereon!”

What might it mean to say that the “Earth is God’s?” Is it “true” in any significant way?  What are the implications for Jewish personal, social, and political life; for our understanding of tikkun olam?

One thing that’s certain, though often forgotten, is that we didn’t create the Earth.  Whatever our accomplishments or wealth, they depend on the gift of resources not of our own making.  Everything we do is utterly dependent on soil and water and sun.  Also on knowledge, social systems, and more delivered to us by people who lived before us.  With extremely rare exceptions (such as a fully self-sufficient farmer), also on the labor of others.  Who are the great individuals?  Einstein? Steve Jobs?  Neither could have done their work without the prior work of the pioneers of electromagnetism, Faraday and Maxwell.  Neither could have done their work without copper miners, nor without copper itself.  One of the things the notion of God’s ownership of the Earth teachers us, or reminds us, is that we are all dependent on gifts not of our own making.  Psalm 100:3 puts it this way: “d’u ki Adonai hu Elohim; hu asanu v’lo anahnu.”  This is one of the biblical verses which are traditionally read differently than they are written: in this case “v’lo” is written with an aleph at the end and read with a vav. Both ways result in a teaching relevant to our issue.  The written version reads, “Know that THE CREATING is God; It is the one that made us, not we ourselves.”  The read version concludes “It is the one that made us, and we belong to It.” 

So the notion of the “self-made man” is literally false.  In our religious, Jewish language, we would say it’s “blasphemous,” denying the divine gifts that make all of us and are necessary for all we do. 

While the divine ownership of the earth is a reminder of the gifts we’ve received from the past, it also reminds us of the claims of the infinite future.  The Earth doesn’t belong to our generation alone, it belongs to ETERNITY. 

Finally, the divine ownership of the Earth is a statement of the Earth’s inherent holiness.  As God’s property, it has certain rights itself.

What are the implications of this notion?
Clearly, one implication is that we have an obligation to care for the Earth.  We should care for it as if it were on loan to us, as if it were a precious gift, as if it belonged to God.  In Jewish language, this was included in Jewish law under the mitzvah of “bal tash’hit – do not destroy.”  Long before the modern “green” movement, Jewish law forbade using resources wastefully, without respect for their divine origin.  (Note that often assigning property rights to individuals and having them trade in markets is an excellent way to promote non-wasteful uses of resources.  In those situations where market mechanisms work, those mechanisms should be used.  But when they don’t work, other methods should be used.  I’ll say a bit more below about what makes markets not work – externalities, power imbalances among traders, lack of information for traders, lack of competition, etc. I believe those imperfections are widespread, so that there are wide swaths of the economy for which markets should be strongly regulated or replaced by other mechanisms. But a full explanation is beyond the scope of this essay.)

The basic teaching that the Earth ultimately belongs to God also implies limitations on the rights of human owners.  Judaism has never objected to humans having private property rights in the resources God has ‘lent’ to us (or ‘entrusted’ to us).  But those rights are not absolute, because our ownership is not absolute.  I’ve mentioned the need to conserve the Earth’s resources and treat the planet with respect.  These represent limitations on our ownership rights.  We’re also commanded to simply leave the Earth alone sometimes.  This is one of the traditional understandings of Shabbat – every week, for one day we let the Earth be.  And the Torah envisioned a further cycle of fallow years for letting the Earth be.  Finally, God’s ownership has traditionally been understood to imply that God’s other children, particularly the neediest, have some claim on our property.  The corner of “our” field was to be left for the poor to harvest.  Some of our income is to be given as tzedakah, not because we’re moved to do so, but because we’re obligated to do so because of God’s ownership of our income and the dire needs of our sisters and brothers, God’s other children.  And the community can lay claim to some of “our” property through taxes to support communal needs.

I should be clear that I don’t believe rabbi or priest or President or Speaker of the House has the right to say, “God wants your property to be used in such-and-such a way.”  But I also believe “It’s mine” is a partially false claim.  In a tikkun olam world, we negotiate democratically and respectfully over the protections the individual needs and the protections the community and the earth need.  We all ultimately belong to God. 

