Tikkun olam is most commonly heard as a slogan for activism, political involvement and social justice. The term has had numerous lives, such that its endurance and malleability over time are truly impressive. It has been used as a pliable legislative justification for changing specific laws and as an eschatological ideal that may describe a human process or the divine end. It has had practical implications for some, and mystical connotations for others. In the twentieth century, the term tikkun olam has been used when advocating Jewish political involvement, or to argue for abstinence from any political participation whatsoever. More recently it has become a banner for almost any laudable value, including energy conservation, recycling, government health care packages, the fight against terrorism, better nutrition, looking after stray animals, and the list goes on.
This paper will trace the main way stations of the term, starting with a brief look at the etymology of the term, and move from rabbinic literature to modern times. This whistle-stop tour will provide an overview of the vicissitudes of the term “tikkun olam” and will demonstrate how it has come to connote a disparate
array of values.
Tikkun olam has been assimilated into modern, liberal, democratic discourse. It has become a watchword for any value, even if a particular value—worthwhile as it may be—is not rooted in Jewish tradition. This trend raises a question that should be considered: what is the opportunity cost of the cultural assimilation of
the term tikkun olam?
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