Tikkun Olam

Many nowadays seem to think that Judaism – the Jewish People and the Jewish State – should look inwardly, focusing on its own survival and development. Others consider that the priority should be looking outwardly, focusing on the contribution to be made to the global good. Any student of Jewish values knows that neither is correct. Only through an intense involvement in building and developing our own community, country and knowledge can we truly make our destined contribution to humanity. It is not a question of either/or; rather, it is both/and. We not only fail as humans when we neglect our responsibility to the wider world, we also fail as Jews. We are entrusted with not one but two great challenges: one the one hand to strive to take the Jewish people and state to ever greater moral, spiritual, social and economic heights; on the other hand to ensure that this inevitably leads to improvements for the whole of humanity in all the same areas.

An ethic of engagement

Classical Jewish sources contain a strong sense of obligation towards humanity. Reference is commonly made to the concept of tikkun olam, literally “repair of the world”. The concept is used in the Mishnah (Gittin 4:2) the earliest Rabbinic law code dating to the early third century CE, with reference to a number of concrete ethically-grounded legal amendments.[1] The concept also achieved prominence in kabbalistic thought, referring to the mystical repair of creation (Rosenthal, 2005; Ballabon, 2005), but has been used by some thinkers as a metaphor for repair of a broken social world (Sacks, 2005). It has thus become popularly associated with an expression of Jewish universalism (Neumann, 2011).

The Talmud (Gittin 61a; Tosephta Gittin 3:13-14, and codified in Maimonides Kings 10:12) invokes darchei shalom (way of peace) specifically in relation to Jewish obligations to non-Jews, specifying the obligation to visit their sick, bury their dead and support their poor, to foster ‘ways of peace’ (Blidstein, 2005). This principle – promoting “ways of peace” is deployed by the Mishnah (Gittin 5:8) to advocate for a range of mainstream social conventions aimed at furthering civilised conduct, suggesting that this is ethic is advanced in pursuit of the genuine peace and welfare of all humankind.[2]

Proverbs (3:17) observes: “Her [Judaism’s] ways are ways of pleasantness (darchei no’am), and her paths are paths of peace.” Wurtzberger (1981) draws attention to the more general ethical precept to do “the right and the good” (veasita hayashar vehatov) (Deut. 6:18; 12:28). Others still have propounded the view that Jewish ethics are derived in part on the story of creation, which by definition binds all humankind equally and that Judaic teachings of a moral nature are essentially binding all humankind. As Nissim Gaon (Preface to Talmud Berachot) put it: “all commands that flow from reason and human understanding have obligated humanity since God first created man on earth”, a view which has been described as “as close as Judaism comes to natural law” (Sacks, 2005:123).

In reality, a Jewish concern for the wider world does not need to be based on a particular concept or ethic; it is clear from traditional Jewish texts that there is an overriding imperative to contribute to the wider world.[3] It is a core theme of Jewish teaching and practice.

Universalism in Jewish thought

At the heart of Jewish ethics is the concept of Yishuvo shel olam (civilising the world)[4], the precept that every human being has an obligation and thus a right to be a productive part of society. The rabbis of the Talmud (Gittin Mishnah 4:5, 41a) based this on a Biblical verse (Isaiah 45:18) “He did not create it to be a wasteland, but for it to be inhabited.” The Talmud considers this of sufficient legal force to revoke both personal property rights and other laws. The Bible itself, especially the prophetic writings, expresses concern for how its values are viewed by other nations. The Hebrew prophets (Isaiah 42:6; 49:6) called upon the Israelites to be “light unto the nations.” Amos and other prophets delivered messages for people other than their own and in Jeremiah (1:5): “I have set you as a prophet to the nations.” An entire book of the Bible tells the story of Jonah, a Hebrew prophet who was sent to the ancient (gentile) metropolis of Nineveh, but whose reluctance to fulfil the mission set the scene for a dramatic tale. Eleventh century Rabbi Judah the Pious (Sefer Hassidim, 1124) interpreted the book of Jonah as indicating that Jews have a moral responsibility for those not of their own faith: “If one sees a gentile committing a transgression, if one can protest then one should, since the Holy One, blessed is He, sent Jonah to Nineveh to cause them to repent.” Moses (Deut 4:6) referred to the Law as “your wisdom and understanding in the eyes of the nations”. In his prayer at the inauguration of the Temple, King Solomon (1 Kings 8:41) describes the Temple as a place where the Lord hears the prayers of people who will come from “a faraway country”. Jewish law regards the entire human race as bound by seven Noahide Laws, including prohibitions against theft, murder, incest, and animal cruelty. The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi M. M. Schneerson, (1984:613) greatly emphasised a Jewish contribution to the moral condition of the world at large: “A Jew should not be satisfied with fulfilling the commandments of the Torah. Rather, he has an obligation to do all possible to be a positive influence upon the nations of the world around him.” Rabbi Sacks (2005) likewise argues for looking to the Jewish heritage to make a wider contribution to human progress: “No one should seek to impose his or her religious convictions on society, but we should seek to bring the insights of our respective faiths to the public conversation about the principles for which we stand and the values we share.” Rabbi J. B. Soloveitchik (1964) claims that “We are the bearers of a double charismatic load, that of the dignity of man, and that of the sanctity of the covenantal community… the universal human and the exclusive covenantal confrontation.”