IV. The Memory of Egypt

“One who would be no slave must consent to have no slave” – Abraham Lincoln

“You shall remember that you were slaves…” – Deuteronomy 5:15; 15:15; 16:12; 24:18; 24:22

“… For you were strangers in the Land of Egypt” – Exodus 22:20; 23:9; Leviticus 19:34; Deuteronomy 10:19

Since our earliest days, a core aspect of the Jewish vision for the world has been based on the memory of our suffering and a rejection of all such suffering.  It’s a collective application of Hillel’s summary of Torah, “what is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor,” based on our experience.  That experience includes the slavery of Egypt, the torture and dispersal at the hands of Imperial Rome and Spain, the pogroms and other restrictions of Eastern Europe and the Holocaust. 

(I think there’s an unhelpful tendency among Jews (and others) to define us by our suffering or imagine that our whole history is suffering.  That view ignores too much of our history from the very beginning: our father Abraham was rich; we enjoyed centuries as a sovereign kingdom; much of our stay in Babylonia was characterized by significant autonomy and cultural and economic productivity; for hundreds of years, Muslim Spain and North Africa allowed Jews to rise to high political, military and professional positions and to create great literature and music; American Jewry has enjoyed immense freedom with economic and intellectual successes; and Israel is incredibly technologically and culturally productive, as well as extremely militarily powerful. Even in our times of suffering, we weren’t defined by suffering: we continued to produce great literature and music; great intellectual and ethical teaching.  Nonetheless, our experience of suffering is an important base of our ethical sensitivities.)

What does it mean to let our vision of tikkun olam, of a repaired world, grow out of our experience?  It means to be vigilant and suspicious of anything that smacks of the things that were done to us: slavery, torture, expulsion.  (Note that Jews aren’t immune to these things: Israel has had serious problems with trade in women; one can find Jewish “neo-Cons” supporting torture; and there are “legitimate” political parties in Israel that support expulsion of Arabs.)  It means paying attention to those who are in the social positions we have occupied: immigrants, outsiders, the poor and powerless. It means standing up for the values of tolerance, equality before the law, and interfaith and intercultural dialogue that have allowed us to thrive. 

Judaism has also expressed these impulses, which I’ve stated above negatively as “thou-shalt-not”s, in positive terms.  The Torah often speaks of the opposite of slavery (and other forms of poverty and powerlessness) in terms of “redemption” or “restoration” – in Hebrew, “ge’ulah.”  Ge’ulah refers to the right to get things back that can’t be taken away from you (at least not permanently).  In the Torah’s vision, these include one’s self, one’s labor, one’s home and one’s land (which in those days was the main productive asset).  The right to ownership of self we might translate as “liberty.” The right to one’s labor is a prohibition of slavery.  (And may imply more than that.)  The right to a home and land or other productive assets are rights concerning which we haven’t yet caught up to Torah. 

I should mention that there is another possible reaction to the oppressions we’ve experienced in our history: One could decide that it’s just a nasty world and we should just look out for ourselves and be as nasty as the next guy.  Although that’s sometimes been a path taken by Jews, it hasn’t been our main reaction.  Our faith in a good, commanding God and in a better future tend away from that reaction.  And personally, I wouldn’t prefer to live in a world where everyone took that attitude.  Rather, I’d rather oppose slavery and oppression. As the Torah says (Deut. 16:20), “Justice, justice shall you pursue – tzedek tzedek tirdof!”

V. Absence of Rules means the Absolute Rule of the Most Powerful

Every spring, Jews celebrate the defeat of a man who considered himself ultimately powerful, and who was in fact mightily powerful, the Pharaoh of ancient Egypt.  And how did a people whose very birth was in the escape from Pharaonic power, whose God defined Itself at Its core as the Liberator from Egypt, envision a non-Pharaonic society?  It envisioned a society governed by the rule of law and by covenant with the Living God.  In describing the basics of Tikkun Olam, it’s important to explore the idea of power and the Jewish reaction to human power. 

