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    PloughCast 75: Does Tikkun Olam Mean What You Think?

    By Zohar Atkins and Susannah Black Roberts

    January 24, 2024

    About This Episode

    Zohar Atkins discusses the original meaning of tikkun olam. Susannah and Zohar discuss the contemporary progressive vision of this idea, which means (or does it?) “to repair the world.” Where did that contemporary interpretation come from? And what was the original meaning?

    They go through the Rabbinic concept of tikkun as equity, as a kind of emergency legal decree to be used when the law as written would lead to socially destructive outcomes. They discuss the mystery of how this legal concept became the contemporary vision of tikkun olam as, essentially, a progressive vision of social justice.

    Zohar gives a brief description of the development of Rabbinic Judaism after the fall of the Second Temple in AD 70, and relates it to the later development of the Jewish mystical tradition of Kabbalah.

    Then they discuss the progress of the idea of tikkun olam through the Kabbalistic tradition, when tikkun becomes an endeavor to repair the shattered world.

    [You can listen to this episode of The PloughCast on Apple, Spotify, Amazon Music, Google or wherever you get your podcasts.]

    Recommended Reading


    Susannah Black Roberts: Welcome back to the PloughCast! Im Susannah Black Roberts, senior editor at Plough. To kick off our Repair” series, weve got with us today Zohar Atkins. Zohar is a poet, rabbi and theologian, based in New York, and the host of the podcast Meditations with Zohar and the author of the substack What is Called Thinking? He is the author of many epic twitter threads, and you can find him on X at @ZoharAtkins.

    Zohar, welcome. Thank you so much for coming on. So I kind of grew up Jewish in that we did Passover and so on, but it was like the most super-reformed version of Judaism. Tikkun olam, which I had been raised to think of as meaning repairing the world, was one of the few Jewish concepts that I ran into. And my impression is that the way that I ran into it and the context in which I ran into it is quite different than the original context. So what is tikkun olam, and how has it developed over the centuries? which is kind of a cheesy broad way of asking this question.

    Zohar Atkins: Tikkun olam today is a Hebrew phrase that many Jews who know very little about the rest of Judaism have somehow clung on to because it makes for a great slogan or great copy and thats not to diminish it. But somehow it has gotten an outsized share of Jewish and perhaps even non-Jewish consciousness despite the fact that in its origins, its a very specific technical phrase that appears in the Mishnah. So, a book of law formed from compiling work from 200 BC to AD 200. In the original, tikkun olam really refers to legal interventions that are conducted for the sake of law and order and to achieve a certain outcome that the law as it was previously interpreted was not able to achieve. So tikkun olam is sort of a consequentialist view of the law where lets say that you have a certain law on the books but that law is not producing the results that you want. So you have to do a tikkun olam and change the law.

    Tikkun is an interesting word. It has a lot of different meanings. We translate it in the contemporary context as healing or repairing the world which is certainly one interpretation of the word tikkun but in the original, tikkun means to establish or to found. So a takkanah is an edict or decree and that stands in contrast to other kinds of laws which operated through precedent. So theres something almost like an executive order, is kind of how I would put it. tikkun olam is an executive order thats done by a sage who has the authority to do it and its sort of controversial because it doesnt rely upon precedent.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Can you describe what an example would be, and what kinds of ends they were aiming to achieve typically?

    Zohar Atkins: Its been a while since Ive looked at the examples but Im pretty sure there was this one guy who did a lot of them named Shimon Ben-Shatach and it had to do with social order. So for example if people were not getting married because they were afraid of divorce law or something like this, he had to change the laws around marriage and divorce to incentivize people to get married. So its a clear example where the formalistic approach to law is leading to a bad outcome so you have to change the law in some way. Its in a way, I mean if we contrast Judaism and Christianity, if a Christian approach to the law being too constraining relative to the outcome is to abolish the law – that would be a Pauline antinomian approach – the takkanah is like almost like an emergency politics where in the name of the law you suspend the law on the books. Something to that effect, not to be too Schmittian about it.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah I was gonna say like this is starting to sound like Schmitt. Thats fascinating, I hadnt thought of it in that way. I thought of it more like equity which I guess is a similar concept.

