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Tikkun Olam - Repairing the World and Preventing Harm

Thought on Torah Portion Behar-Bechukotai 2017

In this week's Torah portion, we have an allusion to one of the most powerful images for the alleviating of poverty in the Bible. We are taught in our portion that every seven years, the land lies fallow. This practice alludes to what we are taught in Deuteronomy 15, that in that same seventh year, all debts are cancelled. The reasoning is pretty clear - to prevent the phenomenon of the "evyon" - "desperately poor" from existing among us. Those in debt are given relief. Society starts over.

By the late Second Temple period (the first hundred years C.E.), the Jewish value of alleviating the suffering of the poor had not changed, but the way to ameliorate that suffering did. The Sage Hillel the Elder (the term "Rabbi" was not in use yet) established a legal remedy called "the prozbul" (a word from the Greek probably meaning "before the court"). The prozbul did an astonishing thing: it uprooted a Torah law, and found a way around the cancellation of debts. For what reason? The Talmud tells us, "for the sake of 'Tikkun Olam'."

Translating "Tikkun Olam" is notoriously difficult. The Hebrew verb root t/k/n connotes the idea of setting a standard, establishing a law, maintaining the good order of the world and setting things right. The word "tikkun" can mean "repair," hence the translation found often today, "repair the world." This is not a bad translation, but it is a translation that does not do justice to how the term is used in the Talmud.

I am not a linguist purist - words change their meanings, and meanings depend not only on etymology and history of usage, but also on how words are used today. The problem with using "Tikkun Olam" as "repairing the world" (meaning to solve a societal problem) is that that usage is almost directly opposite of how the term is often used in the Talmud. The biblical idea of cancelling debts so that the poor might be spared perhaps would be called "tikkun olam" today. Hillel's abrogating the law of cancelling debts might be called "stopping the repair."

The best translation of "Tikkun Olam" that I know of is one of those used in the Soncino translation of the Talmud: "prevent abuse" or more widely "prevent harm." In the Talmud, "Tikkun Olam" seems to mean to put a restraint on laws that seek to solve a problem, but actually create bigger problems. Cancelling debts seems like a good idea, until people refuse to lend money at all.

I prefer the Talmudic meaning of "restraining a remedy that might cause more problems than the one it was supposed to solve" because it cautions us against legislating our way out of societal problems that are more complex than they might appear. If society's problems were easy to solve, they would be solved by now.

We in Los Angeles have seen two large commemorations lately: The commemoration of the Watts riots of 1965 in 2015, and the commemoration of the Los Angeles riots of 1992 in 2017. As I followed the seminars and discussions (mainly on KPPC, 89.3), I became aware of the vast amount of legislation and movements toward social improvement that those riots generated. The number of organizations involved, the scope of the activity, the breadth of legislation at every level of government is truly breathtaking.

In spite of all this, one community activist stated, "Everything is different, and nothing has changed." That voice was not a solitary one. I noted over and over again, as I listened and read, a kind of despair. Despite relentless work by government and non-governmental agencies, the problems plaguing certain parts of the black community seem intractable. The will and wealth have been abundant. Some of the best and wisest have been enlisted to the effort. What has gone wrong that so many people say, "Nothing has changed"?

I think understanding the two meanings of "Tikkun Olam" can help shed some light. The newer meaning of "repair the world" applies to all the repair work done on local parts of the world over the past 50-some years. What about the older, the meaning often used in the Talmud, to restrain the effort to "repair the world", because sometimes our repair work creates more problems than it solves. The first rule is, "do no harm."

I will give you one small example. One marker of a good high school has become how many students take AP (advanced placement) classes. I happen to be extremely critical of the expansion of AP classes (that dismal topic for another time). In brief, two things: First, why get students to take a college class from a high school teacher? What is the big hurry? Second, more importantly: what resources are being drained away from basic education to raise the prestige quotient? Time, energy, money and talent are always in short supply. Directing those precious, scarce societal treasures in one direction means they are not directed in another.

What if AP teachers, themselves some of the best and brightest, were assigned to teach failing students, and let the college bound students take college classes - I know this is a revolutionary idea - in college!

I know why. People tell me that they can't get into a good college unless they take advanced placement classes in high school. Well, if the college is so good, why wouldn't that college want you to take classes with them, and not at your high school? The whole thing stinks to me, but let's get back to "Tikkun Olam."

We don't repair the world, in my mind, by making sure that AP classes are taught at more high schools (we can find other ways to make AP classes available for those few students who have actually and truly gone beyond their school's honors classes). Scarce resources are misapplied. Widespread AP classes (mostly taken only to get into a college), in my mind, create more harm than good, but you can't easily see the harm of missing, misapplied resources.

In the urge to "repair the world" we sometimes create unseen harm. People must have been furious with Hillel the Elder when he uprooted the Torah law of cancelling debts. I am sure he was called heartless, just as I am sure that he saw a good value expressed by a bad law. He had the courage to prevent harm, not just keep to a good sounding law that was causing more harm than good.

Keeping the two meanings of "Tikkun Olam", the modern as well as the ancient, might do some real good.

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