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Healing the World: A Discussion Guide

This study guide for the “Healing the World” section contains background information, questions for discussion, and additional resources.

A. Overview 
The “Focus” introduction asserts that tikkun olam is a core ethical principle of Reform Judaism. That is because from its earliest days Reform wore the mantle of the biblical prophets, who put individual and social welfare at the center of their teaching.


However, the idea of tikkun olam–-repairing the world-–derives fromKabbalah---Jewish mystical teaching-–a Jewish worldview espoused especially by Isaac Luria (1534-1572) in Safed. The obligation of tikkun--and its view of God-–require Jewish mysticism and Jewish ethics to merge and deal with the “why," not the "what," of ethical behavior. Individuals and society will define tikkun's content-–the specific acts of righteousness and repair.

Luria taught that God-–whose Divine light filled all of primordial space-–contracted, that God became "smaller," in order to provide space "outside" of God for the universe God wished to create. God withdrew, as it were, in a process known as tsimtsum, to make room for all that was to be. The withdrawn Divine light, poured into "vessels" representing God's attributes, shattered the vessels with their power, an event known as shevira. Some of the broken vessels spilled their precious contents-–God's light--below, in the space God had vacated, where the scattered lights became Satan's captives; and some of the lights rose to the upper realm, where God's pure light was preserved, giving rise, in effect, to two worlds-–an evil one below and a God-inspired one above.

Lurianic Kabbalah reasons that God, unaided, could not overcome the evil--an unintended consequence of the very act of creation--and that God required the help of the human creation to repair the vessels and bring harmony once again to a universe glowing with God's pure light. Adam and Eve failed to overcome the evil in their natures, so God turned to an entire people-– Israel–-and charged it to destroy evil, release the captive sparks, and restore the unity of God's pure light.

Tikkun is the name of the process in which the shattered lights will be restored so as to make God whole again. It is humanity's task to engage in the cosmic struggle to overcome evil because that's what God requires.

There are other answers to the "why" of tikkun olam. For example, humanists, agnostics, and atheists might reject a partner-with-God reason for defeating evil. And civil society embodies the eradication of social evil in its law codes and mores. Among religionists Jews do not have a monopoly on right conduct. Yet, for Jews, the solid link between ritual and ethics, both of which emanate from the one God, is at the bedrock of our faith, the "let us do" in na-aseh v'nishma recited in acceptance of the Sinaitic covenant. For Jews, the demands of the Holiness Code (Leviticus 19) are in the framework of "I am your God."

The articles that comprise this “Focus” discuss what you can do—alone and working with others--to make the world better; and explore motives for doing the right thing. This guide summarizes each of the articles and provides discussion topics framed as two "Big Ideas," the second of which is in two parts:

1. Social activism is as much a part of being Jewish as is observing the Sabbath, festivals, and rituals.

2. The command to repair the world devolves on both individuals and groups.


B. Summaries

1"Giving Back: A Conversation with Ruth Messinger” 
Messinger grounds her commitment to social justice in the belief that she owes it to others--that we are required to "give something back" in payment for the good we experience. She is deeply cognizant of themitzvah to know the heart of the stranger, an allusion to Exodus 23:9, which reminds us that we were strangers in the landof Egypt.

The American Jewish World Service became the vehicle through which she expresses her social activism and her Jewish identity--twin goals which are in fact at the base of the founding of this Jewish international development organization that raises and channels funds to community-based groups equipped to carry out the work of repair on the ground. AJWS enters trouble spots as a relief organization, but quickly moves to reconstruction. Most of its work is ongoing grassroots development worldwide.

Messinger argues against the "convenience of being overwhelmed" and offers additional rationales for being part of the solution: change can happen, even if slowly; it is important to give people hope; we are required to translate knowledge into action; what happens far away affects everyone in the global community. She challenges Jewish leaders to motivate the Jewish community to "step up to the plate."

2. "Sacred Service" by Rabbi Janet Marder 
Rabbi Marder argues that no disconnect exists between spiritual pursuits and social activism, echoing the passionate prophetic insistence that God loves justice more that ritual, action on behalf of others more than meditation. Whoever engages in sacred tzedakah experiences a "transcendent purpose." Avodah means work in the sense of service as well as worship. Thus both prayer and righteous deeds bear witness to God's presence.