In physics, power is the application of force over time.  In the human realm, we might say that power is the ability to get things to happen the way you want.  Especially to get things to happen the way you want when there are obstacles to them happening that way, including that other people don’t want them to happen that way.  To have power means to have access to carrots and sticks that get others to do what you want. It might mean to have the deck stacked in your favor in some way. 

The biblical authors were aware of several individuals or groups of people who wielded significant power.  Besides foreign powers, like the Pharaoh, there were the kings of Judah and Israel, the priests, the prophets, and also the land-owners (who also happened to be men).  To us, the power of the first several of those is likely self-evident.  The last two might require a little explanation: Prophets derived their power from the belief that they really did speak for God.  That’s a pretty powerful claim.  But it’s not absolute, because even in ancient times, there was the possibility and the suspicion of false prophecy.  Land-owning men also had power.  Most income (i.e. food to eat) came from the land, and so a person without access to land was at the mercy of those who did have such access.  We’re familiar with many of the categories of those who lacked access to land: the widow, the orphan, the stranger, the Levite, the destitute who had been forced by circumstance to sell their land.   

What are the consequences of unbridled power?  Let’s be blunt: Generally theft, abuse, suffering, and murder.  In the biblical world, there are several memorable stories of the abuse that flows from excessive royal power.  King David spots the lovely Batsheva bathing on the roof and wants her for himself. Only one problem: she’s married.  But he’s the king, so he sends her husband to the front with instructions to the generals to make sure he’s placed in the most dangerous position.  Or King Ahab who had a neighbor Naboth (Navot), with a nice vineyard.  (See 1 Samuel 21.)  The king wanted the vineyard, but Naboth wouldn’t sell.  So Queen Jezebel has the town council frame Navot on trumped up charges of blaspheming God and king.  He gets stoned to death; Ahab and Jezebel get the vineyard.  Or consider the milder abuses of Solomon and his son Rehoboam, who merely stole so much of people’s time to build their palaces that folks couldn’t successfully farm their land.  In the priestly abuse category, two of the stars were Hophni and Pinchas, sons of Eli the High Priest (see 1 Samuel 2).  They’d jab big forks into people’s festive meals and claim whatever came up as theirs, they’d intimidate people into giving them good, fatty meat that was actually supposed to be God’s, they’d take advantage of women at the shrine….  As for landowners, we can see the sorts of things people would do from what the Torah tries to prohibit: pharaonic treatment of bond-servants, letting the landless starve, keeping people in debt-slavery.  The prophets rail against the abuses of the wealthy landowners: theft, abuse of women, murder.  It seems that when people are used to getting their way, and they have unbridled power, they have a tendency to want to get their way in unsavory ways. 

(Note that although we do have stories of false prophets in the Tanakh, we don’t have stories of prophets causing mayhem with their power.  Maybe because their power was limited to words – they had neither armies nor wealth – or maybe because so much of Scripture was written by prophets and their followers.)

Our Biblical tradition tried to prevent the abuse of power with a combination of law and religious obligation.  Deuteronomy sets limits on the king’s wealth and power (but doesn’t specify who was to enforce those limits, which led to problems.) The countervailing powers of king and prophet functioned as a sort “checks and balances” system, like modern democracies achieve through independent judiciaries and, sometimes, separate legislative and executive branches of government.  In all the above stories of royal abuse, prophets came and meted out divine punishment on the king. (Not an option available to us.)  There were regulations that prohibited landowners from mistreating servants and rules that prevented permanent servitude by guaranteeing that no one (no Israelite anyway) would remain forever landless or without means of support.  Landowners were also required to give provisions to the landless, and were cajoled to treat them as brothers and sisters in the divine covenant. The power of men over women and children was limited by Torah by the application of the rule of law.  There are several situations whose resolution surrounding peoples left to the discretion of the male householder that Torah requires to be brought before the courts.  

