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Precious Petals
Eytan Kobre


Eytan Kobre

Item: According to a team of Israeli researchers, Pfizer's much-touted drug Viagra holds benefits for more than just human males. A research group at Ben Gurion University announced that, diluted with water, the medicine can also prolong the life of cut flowers (JTA Daily News Bulletin, 7/22/99).

As it happens, the report appeared the same week as did one on the findings of a 1999 study on the charitable habits of American Jews. A chart summarizing the study's findings told a story familiar to sociologists for quite some time: among Jews, historically the most generous ethnic group in America, levels of both giving and volunteerism increase markedly with a rise in religious commitment.

The study's author, political scientist Raymond Legge, Jr., notes that "[w]hile social justice is a concept which is stressed perhaps most heavily by the Reform denomination... the analyses indicate that in terms of financial contributions this group is least likely to practice it. . . . Instead, . . . social justice is most likely to be present when individuals also place a great importance on religious beliefs and practices as well." This latest report concurs with several studies conducted both here and in Israel, which conclude that, in the words of one sociologist, "making better Jews makes better givers."

American Jews pride themselves, and rightly so, on their magnanimity. Any community constituting less than 3% of the overall population whose total annual charitable contributions outstrip the combined revenues of major national charities has earned those bragging rights. Yet, it's apparent from the sociological data that the Jewish charitable commitment isn't immune to what some sociologists term the "cut flower syndrome": the tendency for a group's ethical impulses to wane as its members drift away from their religious roots.

The overpowering effect of assimilation and secularism in eroding Jewish moral standards is equally evident in areas like school violence, substance abuse and divorce. While Jewish susceptibility to these ills has remained appreciably lower than that of the general population, there continues to be an inverse relationship between their preponderance among Jews and the extent of Jewish religious commitment.

Perhaps a fitting symbol of the disconnect that exists between the modern Jewish ethical agenda and its historical roots in a religious system of morality is the popularity, on the contemporary Jewish scene, of the phrase Tikkun Olam. This term, which means "repairing the world", has emerged over recent decades as the catch-all description of choice for all manner of socially conscious activities, from old-fashioned charity to saving the redwoods to fighting Republican tax cuts.

Yet, like the "Let My People Go" slogan of the '60s and '70s (which truncated a Biblical verse ending with "that they may serve Me"), Tikkun Olam takes a page from Jewish tradition but tells only half the story. The phrase, which is found nowhere in the Bible, is employed a handful of times in the Mishnah, but in a context hardly analogous to its current usage.

As an expression of idealistic longing for universal perfection--the way it has come to be utilized in recent times--Tikkun Olam derives instead from the Aleinu prayer recited thrice daily, where a form of the phrase is used in that sense, but with one telling difference. Following an expression of yearning for the eradication of idolatry and the universal recognition of the One G-d is the phrase "l'takein olam b'malchut Shakai", a plea for "a repairing of the world through G-d's sovereignty".

Contemplating the phrase in this, its original, context opens a window on two basic concepts of classical Jewish ethics.

One is that Tikkun Olam in its broad, utopian meaning is something for G-d to accomplish, not man. This is not to say that, from a traditional standpoint, Jews should eschew involvement in efforts to right the many wrongs prevalent in society. Indeed, the study cited earlier found that "those currently Orthodox... surpass the other denominations by a wide margin in embracing social justice."

In the Judaic view, however, the most important battles for the creation of a just and harmonious society are not fought primarily through sweeping campaigns for national reform. Rather, the building of a better world for humanity is best achieved through the personal campaign of each individual to engage in a process of repairing the flaws of his or her own olam kattan, that microcosmic world known as the human soul. The G-d-given tools for that task are the mitzvot, both the overtly ethical and the so-called ritual precepts, which, in fact, can be deeply ethically enriching as well. In his old age, the Hasidic master R. Chaim of Tzanz remarked that over the course of many decades, he had first given up his youthful ambitions to change the whole world and, later, his bold plans to transform his community and family; he was, at last, hoping merely to better his own self somewhat before his time to leave this earth arrived.

Certainly, the painstaking, intensely private effort to slowly refine one's character of its egoistic and animalistic tendencies garners one neither public acclaim nor the external trappings of power. Put simply, training one's tongue to speak sweetly and softly and one's mind to judge others favorably carries none of the cachet of organizing an anti-fur demonstration or circulating petitions demanding term limits. Yet, Judaism teaches, it is through the disciplining and, ultimately, the sanctifying of the self that the true empowerment of the individual and the eventual repair of society are achieved.

The second lesson of Aleinu is that there can be no lasting repair of our damaged, strife-filled world without perceiving of that world as G-d's kingdom. For the sages who authored that prayer, respect and love for the other, whether a fellow human being or another member of the community of nations, was rooted in the Divine image that we all share. They surely were not puzzled by the Torah's juxtaposition, in Leviticus 19:18, of "Love your neighbor as yourself" and "I am your G-d".

For those who first used the phrase Tikkun Olam, repairing and preserving that which we have been given, whether the environment, our bodies or our souls, flowed directly from the knowledge that these are G-d's creations entrusted to our care. They did not view the Torah's injunction, in Deuteronomy 14:1, that "You are children of G-d; do not mutilate yourselves" as a non sequitur.

Long ago, we Jews were chosen to tend a floral garden of unsurpassed beauty and with the deepest of roots, a wise system of timeless moral values emanating from a Divine source above time. Yet, for much of the century now ending, many of us opted to uproot and exchange the fragrant flowers of Jewish religious ethics for various man-made doctrines that held out the promise of mankind's moral salvation. The folly of those choices is now the stuff of history tomes.

Others among us have sought to reinvigorate, or, more precisely, reinvent, Jewish ethics under a loosely defined rubric of "Tikkun Olam". Theirs is a well-meaning and sincere quest. But once G-d is removed from the equation by a belief that He has not provided guidance for that quest, Tikkun Olam loses the voice of authority that calls to man from beyond his finite world. It then takes its humble alphabetical place in the relativistic lexicon of human ideas, after Tai Chi and before Transcendental Meditation, and can do little to stop the attrition of ethical commitment of which the sociologists speak.

When a bouquet of beautiful flowers begins to fade, a florist has only two options: replace them with another, freshly-picked bunch, or attempt to enliven those in hand . . . with, perhaps, a dose of Viagra.

Thankfully, however, in the case of Jewish ethics we have a third choice. We can reconnect our precious petals to their ultimate Source.


Eytan Kobre is a lawyer residing in Queens and part of Am Echad's pool of writers.

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