If Israel's army was especially conspicuous during the early rescue and recovery efforts in Haiti, other Jewish agencies have been working on or behind the scenes as well. Among them is a coalition coordinated by the Joint Distribution Committee, the Jewish relief agency in continuous operation since World War I. According to the coalition's website, its Haiti-related work "demonstrates the age-old Jewish tradition of tikkun olam, or helping to repair the world."
The phrase tikkun olam is indeed age-old, but its traditional meaning is very far from present-day connotations. The term originally appears in the second-century Mishnah to denote a specific set of legal enactments serving the interests of civic equity. Later and more famously it occurs in the Aleynu prayer, calling upon God to "restore the world under the kingdom of heaven," i.e., in the service of God Himself. This more redemptive meaning took hold in the medieval kabbalah, where the concept of tikkun is aimed less at religious obedience, let alone at repairing the material world, than at spiritual transformation.
In recent decades, the term has been recruited as a short-hand designation for the social concerns and often the liberal politics central to many contemporary Jews. Clearly it offers a useful rubric for those otherwise indifferent to or disaffected from the stirrings of Jewish religion or nationhood. For others, it may bridge a perceived gap between the thought patterns of a God-infused tradition and the modern idea that societies are man-made entities perfectible through the exercise of moral idealism.
To critics, the increasing currency of the term serves as so much window dressing for a politics that has nothing particularly Jewish about it. Others hold out the hope that the sentiment of tikkun olam might yet provide a vehicle of positive identity, if not solidarity. In the meantime, just like everybody else, and with or without advertising the fact, Jews of all kinds can continue to measure themselves by the good they do and the relief they bring to people in distress.
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