Will any of you, my readers, object if I say that power is still with us today?  The king’s power has become state power. The landowner’s power has become corporate/financial power. The power of the prophet has become not only the power of religious institutions, but also of media and intellectual leaders. We’ve also added the power of organized groups of citizens, such as unions, interest groups, and “we, the people.” 

And the consequences of unbridled power remain the same: theft, neglect, suffering and murder. We all know the abuses of the unbridled state power of Communist, Fascist, and autocratic governments in the past century and now.  In America, the period of most unbridled financial/corporate power was the late 1800s.  The “robber barons” weren’t called “robbers” for nothing. Company stores encouraged debt servitude.  Company thugs murdered workers to enforce order and compliance with abusive financial arrangements and working conditions. The Triangle Fire is just one of the most famous examples of company power and greed leading to the death of workers, but there have been plenty. We can add the death of rivers and lakes, the infamous Lake Erie fire, etc, to the consequences of unbridled corporate power.  The nadir of union abuse of power was no doubt the mob connections that were common in certain unions in part of the 20th century.  We know about church abuse. And even “we, the people” have turned to lynching and other abuses. (It’s impressive that the American founding fathers understood the need to set checks and limits even on the power of the people. That is what the guarantees of minority rights enshrined in the Constitution’s First Amendment do.)

Our post-biblical Jewish heritage maintained much of the Torah’s teaching, but also added and adjusted.  In the more urban and technological post-biblical environment, the rabbis developed a body of law to limit the rights of property owners when their actions infringe on others.  (I think it’s useful to note that behind much of the liberal/conservative debate in our country is an unspoken disagreement about how much individual actions affect others.  Conservatives tend to see fewer individual activities as imposing costs on others than liberals do.)  They developed regulations about what guilds and town councils could or could not regulate. And they modernized old economic solutions, such as the prohibition on charging interest, that didn’t work in dynamic or urban economies, in ways that sought to promote economic activity while maintaining the traditional goal of preventing the abuse of power. 

We too need to promote economic activity while preventing the abuse of power.  That requires acknowledging that state, economic, religious, and collective power exists. And that, in turn, means that an absence of rules doesn’t lead to freedom, but to the abuse of unbridled power – the rule of the most powerful. Our Jewish heritage encourages us to reign in power through the rule of law, through regulation and systemic change that limits powerlessness, through checks and balances of multiple sources of power, and through the promotion of our moral obligations one to another.

VI. Covenant is Crucial

There is a third Jewish approach to mitigating the negative effects of power in addition to the rule of law and a checks-and-balances system of multiple centers of power:  “covenant.”

To understand the import of covenant, it would be useful to explain a little more about the way “power” works.  I wrote above about economic power, but I think some of the important forms of that power are not very visible.  We all understand the economic power that comes from the ability to use enormous wealth to influence political power.  If we were paying attention in Economics 101 we understand something called “monopoly power,” when a firm that dominates a particular market produces “too little” of a good for “too high” a price.  But what about in the operation of “normal,” “competitive” markets?  Is there “power” operating there?  Any of us who have trembled before going into a job interview knows that there is.  It will help us understand the Jewish angle on this to analyze that power a little bit. 

The power relationship in the job interview stems from several factors: First, especially with a big employer, the consequences of the decision are very different to the two parties.  The potential employee may view the decision whether to take the job or not in desperate terms: it may literally mean the ability to keep a roof overhead and food on the table.  And if a job is offered and turned down, in a bad economy it could be months at least before another shows up.  For a large employer, on the other hand, hiring or not hiring a wage-worker may mean a small blip in productivity and profits, nothing more.  And someone else will come along very soon.  The sub-field of economics and social science called “game theory” also tells us that there is power embedded in the structure of the “game.”  If one side makes a “final offer” and the other has to accept or decline, the offering side has more power.  Relationships that start with unequal desperation often have power inequality aggravated by this game structure.  Finally, and most relevant to the Jewish material to come, one might say that whenever people interact through unilateral and/or anonymous actions (for example in the Biblical record, the actions of superpowers toward enemies or kings and landowners toward the poor), we might characterize those actions as power-based interactions; they are actions one party takes that affect the other without the latter’s consent.

