WISDOM AND TIKKUN OLAM: HEALING BROKENNESS

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

tikun olamOne of the ways we learn wisdom is from other people. I’m a big believer in that. It happens to me so often I could write a book about it! Sometimes the received wisdom is so pertinent to something I am doing that it is utterly amazing. Fills in a huge blank in my thinking.

So, a story about one time. I occasionally have conversations about the wisdom tradition with Rabbi Arnold Resnicoff, a friend who is a gifted negotiator and mediator. During dinner a kosher deli in Washington DC, we were discussing shalom as human flourishing and the conversation came around to Rabbi Jesus as a teacher of wisdom who emphasized shalom. Later, back home, while writing a magazine article about Jesus and politics, I wanted to include some thoughts about shalom and tikkun olam (the Hebrew phrase for “repairing the world”). But I was stuck. It’s never fun getting stuck when you are under a deadline!

Something was missing in my understanding of tikkun olam, so I shot off an email to Arnie. This led to a fascinating email conversation for a couple of days. The penny dropped for me when Arnie explained that the opposite of shalom is not violence or war but brokenness. “There is no shalom,” he said, “even if bullets are not flying, if hearts, minds, souls, or even dreams, are still broken. We, as God’s partners (according to Jewish theology) must help mend and repair the brokenness in the world.” That piece of wisdom helped me finish the article.

Tikkun olam (repairing the world) appears in many contexts in rabbinic literature and in Judaism for building Jewish societies of love, peace, justice, kindness, and generosity, and also for influencing the greater welfare of the world at large. (Some rabbis see the Sabbath as a kind of rehearsal for the coming for the messianic age of shalom, with the practice of tikkun olam during the preceding six days of the week as anticipating that future.)

I do not know if Jesus ever used the phrase tikkun olam, but its meaning sure seems to me to describe what he was on about as a teacher of wisdom during his itinerant ministry in the towns and on the hillsides of Galilee and Judea. You cannot read the Gospels without seeing Jesus continually urging his mixed audiences to get their act together> Jesus is frequently urging people to work more willingly and tirelessly to heal their relationships, love neighbor, and practice shalom in their communities. That might not repair the entire world, but it would repair the world around them. And that’s a pretty big deal.

Jesus was not being idealistic or utopian. Like the sages of old, he was realistic about human nature. He knew its limits and its penchant to turn ugly. Yet it is clear that Jesus’ gospel-shaped wisdom, even amid the highly-charged throes of the religious and political alchemy of Palestine under Roman rule, always meant putting away the sword. If there is any one first step toward the practice of shalom today, surely it is this.

Jesus oft-quote admonition to “put away the sword” came during his own end-times, just before his death on the cross. It hearkens back with perfect pitch to the beginning of his public ministry to what may be the most oft-quoted of Jesus’ words heard in the world today. “Blessed are the peacemakers,” Jesus said to what may well have been the largest mixed multitude ever assembled to hear him (Matthew 5:9).

The peace he spoke of on that mountainside was not that of the Pax Romana. Neither would it square with the Pax Americana of our time. It is the peace of shalom. Of repairing the world around us.

The agency of wisdom urges us in the here and now, amid our own diversity, to seek to repair adversarial or broken relationships and situations. It seems to me that if there is any first step toward that today, it must begin by putting away our swords, figuratively and literally, and become blessed peacemakers.

©2017 by Charles Strohmer

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4 thoughts on “WISDOM AND TIKKUN OLAM: HEALING BROKENNESS

  1. Thank you for this, Charles. As an educator, it resonates strongly for me with the words of Parker Palmer (one of my favourite authors on teaching and learning): “The goal of a knowledge arising from love is the reunification and reconstruction of broken selves and worlds.” (Parker J Palmer, ‘To Know As We Are Known: Education as a spiritual journey’, p. 8). It also brings to mind Graham Kendrick’s song ‘Beauty for brokenness’ but this may not be as well-known on your side of the Atlantic.

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    • John,

      Thx for taking time to send a comment. That is a good thought from Parker Palmer. It strikes me as having the feel of a biblical understanding of knowledge, which is not so much about facts, data, and information (as today) but about a personal relationship with what you know, and one that carries with it moral responsibilities.

      C.

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  2. … and another man of wisdom and peace, Nick Wolterstorff, writes: ““Shalom is present when a person dwells at peace in all his or her relationships: with God, with self, with fellows, with nature. To dwell at peace in one’s relationships, it is not enough, however, that hostility be absent. Shalom is enjoyment in one’s relationships. … To dwell in shalom is to enjoy living before God, to enjoy living in one’s physical surroundings, to enjoy living with one’s fellows, to enjoy life with oneself.” (Educating for Life, p. 101)

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