However, while this modern version of tikkun olam may appeal to some, the traditional concept of tikkun olam is very different. The term is found in select parts of the Talmud, the ancient rabbinical commentaries on the Hebrew Bible and its interpretations. Typically translated as “for the benefit of society,” it is invoked to adjust particular laws in order to avoid certain perverse results. It’s in the Aleinu prayer, recited as part of the daily prayer service, but here it expresses the hope that the world will be perfected under the kingdom of God. It’s also found within Lurianic Kabbalah, but in this case the focus is on a spiritual mending of the cosmos, not on political solutions for the country or the world.
Still others try to find scriptural basis for the broad conception of justice. For example, in Deuteronomy 16:20, Moses says to the Israelites “Tzedek, tzedek, shall you pursue.” The word tzedek is sometimes translated as justice. The word tzedekah typically means charity. So, for some, charity is seen as a form of justice. It therefore entails, not just moral duties, but also legal obligations – ones that the government can impose on others.
Concern for those in need is undeniably laudatory. We as a society presumably could do much more to help those in need. And, some would argue, if we have to assume additional legal and financial obligations to make it happen, perhaps that is not only the charitable thing to do but also the just thing to do.
This link between justice and charity is questionable, though. Another translation for tzedek is “righteousness.” A tzaddik is a righteous person. Moreover, the Hebrew Bible, when referring to laws of justice, often uses a different word – mishpat – not tzedek.
It seems clear that justice and charity are two very different concepts in the Bible. As Israeli scholar Joseph Isaac Lifshitz clarifies in his book Judaism, Law & the Free Market: An Analysis:
Charity is considered an act of kindness rather than an act of justice. This means that charity does not redefine property rights. The rich man does not owe the needy, and the charity he gives is not a redistribution of his wealth according to justice.
This is not to minimize the importance of charity. The Hebrew Bible continually implores us to help the poor, along with the widow, the orphan, and the stranger. Moreover, within the tradition, there is a role to be played by the community – which, in earlier times, entailed charity collectors.
However, the community’s role is to be limited. The primary responsibility for charity is to be assumed by individuals and families. As Lifshitz notes, “It may be argued that a state should bear some responsibility and help the needy – but it is a responsibility that functions from the bottom up rather than from the top down. While the state does have particular welfare responsibilities, these should not supplant the primary responsibility that falls on the individual and families.”
Needless to say, doing charity well is often easier said than done. The great twelfth-century Jewish scholar Moses Maimonides devised eight levels of charity. The lowest level is when one gives unwillingly. The highest level is when one helps someone get back on his feet so that he will not be dependent on others in the future.
Justice and charity are undoubtedly core values which define what is good and right in our society, values which have led to enormous blessings over the years. However, justice and charity are often conflated, which runs the risk of distorting justice and undermining charity.
There can be no dispute about the fact that social and economic disparities abound throughout our society. However, within the traditional Jewish approach, these do not constitute issues of justice in and of themselves. They may suggest the need to be more charitable to the disadvantaged – depending on the situation – but this pertains to the moral obligation to be of help, not to the matter of justice.
As it says in the words from Micah 6:8, what are we obligated to do? “To do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.”
(Photo credit: Lawrie Cate. This photo has been cropped. CC BY 2.0.)