Charity starts at home?

There is one counterargument in particular that is often raised to object to wider Jewish action. Given how often this point is raised, the matter is addressed here; although as shall become apparent it has little basis. It is the argument that according to Jewish teaching, as it were, charity starts at home. Indeed, the Talmud (Bava Metzia 71a) presents a hierarchy of priority when distributing charity:

[The Bible states] ‘When you lend money to My people, the poor with you’ (Exodus 22:25), My people [Israelites] and a gentile, My people take precedence; poor and rich, the poor come first; your own [family’s] poor and the poor of your town, you own poor are ahead; the poor of your town and those of another town, those of your own town come before.

This is confirmed in the Tanna d’bbei Eliyahu (Chapter 27):

If a man has abundant provisions in his house and wishes to set some aside for the sustenance of the needy, what order is he to follow? First, he should take care of his father and his mother. If he has some provisions left, he should take care of his brother and his sister. If he still has some provisions left, he should take care of the members of his household. If he again has some provisions left, he should take care of the members of his family. Then, he should take care of the people in his immediate neighborhood. Next, he should take care of the people on his street. Finally, he should provide charity freely throughout Israel.

Thus, it is argued that from a Judaic point of view until such time that the needs of Jewish people are satisfied that efforts and resources should be exclusively directed internally. However, this argument for Jewish isolationism does not hold up to scrutiny. Firstly, the most valuable contribution that the Jewish people can make to the world is sharing knowledge, which does not require abundant resources. The Midrash (Rabba Numbers 21:16) draws a distinction between pouring water from one jug to another, whereby the more poured the less remains, and lighting one candle from another, which shares light without diminishing the candle. Sharing knowledge falls into the Talmudic category (Bava Kama 20a) of ‘one gains, whilst the other loses nothing’. However, even in relation to sharing material resources, which are finite and subject to what economist term zero-sum game (Bowles, 2004), Jewish isolationism based on this teaching is fallacious. Halachic jurisprudence is based on juggling competing legal and moral considerations. For example, Jewish charity law (Ketubot 67b; Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Matnat Aniyim 7:3; Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah 250:1) also states that a wealthy person who has fallen on hard times should be helped back to their former glory by means of charity. Yet, in practice Jewish law does not advocate diverting funds from feeding hungry children to fund the lavish lifestyle of a former business tycoon.[5] Thus, it would be wrong to take a single Jewish law in isolation. There is a hierarchy of obligation; hence the poor of our own city come first. But first implies a second and third – and indeed the responsibility does not end at the gates of our own town. Priority does not imply exclusivity; first does not mean only. For if we follow the logic of locality to the extreme, as Rabbi Yechiel Michel Epstein (Aruch Hashulchan Yoreh Deah 251:4) highlights, no one would ever feel obligated to help anyone other than family members: “If one says that a person is only obligated to the level nearest to them and not all to the next level thereafter, it is well known that every wealthy person has many poorer relatives, and especially people of ordinary income, which would mean that the poor who don’t have wealthy relatives will die from hunger. Therefore, it is appears to me that the rule means that the wealthier person needs to give some support to his poorer relatives but must also support the poor who are not his relatives; only that to his relatives he should be more generous than to those who are not.”[6]

