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“Fixing the World”, what a wonderful word…. I challenge anyone not to want to be the “hero” who saves the World, yet for almost all of humanity ( at present time), this concept remains as utopian and unattainable as it gets. The “masses” think there is a better chance of conquering and colonizing planets in the vast cosmos than saving what is “under our own skies.”
Well, we believers do not belong to the mass, and Jewish tradition teaches us that Tikkun Olam is not only possible, but also explains it as a key concept in spirituality and mysticism. You can “save” yourself, only if you save the World, and just trying to do so, concretely, will be able to regenerate and give fulfillment to every Spirit.
I have already written sufficiently about this subject on ASH, and that is why I have decided (to “reach” where my human limitations “restrict” me) to get help from the words of an honorable Rabbi, a teacher whom I esteem for what he magnificently reported in his essay: Repairing the World , by Rabbi Philip J. Bentley.
Essay by Philip J. Bentley
Jewish activists on all parts of the political spectrum claim Jewish tradition for their own ideology. The truth is that Judaism is a living tradition almost 4000 years old while Western political philosophies are a few centuries old at most. Jewish tradition is on a completely different track from the spectrum that includes “left” and “right.” Nonetheless it is true that the Jewish vote and Jewish activism generally tend towards the left. Why is that? The purpose of this essay is to explore briefly some aspects of Judaism that may help explain this undeniable fact.
Fixing The World
The ultimate basis for understanding of any system of ethics, public or private, is the answer to the question, “What is humanity?” One answer is given in the account of Creation from Jewish mystical tradition (Kabbalah).
Before Creation God was infinite and, for reasons we cannot conceive of, withdrew to create space-time. Into space-time God sent emanations of ten divine attributes which were to take shape in vessels. A cosmic accident occurred and the vessels for the emanations were shattered causing the divine sparks to be mixed up and hidden among the shards which became shells around the sparks. It was then that Heaven and Earth were created and humanity placed on earth in order to retrieve the sparks from the shells. This process of is called Fixing The World (Tiqqun Olam).
The role of humanity is to re-establish this world as it was supposed to be by releasing the divine spark hidden in everything in the world and restoring it to its Source.
Judaism is a this-world religion, even in its mystical expression. The relationship between a human being and God includes not only that individual’s faith and observance of religious precepts and laws, but in the way an individual treats other human beings. Most of the 613 Commandments (Mitzvot) in Judaism are concerned with social relationships. All of the piety and religious observance in the world means nothing if a person does not use life to make the world better.
The Most Important Verse
A group of rabbis, many centuries ago, argued about which was the most important passage in the Bible – the one that sums up the purpose of all of the Scriptures. The “winner” was “This is the record of Adam’s line – when God created man1 he was made in the image of God.” (Genesis 5,1) That verse is followed by a series of “begats” telling the genealogy of ten generation of Adam and Eve’s descendants. The Rabbis however read this verse as affirming that all of humanity has one ancestor and that every human being is made in the divine image.
Why, the Talmud asks, was all of humanity descended from one couple? There are several answers given including one that says no one should be able to say “My Adam and Eve were superior to your Adam and Eve.” Another says that this establishes the life of every human being as equal to an entire world. Thus we have the famous dictum, “One who destroys a single human life destroys an entire world; and one who saves a single human life saves an entire world. Human life in this world is considered the highest ethical imperative in Judaism.
Every single human being who has ever lived or who will ever live must be thought of as made in the divine image and worth the life of the entire world. Anyone who takes this doctrine seriously must see in every human being a face of God. It then becomes impossible to intentionally harm or degrade any person.
Who Would Believe It?
The Jewish religion cannot be understood without knowing the unique historical experience of the Jewish people. Our very existence defies the rules of history. Deutero-Isaiah commented 25 centuries ago, “Who can believe what we have heard?” (Isaiah 53, 1) as an expression of amazement at our survival.2
The Land of Israel is situated between two ancient powerful rivals: Egypt and Mesopotamia (modern Syria and Iraq). For over 4000 years and down to the present day these two giants fought over the small territory that divided them. We suffered from the passage of huge armies through our land and sometimes we were pawns in international rivalry. In Jeremiah’s day Pharaoh convinced the King of Judah to rebel against Babylonia with a promise of support. The rebellion took place, no help was forthcoming and, as a result Jerusalem and the Temple were burned to the ground and those people who did not escape to Egypt were exiled to Babylonia.
Thus throughout our Scriptures there is distrust of great cities, kingdoms and empires. The powers of the Jewish king were always limited because the king was to be subject to the law and to the ethics that ruled everyone else. In the Bible the person who is a great warrior or athlete or who has great political power or wealth is not regarded as a hero. The great person is the one who is just, kind and learned. Our peculiar historical situation gave us a view of the world different from that of other peoples.