With that background, let’s get to Judaism.  As liberation theologians, such as John D. Watts and Pablo Richard, have pointed out, the prophets of Israel tended to see idolatry and oppression as part of a unitary system. Idolatry, the worship of the dead products of human labor, hides the power of the oppressor – a human-made power – behind the mask of the god supposedly inhabiting the idol.  The oppressor and his/her tools of oppression become somehow an invincible part of the cosmic order, not a human product that can be changed.  This is why the prophetic critique of idolatry emphasizes (unfairly in purely theological terms) the ridiculous man-made-ness of the idols.  They were exposing the man-made power of the oppressor.  And oppression, which is always associated with the worship of dead “things” like gold and weapons, is idolatrous not only due to that dead-thing worship, but in denying the image of the living God in the oppressed.  The idolatry-oppression system is based on power-relations. The prophets saw the opposite system as being based on covenant-relations. 

Covenant (“brit” in Hebrew) means an agreement or a treaty.  In the ancient Near-East, the original covenants weren’t very liberating; they were the treaties between super-power kings and their vassal kings.  Nonetheless, these treaties did set limits on the arbitrary exercise of power on the part of the super-power.  If the vassal behaved loyally and paid their tribute, the super-power provided protection from other super-powers and stayed out of the vassal’s hair. 

In the mouths of the Hebrew prophets, the notion of covenant came to mean much more.  Covenant was the core of the relationship of the Israelites with each other and with God.  Isaiah (42:6, 49:8) calls Israel a “covenant people.”  Malachi (2:10) says, “Have we not one Father? Has not one God created us? Why then do we deal treacherously each with his brother, profaning our Father’s covenant?”  Covenant involves recognizing our unity in reflection of the one God.  It is a system of interactions based on mutual understandings, filled with living hope, as opposed to arbitrary exercises of power using the dead products of our hands as weapons. 

Covenant, then, provides a theological underpinning both for the rule of law as an antidote to power and for the non-political caring deeds of hesed that Judaism expects from us. They are both expressions of the fact that we are all related to each other (whether or not we know each other).  They are both aspects of the worship of the one, living God.

VII. Praxis Makes Perfect

In the annual practice of counting of the omer, we count each day of the the 49-day period that connects the festival of freedom – Passover – and the festival of Torah – Shavuot through the ritual of counting 49 days through seven weeks.  The classical rabbis have a surprising statement connecting the themes of the two holidays: “No one is free except they who engage in talmud-Torah (Torah study).” (Pirkei Avot 6:2)  What could that mean?!

In order to understand how Torah (in some sense) might be essential to our freedom, let’s look more closely at the notion of “freedom.”  I think there are three aspects of “freedom” that are relevant here:

1. Freedom as consciousness.  Freedom implies that our actions are our actions, freely, consciously chosen.  In this sense, freedom is not only the negation of enslavement to others, it is the opposite of enslavement to habit, to animal instinct, or to what Judaism calls the “yetzer ha’Ra.” The yetzer ha’Ra is the “dangerous aspect” of our nature that some connect with the Freudian id – our raw, unchanneled, uncontrolled desire – or perhaps with the illusion of a permanent physical self. 

2. Freedom as the ability to create an intended effect in the world.  I mean, what kind of freedom is it if you can’t get anything done?  In a philosophical sense, we might say that this aspect of freedom is the opposite of enslavement to the past. 

3. Freedom from falsehood. The two previous aspects of freedom require this one.  Here, freedom implies a lack of enslavement to assumptions, to ignorance, or to limited perspective.

There’s a really useful word that describes the activity of free people in the above senses: “praxis.”  My favorite definition of “praxis” comes from the Brazilian educator, Paolo Freire.  According to Freire, praxis is “reflection and action upon the world in order to transform it.”1 

For Freire and others, praxis is an inherently dialogical activity.  It involves thoughtful give-and-take with others.  That’s partly because of the need, mentioned above, of freeing ourselves from our own limited perspectives.  It also stems from the idea that because we live in society, our interactions can, in some ultimate sense, be based either on dialogue with each other or on power over one another.  In this sense, freedom requires dialogue.  

