Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Tikkun Olam in the Talmud

THIS WEEK'S DAF YOMI COLUMN BY ADAM KIRSCH IN TABLET: Is ‘Tikkun Olam’ for the Betterment of the World, or Just for the Betterment of Divorce? In this week’s ‘Daf Yomi’ Talmud study, Jews may not realize the origins of a central idea of modern social justice.
One of the secrets to the continuity of Judaism is that the same words can evolve to mean totally different things. The Talmud is full of this kind of semantic shifting: The rabbis regularly interpret the Torah in ways that, presumably, its original authors could never have anticipated. But a particularly striking example came in last week’s Daf Yomi reading, in chapter 4 of Tractate Gittin. In Gittin 32a, the mishna uses the phrase mi’pnei tikkun olam: “for the sake of the betterment of the world.” Today, tikkun olam is one of the most popular American Jewish mottos. We have interpreted “the betterment of the world” to mean the improvement of society in the name of social justice. In this way, liberal or left politics (of the kind espoused by the magazine Tikkun) are read into the Jewish tradition, as though working for social progress was an inherently Jewish activity.

I don’t mean to disparage this idea—there are certainly good foundations for it in many Jewish sources, starting with the Prophets—but there is no doubt that this is not what our ancestors meant when they used the words tikkun olam. ...
Some past posts on divorce in ancient Judaism are here, here, here, here, here, and here. More on the institution of prosbul is here and here.

Earlier Daf Yomi columns are noted here and links.