3. “7 Great Waysto Become a Social Action Congregation” 
This sidebar offers practical suggestions as well as online and print resources to involve all segments of the congregation in tikkun olam.

4. "We Can't Go It Alone: A Conversationwith Mark Pelavin” 
Pelavin's commitment to pursue social justice came from observing the activism of his parents--a reminder of the importance of the messages we convey in the home. His early work with the American Jewish Congress taught him to value joining with others to effect change and to support others in their efforts just as we would hope them to support us in ours. Now he serves as associate director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and brings the following wisdom to bear on coalition work--repairing the world requires extending oneself to others, political processes are essential in bringing allies into the orbit, and joining others in their quests is vital, even if their concerns may not be among our high priorities.

He notes that Christian-Jewish coalitions sometimes fall apart, as was the case post-1967 when mainline Protestant support for Israelbroke down following the Six-Day War. Nonetheless, he says, the recent divestment recommendations of the Presbyterian Church were unanticipated and surprising. Still, he believes, interfaith communication lines must remain open and cooperation on matters of common concern can continue even when there is fundamental disagreement on other issues. He cites numerous examples, among them our continuing dialogue with the religious right and evangelical Christian groups whose love for Israel is motivated by apocalyptic theology that is not necessarily in Israel's best interests.

Palavin finds that Jewish Catholic relations are solidly based under Pope Benedict XVI. Jewish-Muslim relations, just beginning, are problematic because of differing expectations regarding the Israeli-Arab conflict and because the Muslim American community has not yet developed a national structure that can speak for it or a large base of local groups interested in extending beyond Islamic issues to participate in interreligious dialogue.

With Hillel's teaching in mind (Pirke Avot 1:14) and John Donne ("No man is an island, entire of itself..." -Devotions upon Emergent Occasions), Palavin emphasizes that religious tradition obliges Jews to look beyond themselves; be cognizant of the broader world and its needs; and, as Messinger also indicates, recognize that we also serve our own interests when we serve the interests of others.

5. "The Light in St. John's County Jail" by Al Vorspan 
This account of personal witness, dedicated to the late Rabbi Balfour Brickner, immerses us in the hectic, dangerous, nation-altering summer of 1964 when Protestants, Catholics, Jews, Blacks, Whites marched, went to jail, suffered, and sometimes died to end legal segregation in the South.

Vorspan, then director of the Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism, relates how he—a layman--and sixteen Reform rabbis traveled to St. Augustine, Floridaat the urging of Martin Luther King Jr. in the struggle to integrate pubic places. The local police harassed them and threw them in jail, where the taunting continued. The defiant joint statement they issued as Jews recalled the silence of the world during the Holocaust (see also Wiesel) and asserted their conviction that the second greatest danger to humanity is "loss of faith in man's capacity to act."

Vorspan concludes that the ultimate outcome of 1964 provided "the hopeful lesson that what we do matters."

6. "Tikkun for Teens" 
The NFTY Mitzvah Corps, housed on college campuses or URJ camps, provides young people with remarkable opportunities to render direct service to those in need, engage in Jewish study, and emerge as leaders of social action programs in their synagogues. This sidebar describes several Mitzvah Corps opportunities in 2006 and urges teens and their parents to visit the Mitzvah Corps website or phone for further information.

7. "Against Indifference: A Conversation with Elie Wiesel” 
Taking "Do not be indifferent to the bloodshed inflicted on others" (Numbers 19:16) as a theme, renowned author and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel decries inaction when action to save others is demanded and asserts, following Camus, that "Not to take a stand is in itself taking a stand." Thus committed, he cannot remain silent in the presence of human suffering lest he be an accomplice to the crime.

Wiesel laments that bearing witness by telling tales of personal suffering during the Holocaust did not succeed in changing the world, preventing other slaughters, or even silencing the deniers. Yet, he asserts, we must continue to believe, for the sake of the future, that the answer to violence grows from human compassion and humanity's "quest for justice and memory." Saving even a single life, defeating even one injustice, defeats cynicism and gives reason for hope-–a gift each of us can give to one another.

Moreover, despite all he experienced, Wiesel has come to realize that he cannot deny his ancestors and the faith they followed: "So my faith, wounded as it is, endures."

8. "3 Personal Avenues to Social Action" 
This sidebar offers specific recommendations and resources for the individual to begin participation in tikkun olam.