    Zohar Atkins: I mean it is like equity. Like listeners need to appreciate that the concept of equity has so many different meanings, right? Theres obviously equity in the contemporary like DEI sense of equity. Theres equity in finance, as in owning a piece of a company. But were talking about when the law is in need of some kind of rectification, thats really what equity means. So its almost like an extreme measure within legal maneuvering. If you do it all the time its gonna undermine the authority of the one doing it, because once you start doing an executive order then all of a sudden anyone can do an executive order and its just a war of executive orders. But if you do it every now and then it seems like its a good stopgap.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah I mean I had had sort of a higher-minded view of equity in that because Im a Platonist – like okay well so say the judge has justice in his soul and sees that the outcome of the law as written would be unjust. You can actually do equity, you can do something like tikkun olam in order to create flourishing or justice or however you wanted to put it even in defiance of or in editing of the original law.

    Zohar Atkins: Yeah I dont think thats a widespread view just because I dont think the rabbis for the most part were platonic. I dont think they thought in abstractions that they tried to superimpose onto lived reality. I think they were pragmatic. We live in a world where values are in conflict all the time and the job of the judge is to use some combination of erudition and good character and understanding of the principles to weigh these conflicts and make the best decision given all shareholders or stakeholders, and that is always going to be in tension with the discernment of another sage and so theres kind of a proliferation of different views both at the theoretical and at the practical level.

    But the core point about tikkun olam – so I should probably not bury the lede here. Contemporary people love tikkun olam because they think of it as revolutionary and progressive, and I want to make the case, and Im sure Im not the only one to make the case, that the origins of tikkun olam are actually the opposite. Its a conservative measure. Of course its revolutionary as a matter of process because youre circumventing the typical legal process to enact something, but in terms of what youre trying to achieve youre trying to conserve social order and youre worried that the law is leading to some kind of anomaly so its less about justice and more about just keeping society functional and surviving.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Theres different versions of this that have come in between say the original judicial version and the contemporary social justice version, where tikkun olam means you do the Civil Rights movement. My theory is that what came in between was in the Aleinu, theres this messianic version of tikkun olam. So like the uprooting of idolatry and establishing or repairing the kingdom of God in the messianic age. And that, I kind of think, combined with like literal acts of judgment, is kind of where maybe you get the more progressive version. Because the other aspect of Judaism that I was raised with was like, “the messianic age is now and the messiah is us. Often said in so many words: like were the messiahs hands, and I think thats probably the route by which it came to mean what it means in Tikkun magazine or whatever. Does that make sense?

    Zohar Atkins: I think within every religious tradition theres sort of a dialectic between trying not to get it wrong and believing that you have the mandate of heaven and need to act with moral clarity and urgency. And I think the rabbis by and large were more concerned with conservation and not getting it wrong and creating a good enough world and coping with exile. I see their antecedents in the book of Deuteronomy, which is largely about creating a good society, in contrast to Leviticus which is really about worshiping God and drawing God down, and centers around priests and sacrifices.

    And I think the kabbalists are falling more in the Levitical tradition of believing that every moment is life or death, that stakes are high and you can bring God into the world or you can bring the demonic into the world and every little gesture – how you eat, how you look – decides the fate of the world and the fate of God. And so, with this more theurgic, high table stakes perspective, Tikkun olam becomes something that every Jew or even every person can affect the world through micro actions. It still doesnt mean that marching for civil rights or whatever is tikkun olam but it opens the door to this by essentially turning every individual into a priest who has the power to draw God into the world.

    And the rabbis presume by contrast I would say that God is a little bit more of an abstraction, a little bit more distant, and what matters is studying Gods law, studying Gods word, and transmitting it in the best way that we can to others, and trying to create godly values in the world, but not necessarily to bring God himself into the world. I think moderns – not just modern Jews but the progressive sensibility in many ways, because its sort of atheistic also then arrogates to itself divine authority. And so, whereas the rabbis tended to be messianic in their hope for a redeemed world, they didnt live day to day like their actions could bring them there. I think they live with a lot more cognitive dissonance regarding the messianic and then moderns just like sort of throw a caution to the winds and think that if you just, you know, share a viral video on TikTok or something in favor of your chosen moral cause that youve brought the messiah.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Could you say more about what you think the two sort of understandings of tikkun olam say about the two visions of what justice is overall?

