...except for me and my monkey! "Everything we see hides another thing. We always want to see what is hidden by what we see." -Rene Magritte

Friday, June 03, 2005

Tikkun olam (And the question is, what do Dorothy Day, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Etty Hillesum, and Jim Wallis have in common?)

Sorry for any whiplash caused by the proximity of this post to the previous two, but it can't always be about boobs and the Baby-Sitters Club.

I want to start this entry by quoting a part of the 1951 inaugural discourse of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, seventh Rebbe of the Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic Jewish community and spiritual leader of hundreds of thousands. I'm taking the quotation out of The Rebbe's Army: Inside the World of Chabad-Lubavitch by Sue Fishkoff, which I've been reading for the past week:

"When it all began, Heaven was here on Earth.
The physical plane, more than any of the higher spiritual worlds, was the place where the Divine Presence yearned to be.

But Man, step by step, banished the Divine Presence from its home, with a tree of knowledge, with a man who murdered his brother, with all those things that human beings do...

Since Man chased it away, only Man can bring it back. And this began with Abraham, who proclaimed Oneness for all the world.

And it ends with us. Our generation will bring Heaven back down to Earth.

In Hebrew, tikkun olam means the mending or the repairing of the world. In traditional Jewish theology, a belief in tikkun olam means believing that it is up to the Jews, God's chosen people, to repair the world that humanity has destroyed--to bring Heaven back down to Earth. For the Chabad-Lubavitch (who by no means represent all Jews, all Orthodox Jews, or even all Hasidic Jews), this means encouraging Jews who have forgotten their heritage to reclaim their Jewish identities and to practice mitzvot, God's commandments. The Chabadniks and Lubavitchers believe that if all the Jews of the world kept the Sabbath for three weeks in a row, the spiritual power of that action would be so great that it would bring Mosiach, the Messiah.

But tikkun olam doesn't necessarily have to be so traditional, so Hasidic. It isn't necessarily about black-hatted men asking passers-by if they put on teffilin that morning, or slichot setting up Chabad Houses on university campuses and lighting huge menorahs. I don't think it even has to be Jewish. As a Christian, I can't even begin to describe the spiritual power that the concept of tikkun olam holds for me, except to say that when I first learned about it, in last semester's Introduction to Judaism class, it was as though a jolt of electricity went through me. It was like when I first learned about liberation theology, or postmillenialism: suddenly it all made sense, and just for a moment, everything was clear. Just as with liberation theology and postmillenialism, tikkun olam made sense on such a level that I felt as though I had always known the concept to the true, and was just waiting for someone to teach me its name. Sustantively true. True with a capital T. I've half-way decided that when I graduate from college, I'm going to get a tattoo of the Hebrew letters for tikkun olam, as a permanent reminder of my Religious Studies education and what I feel is my mission in the world. It's the only thing that I've come across so far that's worth getting tattooed on my body.

Because, really: liberation theology? Postmillenialism? Tikkun olam? They're all basically the same concept. Liberation theology holds that Christians and other faith communities are called to stand in solidarity with the poor and oppressed and work to bring about God's justice for oppressed communities; in other words, to bring about God's reign of social justice. Postmillenialism, which had its heyday among evangelical Protestants and Catholics like Dorothy Day in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, maintains that Christ will return to Earth only after the millenium, the thousand-year reign of peace, justice, and prosperity that we imperfect humans have worked to bring about. Each step towards creating a better, deeper, higher, more just, more peaceful, more compassionate society, then, is a step towards fulfilling our ultimate purpose in the world.

You all know that I look to Etty Hillesum for much of my spiritual inspiration. For my final Judaism paper, I explored the aspects of Etty's Jewish identity, since she's often "accused" of "not sounding Jewish" in her prayers and religious mediations, since she, like much of Dutch Jewry, was so secularized. And yet--and yet. Etty volunteered to be sent to a concentration camp, because she felt that she could minister to the prisoners there. To minister to God! To clear a space inside others and inside of herself for God. She wrote, "Ultimately, we have just one moral duty: to reclaim large areas of peace in ourselves, more and more peace, and to reflect it toward others. And the more peace there is in us, the more peace there will also be in our troubled world."

Next February, Tikkun magazine is going to be holding a conference in Washington, DC on spiritual activism. I'm going to be there.