Now We Are Slaves
Most nations tell of their glorious, heroic origins. Every year on Passover Jews sit down at a table and tell how we began our history as slaves in Egypt. But we do not stop there. We affirm that if we had not been taken out of Egypt we would still be there.
In the course of the Passover Seder ritual we try our best to relive the experience of slavery and liberation. “In every generation it is incumbent on each person to see him/herself as having personally experienced the Exodus from Egypt.” We do not even credit Moses as our liberator. He is barely mentioned in the traditional text. God took us out from Egypt. Furthermore we state, “Now we are slaves; next year may we be free.” We see liberation as an ongoing process rather than as a static ancient event.
The Torah (The five books of Moses) tells us 36 times: You shall not oppress the stranger for you know the heart of the stranger having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt. The purpose of constantly reminding ourselves of our humble origins is to remind ourselves that we must have compassion towards others, including those who are not like us.
Among The Nations
When Solomon’s Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians (in 586 BCE) we began an aspect of our history which makes us truly unique. More of our people have lived outside of our ancestral homeland than within it. Since the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans (in 70 CE) we have been scattered to every corner of the globe and have survived as a vulnerable minority under all kinds of conditions.
We have therefore had to learn to survive every imaginable kind of situation without resort to force of arms. Our situation has often been precarious. As outsiders we were forced to perform social and economic functions which those in power preferred to give to outsiders. We were not allowed to own or even work land, join craft guilds, or participate in the military. We were forced to become money lenders, tax and rent collectors, and do other services for the local sovereign who, in return was supposed to protect us. Sometimes Jews were even given such powerful or sensitive positions as royal financier, physician, or even chief minister of government. The reason for this was that no Jew could possibly be a threat to the throne and therefore
no Jew would be likely to use power against the king. Of course when times became bad the Jews were typically blamed and were made to suffer persecution or even expulsion.
In a sense we were like a canary placed in a mine shaft. When poisonous gases are released the canary will stop singing and die before the miners are in danger. Often the first victims of social and economic unrest have been the Jews. We have had to learn to be sensitive to changing conditions. Jews almost always fare better when the national mood is positive and when human rights and dignity are widely respected. An 18th century Polish rabbi commented on the verse “Proclaim liberty throughout the land unto all of its inhabitants.” (Leviticus 25:10). Why “all” of its inhabitants? Because if anyone in a nation is not free then no one in that nation is free.
Over the centuries Jews have learned that only if everyone’s rights and dignity are protected can we feel safe. It should therefore come as no surprise that Jews are often in the vanguard of human rights activities.
The Hardest Lesson
There are two ways to respond to the lessons taught us by the Holocaust. We can say, “No one is our true ally, therefore we must concern ourselves only with ourselves.” Or we can say, “The Nazis were able to demonize the Jews and then murder millions of us because we did not do enough to bring others to our cause. We must therefore fight every kind of bigotry and tyranny from the outset lest we become victims.” A national trauma like the Holocaust brings out the best and the worst in people.
Our history in modern times does not, in itself, give us reason to go rightward or leftward politically. We have been scapegoated, persecuted and murdered under communists, fascists, and nationalists of every kind. Even in the United States it took the Civil Rights movement of the 60’s to guarantee that Jews could live and work wherever we want to. We still suffer demonization by groups ranging from the Aryan Nations to the Nation of Islam. The State of Israel is a favorite whipping boy in international political rhetoric by demagogues of both the right and the left.
The hard lesson of the Holocaust is that we must be quick to respond to every threat to ourselves, but also to every kind of racism and bigotry no matter who its victims are. We must rely on ourselves but we must also take part in the efforts of others towards social justice.
In The End of Days
Judaism teaches that Creation has purpose. It had a beginning and will have an end. Since the days of the Biblical prophets we have had a vision of a time when all wrongs will be righted and humanity will know a time of universal justice, security, prosperity and peace. That vision is not attached to any political ideology but is reflected in many of them. Our vision of the Messianic Age, whether or not embodied
in a single messianic figure, is one that requires us to do more than wait. We are required in our individual lives to try to make the world around us better for everyone. The traditional Jewish community cared for the poor, the disadvantaged and the stranger. We are always to strive to make this world like the World-to-come in every way possible. One tradition says that the messiah will only arrive when we have succeeded in this effort. As Franz Kafka expressed it, “The messiah will arrive only when he is no longer needed.”
Our theology, our ethics, our history, and our vision of the world’s purpose all bind us to the belief that we must make the world a better place. Is it any wonder, then, that Jews not only vote for the more liberal candidate but actively pursue justice and peace in the world?
1. “Man” is understood to refer both to the male and female of our species. The Genesis verse specifies “Male and female they were created”