Tikun Olam: A Jewish Response to Injustice

We are all gasping and reeling at the images we see splashed across the news and social media.  The echoes of the phrase “Never Again” seem to ring hollow as white men, armed with flags emblazoned with swastikas and signs decrying the inhumanity of non-white people, marched with torches in the night.  This time it was to surround a statue.  Next time, will they be surrounding a synagogue or an African American church?

Photo Aug 16, 9 23 45 AMOn June 17, 2015, Dylann Roof attended a Bible study at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston, South Carolina, with the sole purpose of killing Black people to ignite a race war.  He opened fire on the members of the Bible study, killing nine people and injuring three others.  While this act was heinous and revealed the undercurrent of racial divide still existing in our country, it did not spark an all out race war as he had intended.  Why?

In the aftermath of the massacre, the religious community of Charleston came together in ceremonies commemorating the victims and proclaimed that the attack would not divide the community.  Although the senior pastor of Emanuel AME Church was one of the victims of the shooting, just four days after the attack, the church reopened for Sunday service with the senior elder presiding.

At one time or another, to a greater or lesser extent, we all experience some evil, some injustice in our lives, but it is not the evil or the injustice that we suffer that is at issue, for that is beyond our control.  What is within our control is how we react to it…..During the Holocaust, everyone in my father’s family perished.  My father, the only surviving son of my grandfather, could have been filled with hatred and rage, but he responded to this satanic evil by calling us, his children, to his side and telling us that henceforth our mission would be to make an extra effort at tikun olam – to bring healing to a world that had gone mad. – Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis

Photo Aug 17, 9 08 38 AMTikun Olam is a term that was first presented in the Mishnah as social policies and legislation aimed at protecting those at a disadvantage. The concept of tikun olam, as we know it today, was born out of the ideas and concepts presented in Lurianic kabbalah.  It has taken on a less cosmological definition in our modern world of Judaism and is primarily associated with promoting the “repair of the world” through acts of kindness, charity, and good deeds.  It is believed that in promoting peace and harmony in the world around you, that you are bringing about the ultimate shalom of the Messianic Age.

While this is not a scholarly debate of the various meanings, nuances, and applicability of tikun olam within the Jewish community at large and Messianic Judaism specifically, I hope that we can all agree that the concept of loving your neighbor as yourself is one that we all must hold to, regardless of the love-ability of our neighbor.  Tikun olam can be seen as an extension of that.  How we respond to acts of injustice, hate, and oppression is written within the fabric of our beliefs.

…You shall not abhor an Egyptian, because you were a sojourner in his land. Deuteronomy 23:7 ESV

After four hundred years of slavery in Egypt, G-d exhorts the children of Israel not to despise the ones who had enslaved them.  Thus G-d sets up the concept of tikun olam, that it is our responsibility to rise above the hatred and repair the breech with love and acts of kindness that are unwarranted.  In doing so, we take a world that is hurtling toward the abyss of evil and slowly push it back to the light of G-d – one act at a time.

If you meet your enemy’s ox or his donkey going astray, you shall bring it back to him. If you see the donkey of one who hates you lying down under its burden, you shall refrain from leaving him with it; you shall rescue it with him.  – Exodus 23: 4-5 ESV

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Yeshua continued to teach his followers these concepts.  As Ecclesiastes says, there is “nothing new under the sun.”  In both Matthew (Matt 5: 43-48) and Luke, we have Yeshua’s words regarding this concept of how we are to treat those who wrong us.

But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from one who takes away your cloak do not withhold your tunic either. Give to everyone who begs from you, and from one who takes away your goods do not demand them back. And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them.

If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to get back the same amount. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful. – Luke 6:27-36 ESV

Then we have the words of Shaul, who once again emphasizes the need to rise above the hatred that we experience and quotes our earlier passage from the book of Proverbs.

Photo Aug 13, 8 20 40 AMBless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them….Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly…Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all…”if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.– Romans 12:14-21

How does this apply to the issues of racial injustice, oppression, and acts of violence that we are witnessing today?  How do we walk in the direction of tikun olam? What can be done to repair the breach, heal the hurts, overcome evil with good?

We can first begin by educating ourselves.  The phrase “Never Again” is undergirded by the knowledge of what we must prevent.  You cannot prevent what you do not know.  It is incumbent upon us to understand the injustices and issues that the African American community faces on a daily basis.  It is also equally as important that we teach our children.  Just as we sit down to a Passover Seder every year and teach them about our slavery in Egypt, so we must also teach them about the slavery that occurred in America and how we still are dealing with the effects today.

We must then speak out against instances of injustice.  Within the Jewish community, we often quote the German Lutheran pastor, Martin Niemöller:

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This quote applies to the injustices suffered against the African American community as well.  If we stand by, mute, and watch as white supremacists rally, we are part of the problem.  If we hear a racist joke at school or work and do not speak out against it, we are part of the problem.  If we do not stand with someone, we stand against them.  In standing in solidarity with the oppressed, we present a united front against oppressors – overcoming evil with good. 

Write letters to your legislators expressing your commitment to stand against oppression and urging them to do so, specific to the current issue.  Share your opinion of current events on your social media platforms.  Look for ways that you can get involved locally and nationally in organizations and groups that work towards effecting change. Be a voice for the silenced and the hands and feet of those who are bound.

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