    Zohar Atkins: Yeah, I mean I dont I dont think tikkun olam really has to do with justice. Im not really sure where justice comes into it. The interesting thing is tracing the origins of the concept of social justice as a separate genealogy, and then basically tracking the equivocation of tikkun olam into social justice as a really a story of assimilation, whereby American Jews basically descended from German Jews and the reform movement of the nineteenth century want to posit that at a minimum Jews are just as moral as their Protestant neighbors and at a maximum are guiding lights for a Protestant society, like almost like trying to out-compete or something. But I dont think that tikkun olam is justice at all in any of the texts.

    It just depends on what is meant by justice obviously. I mean so certainly the ius from which justice comes shares the root with law in that sense they were after justice. But I guess the question is like generally I think the rabbis were – they were into creating a society of good character on the one hand and then at the same time making sure that that that character, like, scaled or something like this. I think any attempt to try to scale character or think about social outcomes is in tension with the cultivation of character at the individual level, so the rabbis themselves were probably more like virtue ethicists, but then because they were also social engineers they had some consequentialism. Thomas debates the motivations of the rabbis. I know there are like Stanley Fish type followers who think its all consequentialism. But yeah, I guess it really just depends on how were defining justice.

    I would say in Hebrew the word that that usually translates as justice is tsedakah, and I think that one aspect of tsedakah that the rabbis seemed to care about is impartiality, so the law should be the same for the rich as for the poor and there shouldnt be favoritism or bias. There should be one law. Its okay to have different interpretations of the law, and to have disagreements for the sake of heaven, but barring that, I think, again, like the conception of justice is articulated in that way its sort of more of a floor than a ceiling.

    So, progressives think that justice is like implementing the kingdom of heaven on earth, and I dont think the rabbis were interested in implementing the kingdom of heaven on earth. I think they were interested in maintaining Jewish connection to the Torah, and transmission and just like good common-sense values, but Im not sure that they thought that that was just. I think they just thought it was very good and important.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Could you tell more about just the way that these ideas like the setting in which these ideas were developing? Assume that our listeners have very little knowledge of the development of rabbinic Judaism.

    Zohar Atkins: Yeah so I am myself a rabbi and I have studied this stuff but Im not Im not an expert, like Im not an academic who focuses on this period, so take everything Im saying with some grains of salt. But my broad view on it is that the Temple is destroyed – the Second Temple is destroyed in the year AD 70 and since that time there hasnt been another temple thats been active, and so with the loss of the temple naturally Judaism shifted from being a religion that focused on animal sacrifices, pilgrimage to the temple, and to Jerusalem and the authority of the priests to a different way of doing Judaism, a different way of constructing authority. And that transition would not have been possible if not for a bunch of forces and ideas that predated the destruction of the Second Temple. In some ways, the destruction of the first temple was a dress rehearsal that gave Jews you know 400 and 500 years to prepare. If you read the prophets, they were already quite critical of various corruptions of the temple and the priests.

    And so that all sort of sets the stage for a transition to rabbinic authority. Sometimes theres a crisis, right, in history and whos not ready for the crisis is sort of people to run with it. And so, the rabbis– its not like they were produced by the year 70, they were there before, but really the year 70 was their opportunity, and so Judaism basically stops being place-based is a huge part of it stops being sovereignty-based theres a whole bunch of things – and so what replaces those things?

    Well one is the idea of study as opposed to physical travel to Jerusalem: so, the study of the law and the study of the Torah goes way up in esteem whereas the ability to conduct lets say public spectacular religion a la like a mega church goes way down.

    The priests were often aristocrats, so there was like a class-based switch, where because of hereditary – like, in order to be a priest, you had to be the son of a priest, born into a priestly family, but to be a rabbi you just had to be a person who showed passion and devotion for the text. And so basically Judaism became meritocratic as well. So, there are tons of shifts as a result, and all those shifts can be called rabbinic Judaism. And essentially up until secular Zionism and then religious Zionism and, you know, the nineteenth and then twentieth century that was the dominant classical Jewish view.

    I mean theres always been, sort of, sects. There were the Karaites, who argued that we should interpret the biblical law literally, whereas the rabbis disagreed with that and had their own system. I just interviewed Daniel Boyarin, a Talmud scholar, on my podcast, and I think he would say that one of the core ideas of the rabbis is this sort of inconclusive method or attitude where were trying to understand what God wants, but we appreciate that were never going to get it a hundred percent right, and thus we can – we kind of should disagree with one another in good faith, in an effort to get closer to the truth. We should respect differences so long as we understand the people that disagree with us are learned and want the same kind of thing.