9. "First Responders: Hurricane Katrina & the Reform Movement: A Conversation with Rabbi Daniel Freelander” 
This interview with URJ Vice President Rabbi Daniel Freelander speaks of the Reform Movement's initial and continuing Hurricane Katrina-related tikkun activities.

Katrina interrupted a more-than-150-years-old Jewish community, two of whose four Reform synagogues were in flooded areas. Reform rabbis and lay leaders sped to New Orleansto rescue Torah scrolls and other sacred objects, while the URJ created online bulletin boards and reissued inaccessible temple membership lists so that synagogue leaders and congregants could communicate with one another.

The URJ's Katrina relief fund (www.urj.org/relief) collected more than two million dollars (and considerably more since the magazine went to press). These funds have helped Reform congregations in nearby communities absorb a large number of evacuees, provide them with much-needed cash assistance, and more. Katrina relief fund contributions also enabled the Unionfor Reform Judaism to underwrite an on-the-ground effort to enable FEMA-check recipients, most of whom were poor and had no bank accounts, to cash the checks regardless of prior means—another example of how the organized religious community proved among the “First Responders” to this crisis.

In addition, the Unioninitiated and implemented the JACOBS’ LADDER project, through which emergency supplies from Reform congregations, congregants, and others throughout the nation were warehoused, organized, and redistributed to hurricane victims seeking shelter in the area of Utica, Mississippi. Reform congregations and Union staff have volunteered at the warehouse; the URJ staff handles the warehouse logistics.

Moreover, URJ staff members with social work degrees have been counseling evacuees–-in short, an all-out effort for the practical work of tikkun olam.


C. "Big Ideas to Explore"

1. Social activism is as much a part of being Jewish as is observing the Sabbath, festivals and rituals. 

The prophetic insistence on individual responsibility for justice--and a similar emphasis on communal responsibility to create a just society--derives from a major thrust of Torah teachings. However, while the biblical prophets thundered about tikkun olam, they delivered their messages in much more down-to-earth terms: as commands to carry out specific acts. They insisted that we pursue justice because that's what God says to do (Deuteronomy 16:20).

Consider this brief sampling of prophetic passion for tikkun olam:

  • Isaiah (1:17) repeated Exodus 22:21 when he championed the cause of the orphan and the widow.
  • Isaiah (58:5-6) echoed Leviticus 25:10 when he bade us abandon sacrificial rites in favor of freeing the captive.
  • Micah (4:4) had Leviticus 25:3 in mind when he asserted that each person is entitled to the harvest of the earth.
  • Isaiah (56:1), Jeremiah (34:15) and Amos (5:24) drew from Genesis 18:19 in extolling righteousness.
  • Zechariah (7:10) knew Deuteronomy 24:17 when he spoke up for society's under classes.

These more general teachings frame the Torah's social justice system:

  • Tzelem Elohim– each human is in God's image: Genesis 1:27 and 9:6.
  • Ki Li Ha-aretz– the land belongs to God: Leviticus 25:23.
  • V'ahavta L're-echa– love your neighbor: Leviticus 19:18.

Questions for Discussion.

  1. Read the full biblical texts. Explain the nuanced differences among and between the Torah verses and the prophets' statements.
  2. What kinds of behaviors does each of the three general propositions imply?
  3. Which biblical teachings relate to Messinger's belief that we have to give something back? Explain.
  4. Which view about ethics/ritual fits Rabbi Marder's opening anecdote and the thrust of her statement? Explain.
  5. Pelavin says that no person is an island. Do you agree? Explain. Which of the above citations best relates to that idea?
  6. Wiesel cites Numbers 19:16 as a proof text for social action. How does that compare with Pelavin's idea and with Leviticus 19:18?

2. The command to repair the world devolves on both individuals and groups.

A.In their teachings, the prophets enshrined the Torah's emphasis on the imperative to social action which benefits the individual and society. Post-biblical writings expanded on the premise that humans are responsible for God's creation, including humanity itself. For example:

  • You are not required to finish the task (of repairing the world) but neither are you at liberty to desist from it. – Tarphon, Pirke Avot 2:21
  • All whose good deeds exceed their wisdom, their wisdom will endure. But all whose wisdom exceeds their good deeds, their wisdom will not endure. – Chanina ben Dosa. Pirke Avot 3:12
  • ...The world is filled with goodness and everything depends on the abundance of good deeds. –Akiva.Pirke Avot 3:19
  • All whose wisdom exceeds their good deeds are like trees with many branches but few roots; the wind comes and (the trees) are torn out...But all whose good deeds exceed their wisdom are like trees with few branches and many roots: the strongest winds cannot budge them. –Elazar ben Azariah, Pirke Avot 3:22
  • To preserve one human life is to preserve the entire world. –Avot de Rabbi Nathan 31:45-46
  • The righteous do not think of their own affairs but concern themselves with the needs of the community even when they are on the point of death. –Sifre Numbers 138, f, 52a
  • Doing, not expounding Torah, is the chief thing. –Simeon ben Gamaliel, Pirke Avot 1:17

These exhortations do not, of course, prescribe how best to fulfill them, for tikkun olam has many faces—consider the different needs inherent in rising to such catastrophic events as Katrina (Freelander), segregation (Vorspan), and Darfur (Wiesel). Such overwhelming threats demand attention from the widest possible coalitions, as Messinger, Pelavin, and Freelander emphasize.

Another observation: The Sh'ma (Deuteronomy 6:4) as it is written in the Torah scroll (and in most printed texts) shows an oversized letter ayin at the end of the first word, "sh'ma," and an oversized letter daled at the end of the last word, "echad.” One explanation: the letters ayin and daled constitute the word "ed" – witness. Thus, the burden is on Israelas a nation to witness to God's presence by fulfilling the commandments to repair the world. Group action is sometimes the only appropriate response.

B. Whether we act alone or with others, the prophets want us to think about the relationship between ethical and ritual behavior. While Isaiah (58:5-6) places good deeds above ritual, Ezekiel 22:7-8 teaches that both count because they derive from the same God, a view supported by rabbinic tradition:

To the Rabbis morality and religion form a single whole. They cannot separate  the one from the other. He who is 'good' must believe in God. He who is bad must deny or ignore Him. Goodness implies faith in God. Faith in God implies, at the least, the obligation to be 'good '...to fulfill the ordinances of the Law... – Montefiore, pg. 122

Obedience to God's law in its entirety is the supreme moral obligation of man, irrespective of the subject matter of the particular article. The modern distinction of duties to God as religious obligations, and those to our fellow men or in our personal conduct as moral obligations, is, from the point of view of revealed religion, a false division of an indivisible unity. –George Foot Moore, quoted in Montefiore, pg. 153

Talmud Moed, Shabbat 127a, significantly incorporated in the Shabbat morning liturgy, exemplifies the difficulty distinguishing between "moral" and "religious" commandments:

There are six things, the fruit of which man eats in this world, while the principal remains for him for the world to come, viz: Hospitality to wayfarers, visiting the sick, meditation in prayer, early attendance at the Beth Hamidrash, rearing one's son to the study of Torah, and judging one's neighbor in the scale of merit...(and). These are the things which man performs and enjoys their fruits in this world, while the principal remains for him for the world to come, viz: honoring one's parents, the practice of loving deeds, and making peace between man and his fellow, while the study of the Torah surpasses them all.

Questions for Discussion

  1. List the things in Moed you consider to be "religious" activities. What do they have in common? Now do the same for things you consider to be "moral" activities. What do they have in common? What shared features unite the lists?
  2. Which of the directives in Moed, Shabbat can you perform solo? How?
  3. List ten additional things you can do by yourself to make the world better. Explain how each action achieves the goal.
  4. Rabbi Marder says that "God acts through people." How? Is that an important motive for tikkun olam? Explain.
  5. Wiesel and Vorspan talk about the indifference of bystanders. What can be/has been your response on overhearing racial or ethnic slurs, as in "jokes" and demeaning expressions? To what social causes have you lent yourself? Explain.

D. Resources

Abraham Cronbach. The Bible and Our Social Outlook. (New York: UAHC Press, 1941).

Joseph Dan. Jewish Mysticism and Jewish Ethics. (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society & Seattle: Univ. Of WashingtonPress, 1986).

Abraham J. Heschel. The Prophets. (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1960).

C. G. Montefiore & H. Loewe. The Rabbinic Anthology. (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1960).

Albert Vorspan & Eugene J. Lipman. Justice and Judaism. (New York: UAHC Press, 1956). Esp. Ch.1.

Albert Vorspan & David Saperstein. Jewish Dimensions of Social Justice. (New York: UAHC Press, 1998).