Rabbi Moses Sofer rules (She’elot uTeshuvot Yoreh Deah vol 2 responsa 231) “We only say ainyei ircha kodmin if both parties need food or clothing. However, if the poor of your town have sufficient to subsist but not in abundance, then the very poor of another town take precedence.” Indeed, Rabbi Moses Alshich commented (Torat Moshe, Deut) that giving charity to those living further away is a higher form of charity, given that you are less likely to meet the recipient. Moreover, contemporary Israeli Rabbi Yuval Cherlow (2012) noted that “it is difficult today to define "our town's poor". The global village has brought us all much closer, and the “geographic town” has become increasingly less significant.” It is true that in Judaism special importance is attached to looking after those nearest to us. The Torah teaches (Leviticus 25:36) "Let him live by your side as your kinsman" and Isaiah (58:7) urged, "Do not to ignore your own kin". Adult obligations to children vary considerably depending on the relationship between the adult and child. If the relationship was that of parent and offspring, the obligations are far greater. Likewise, the charitable requirements towards members of one’s own people are greater than towards a non-member. In Jewish law not everyone is treated equally. Support to the Jewish poor is legally mandated, and could be compelled (Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah 248), whereas support for gentiles is left to voluntary agreement. Prof Yaakov Blidstein (2012) argues that giving precedence to family is entirely uncontroversial and would universally be regarded and legitimate. The laws of every country give precedence to its own nationals, thereby discriminating against foreign nationals. Similarly, in Judaism there is a notion of the peoplehood and therefore in Jewish law while Jews have obligations to both Jews and non-Jews, they are not equivalent. Nevertheless, Blidstein points out that Maimonides perceives some sort of equality in relation to some social obligations. Thus, Maimonides states that “it appears to me” that ‘resident-aliens’ should be extend the same courtesies and kindness as a native Israelite.


[1] For example, the use of the concept in relation to the extent of a physician’s liability for negligence has been advanced in modern times as a relevant contribution to modern debates on health care policy (Freundel, 2005, p. 332, citing Tosefta Gittin 3:13) or as a basis for the introduction of a “Preparation for Marriage” course, aimed at reducing the divorce rate (Dorff, 2007: 136).

[2] For example, it is prohibited to seize objects found by a deaf-mute or a mentally-disabled person due to darchei shalom. Thus, Hoffman (n.d.) challenges the claim that this ethic is purely utilitarian: “Are we to refrain from robbing the deaf-mute and mentally deficient in order to appear as their good friends?” Hoffman therefore concludes that, “it cannot be the purpose of these rabbinical rules to obtain peaceful relations, but rather to offer and promote peace; not to seek peace, but to create peace. The rules have been established, not for the sake of our peace, but for the peace and welfare of all men.” [3] The Bible refers to the needs of the stranger for support and protection far outnumbers its references to almost any other command. The kabbalist Rabbi Haim Vital (Shaarei Kedusha 1:5) wrote that “one should love all people, including gentiles” and Rabbi Phineas Elijah of Vilna in Sefer Haberit 2:13 cites numerous sources to this effect. [4] See Yalkut Shimoni (1:13): “God formed Adam out of dust from all over the world… Therefore, no one can declare to any people that they do not belong…” [5] Shita Mekubetzet to Ketubot 67b cites the Gaonim that the rule applies only in the event that the person’s poverty has not yet become known and there is a likelihood that it will soon be averted. Rabbi Samuel de Modena argues that the rule only applies where there are grounds to fear the person’s mental deterioration (Responsa Maharashdam Yoreh Deah response 166). Contemporary Rabbi Eliezer Melamed suggests that this is only a temporary solution to allow him to become more gradually accustomed to a more modest lifestyle (Peninei Halacha, Likutim 2 (5566) pp. 125-6). [6] However, see Tzedaka uMishpat chapter 3 note 20 a broad discussion about whether a person may give all his charity to relatives. However, those who use aniyei ircha kodmin to limit humanitarian concern to Jews should note that the code also gives precedence to rabbis over laypersons, and to residents of the Holy Land over others