    In many ways the rabbis expanded the laws of the Bible – they made certain fences and precautions around those laws. Like if you read Sabbath law from the Bible verses, you know, how Jews today keep the Sabbath. But then in other ways they constrain the law. Like the biblical world is quite a violent one. Rabbinic Judaism says that a court that kills one person in seventy years is a bloody court. So, you know, like, we dont stone people to death, even though thats in the Bible. Why not? And anyways perhaps one reason is because we dont – we no longer think that we have the same certainty or clarity or prophecy that we once did. And so, theres a story of like humility or diminishment. But maybe another is a concealed view of moral progress, where the rabbis dont tell you this outright, but essentially, they think the Bible was like harsh in the same way that Christians sometimes say that theyll yield God the father, and theres too much judgment and not enough love and mercy. The rabbis had a similar critique but they just had a different strategy for executing on it which was a story of continuity with the law rather than discontinuity with it.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Can you describe from there the development of Kabbalah? I mean obviously thats skipping a lot of years but what that tradition came out of, and what its version of tikkun olam brought?

    Zohar Atkins: Broadly speaking the Kabbalists were mystical, and while you can find mysticism in the rabbinic tradition as well, the goal of the mystic is first and foremost to commune with God and what is and see that its all one or something like this, its a kind of spiritual practice it may or may not involve the law. For most Kabbalists throughout history it did involve quite scrupulous legal observance. Much later in the seventeenth century Sabbatai Zevi, you know, argues that that the law is an obstacle to the mystical union. He was quite popular and then at some point breaks away from the Jewish community and is denounced by the Jewish community as a heretic. Jacob Frank does a similar move, but then you have a more sublimated or subdued version in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, with Chasidic Judaism which de-emphasizes erudition and emphasizes instead things like ecstasy. Its more of a populist approach to mysticism where lets say you know having [lakai?], drinking, eating, dancing – that kind of thing – or meditating is a better strategy for connecting to God than, lets say, and Im being a little bit glib here, but then, you know, sitting for six hours in shuls studying the laws of how to keep kosher.

    All that stuff that derives from Kabbalah. Thats all sort of offshoots of Kabbalah. And so yeah, I mean, if you read the Tanakh, you can find pretty much every genre in it, and every idea in it, but as a percentage, like, mysticism is not really the headline. And the rabbis – theyre full of humor, and theyre full of logic and wit but you dont necessarily need to be a mystic to be a rabbi. For the kabbalists its all about understanding, its the science and art of the Godhead – not just understanding what God is ontologically, but also how that maps onto the world, and everything is read through that lens. So how Kabbalah connects to the rabbis? I mean, big question, some of the rabbis became kabbalists obviously, and according to Kabbalistic tradition, the founder of the Kabbalistic lineage was a rabbi from I believe the second century named Shimon Bar Yochai who is the purported author of my namesake, the Zohar, so from a Kabbalistic perspective, theres complete continuity between the sages and the Kabbalists, but historically the Kabbalists are really emphasizing – lets just put it in sociological terms. There are people who are really into prayer and meditation and thats their thing, and then there are people who are more into, like law school, right? and while its totally possible to go to Harvard Law and also read tarot or do astrology or palm reading or whatever, its not an obvious fit. So I think Kabbalah is just a vibe. Its a vibe shift, is really how I would put it.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Can you describe the way that tikkun olam is used in Kabbalah? It’s sort of a third thing. Can you describe that?

    Zohar Atkins: Lets talk about this word tikkun. I mentioned that in a rabbinic context, it really means establishing or fixing and intervening. In kabbalah, though, tikkun means repair, and thats really where we get this concept, this modern concept of repairing the world. Implicit in the idea of repairing the world is that the world is broken. So, lets talk about the theology of the world being broken. According to Lurianic kabbalah, but not only Lurianic kabbalah, the creation of the world is not a story of a perfect God creating the perfect world, but a God who in some sense is not able to create the world according to his own plan, and for whom the creation of the world is also a kind of catastrophe and a kind of loss and a kind of calamity. And we can talk about why that is in all kinds of different ways, but essentially the creation of the world goes through a dialectical process where the first stage, a, is the thesis stage, and b is the antithesis, and stage c is the synthesis. Hegel was influenced by Christian Kabbalah. And so tikkun refers to the synthesis.

