Tikkun Olam is one of those phrases that tend to divide Orthodox Jews into camps. It generally refers to worthy causes that our outside our camp. Like racial discrimination. The more liberal one is - the more likely they are to be involved in matters that they define as Tikkun Olam.
Indeed one of the most liberal magazines in this regard is entitled Tikkun. On the other hand those who identify with the right wing tend to shun the idea of Tikkun Olam. The more right wing – the more contempt one may find for this concept.
What exactly is Tikkun Olam as it applies to Torah Judaism? How should Orthodox Jews approach that concept? Is it indeed our mandate to improve the physical world? The answer is yes. It is.
There are some who would insist that improving the physical world is not our job. That Judaism is about spiritual improvement.
That is also true. But that is not all it is.
Much of the animosity to the concept of Tikkun Olam is based on the animosity one has for those who have co-opted that word for themselves – heterodox movements. They practically define Judaism that way. As if that was the primary purpose of Judaism to the exclusion of everything else.
It is then much easier for a Conservative or Reform Jew who for example does not observe any of the Mitzvos Bein Adam L’Makom (the relationship with God) to rationalize and justify his way out of that by saying that he focuses on Mitzvos Bein Adam L’Chavero (intrapersonal relationships).
They might say that they are following the Torah mandate to improve society. Thus they see themselves as acting Jewishly and do not feel any guilt about not observing Mitzvos like Shabbos or Kashrus. While it is true that they participate in Tikkun Olam – that is but one aspect of Judaism. It is not be a replacement for all other Mitzvos.
This is what causes some of the disdain for the term Tikun Olam. It is identified with heterodoxy and thereby rejected. The truth is however that heterodoxy’s high value of Tikun Olam does not mean we have to reject that as a value for ourselves. It is indeed an important value to build up the world.
Yafeh Talmud Torah Im Derech Eretz the Mishnah in Avos (2:2) tells us. Beautiful is the study of Torah when combined with the way of the world. Derech Eretz is often translated in this context as working for a living. But it need not be interpreted solely that way.
Rav Aharon Soloveichik makes this very point in his book Logic of the Heart – Logic of the Mind. In his chapter definig Torah U’Mada he points out that one of the perspectives of that is the building up of the world – Tikun Olam. He quotes the Rambam’ grandson, Rabbenu David Hangid’s Commentary on the Mishnah and R’ Samson Raphael Hirsch who say that although making a living is included in the term Derech Eretz – the greater meaning is ‘progress and all those things conducive to the continued building up of the world.’
What does this mean for Orthodox Jews? I think it means that we cannot ignore the great issues of the day – even if they do not directly impact us. We cannot afford to ignore hunger in Ethiopia or racial discrimination in America. We cannot afford to ignore poor immigrants (legal or otherwise) who are mistreated or taken advantage of by unscrupulous employers. We cannot afford to ignore issues like global warming (if it truly is a problem). We cannot afford to ignore massacres in Rwanda or tragedies in Haiti or New Orleans. We cannot afford to ignore foreign wars if we feel they are immoral.
It should be noted that Rav Ahron was vehemently opposed to the Viet Nam War – calling it immoral. He spoke out against it often. Including many times to the Talmidim in the Yeshiva (HTC). In the Beis HaMedrash. During a Shiur Klali! (Before being anti war was even popular!)
Yes we need to be responsible to ourselves as a nation first. But that does not relieve us of the obligation to participate with our secular brethren when they fight for social justice.
Tikkun Olam is our responsibility too. As Jews we must try and help build up the world. We may differ with our heterodox brethren as what form this should take. But it must take some form. Because if we do ignore it - we do so at our own peril… and we ignore a very important aspect of Torah Judaism.