In Judaism, we have a term for “praxis”: “Torah” (or sometimes the common combination phrase “Torah u-Mitzvah.”)   As you know, “Torah” in Judaism is much more than the Five Books of Moses.  Torah is the Jewish way of thinking about the world.  It is a dialogical process of releasing ourselves from assumptions and limited perspectives in order to reveal a more divine truth.  ”Torah and Mitzvah” implies action; It is the Jewish process of living consciously and doing tikkun olam – changing the world for the better. 

Although freedom doesn’t require that one call her/his praxis “Torah,” one who doesn’t engage in praxis/Torah is likely to be enslaved to habit or yetzer ha’Ra or enslaved to the past and to limited, self-centered perception. 


No one is free except they who engage in talmud-Torah


Praxis makes perfect.

VIII. And Love

Like all of us, my ideas come and go, changing over the years.  But I’ve reached one enduring conclusion in the years I’ve served as a rabbi, learning and teaching, celebrating, comforting, and, in particular, burying members of our community and our loved ones: Love is all that lasts. I don’t know exactly how to explain it, but I sense it in my bones and in my soul.  Our thoughts, our feelings, our physical characteristics, situation, and even physical selves are fleeting, but love endures.  It sends ripples into the world that become embedded in its very fabric.

In fact, I’ve come to think that a good Jewish argument could be made for the proposition that love is what we are at the deepest level and even that love is what God is.  The mussar teacher Alan Morinis teaches that what you are is a bright, shining, soul.  Not that you have a soul, but that you are one.  But our soul-brightness becomes clouded over by habit and fear and the confusions that arise from the physical nature of our journey. So we need to polish away that cloudiness.  Yet the pure soul remains at the center.  What’s interesting is that the mussar masters, for example Rabbi Mosheh Chayim Luzzato in his M’silat Y’sharim, speak of the purity of the soul in terms of the purity of its motives: The unclouded soul does things because they are good and because they are Godly. The pure soul is motivated by love, or maybe we should say “is love.”  And our tradition tells us that our soul (“the soul that we are”, Morinis would prefer) is the spark of the divine within us.  The love that we are at our core is a reflection of the Love that God is.  I recently heard a talk by a Conservative rabbi, Bradley Shavit Artson, on Process Theology. Process theology originated in the early 20th century partly in response to the discoveries of modern physics. It interested Mordecai Kaplan, but for some reason just now seems to be blossoming in the Jewish theological world.  Rabbi Artson spoke of God as that creative force that turns outward, inviting the universe and all its components into relationship, and, through the creativity of relationship, bringing order out of chaos.  Sounds like Love to me. 

Finally, it’s important to note that Judaism, whether Mussar or Reconstructionist, Process or Reform, always teaches that love implies deeds; it’s not just a feeling.  Loving your neighbor as yourself is not about having a warm feeling about her or him, though that’s a good thing to strive for.  It means taking steps to promote their wellbeing (both material and not) as if it were your own.  Think how m’tukan, how “repaired” the world would be if we all did that! Although I’m generally hesitant to say “Judaism teaches X” because of the long, diverse history of Jewish teaching, I feel justified in saying that Judaism teaches that tikkun olam involves arranging our personal lives as well as our politics, culture, and economy on the basis of love.


  • 1. “Praxis” is a word with an interesting history. It was used by Aristotle to describe a particular sort of thoughtful action unique to freemen, action in the social/political sphere whose aim was its own excellence, not some other outcome. The Eastern Orthodox church uses it to talk about faith-in-action: not theoretical theology, but lived theology.  In the West, the term was revived by a certain sub-school of Marx-influenced theorists and from there, with more or less taming,  made its way especially into the fields of Education (ETS, the SAT people, have a test series for beginning teachers called “Praxis”) and Social Work.  There are now companies and journals in high tech, engineering  and architecture called “Praxis,” indicating a commitment to the connection of thought and real-world action.)

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