    But before we get to the synthesis is the idea of the creation actually going awry in some way, and because creation has gone awry, its on us to work through the broken world and make it whole, and in so doing make God whole. So the myth is that God is infinite light. So the original Neoplatonists, like if you know Plotinus, believe that God is infinite, and emanates into our world, and just gets more diluted and diffuse, but essentially our world is godly through and through – human beings are just more concentrated in their divine composition than animals, who are more divine than plants, who are more divine than stones, but were all divine, its just a question of like how much divine DNA do we have.

    And so thats all very positive. In the Kabbalistic and specifically more Lurianic view, God is infinite, but in order to create the world, he needs to retract from the world to make space for something which is not godly. And so God creates a void, and then seeks to fill the void with Godself. And the problem is that when God seeks to fill the void, the light of God overtakes the void, and you can tell it in different ways, but it shatters the void, or the light is shattered as a result of the void, and so this creates this experience of fragmentation of God. The world is – if you imagine shattered glass, the world is filled with a shadow, with the shards of God, the shards of the godhead, and everything is both good and bad, light and dark, divine but also demonic, and thus the mystics’ job is to see this complexity and intervene on behalf of God to return the shards to their original state. And so thats what tikkun olam means in the Kabbalistic context.

    Susannah Black Roberts: You can see especially if youre a Neoplatonist how you would get there, from one to the other but the ideas are so different. Do you know anything about that transition?

    Zohar Atkins: Like how did the nonplatonic view become this sort of more dystopian one.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Well not so much that, but how you would get from the legal vision. Why use that phrase to describe this?

    Zohar Atkins: I dont actually know if they were consciously or unconsciously subverting the original, or if they just liked the word tikkun because its a flexible word, there are just some poetic words that have a lot of meaning and tikkun is one of those dialectical words just much like in Hegel alphaben means to posit, to negate, and to synthesize, and tikkun actually like that word just it has all of these antinomic meanings so its a great word. I dont actually know I’m probably overstating it because obviously these theologians were quite sophisticated and learned so they Im sure they were aware of what tikkun olam meant in the original but whether they were deliberately inverting the meaning or whether it was just on their mind…? I don’t actually know.

    Susannah Black Roberts: My instinct because I’m such a Neoplatonist is to be like “no this was all intended!”

    Zohar Atkins: Yeah, it probably was, because if you look at their hermeneutics in general theyre often inverting and subverting the plain meaning of a text, so that would be consistent with their general vibe but I mean again, like maybe the continuity with Shimon ben Shatak and the rabbis is this emergency-politics aspect of it, whereby the world as it is just isnt working, and so its not enough to just keep your head down and do what the law says – like you need to be an activist judge so to say.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Perhaps thats the connection. Its like being an activist judge and being an activist mystic in order to repair the aspects of the world that havent gone the way they should.

    Zohar Atkins: Yeah but like just to be clear like for most of the kabbalists it was mysticism layered on top of nomian adherence. If anything they were hypernomian. So youre still praying three times a day but maybe your prayer takes longer because youre saying certain words with greater intention rather than just rushing through the prayers. This isnt like, dont follow the mitzvot, but instead go be a protester.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah I feel like theres kind of like another layer that we – but probably we should wrap this up, but I feel like theres a whole other conversation about like the older vision of what fixing society looks like whether that looks like perpetuating society, helping to heal the frayed bits and keep on going, versus like a pulling down of unjust structures, and basically all structures and all authority are imagined to be unjust. And I just I feel like that change in vision is fascinating but thats probably a whole other conversation.

    Thanks for listening, be sure to subscribe on iTunes or wherever you get your podcast needs met, and share with your friends! For a lot more content like this, check out for the digital magazine. You can also subscribe: $36/year will get you the print magazine, or for $99/year you can become a member of Plough. That membership carries a whole range of benefits, from free books, to regular calls with the editors, to invitations to special events, and the occasional gift. Our members are one aspect of the broader Plough community, and we depend on them as a kind of extra advisory council. Go to to learn more.

    On our next episode, I’ll be talking with Adam Nicolson about working landscapes, sailing, Homer, and what it takes to repair a farm.

    Contributed By ZoharAtkins Zohar Atkins

    Zohar Atkins is the founder of Etz Hasadeh: A Center for Existential Torah. He is a fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America.

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    Contributed By portrait of Susannah Black Roberts Susannah Black Roberts

    Susannah Black Roberts is a senior editor of Plough.

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