WISDOM AND TIKKUM OLAM: HEALING BROKENENESS

©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 am doing that it is utterly amazing. Fills in a huge blank in my thinking.

So here’s one story about that. I have conversations about the wisdom tradition with a friend, Rabbi Arnold Resnicoff, who also happens to be a gifted negotiator and mediator. One such conversation took place over dinner at a kosher deli in Washington DC. We were discussing shalom as human flourishing and conversation came around to Rabbi Jesus as a teacher of wisdom who emphasized shalom. Later, back home, I was writing a magazine article about Jesus and politics and wanted to include something about tikkun olam (the Hebrew phrase for “repairing the world”). But I was stuck. It is never fun being stuck when you are under a deadline!

Long story short, something was missing in my understanding of tikkun olam. So I shot off an email to Arnie. This led to a fascinating email conversation over a couple of days. The gist of it was when he 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 from Arnie helped me finish the article. But that is not my point here.

His use of the word “repair” was a deliberate nod to tikkun olam, repairing the world. The phrase appears in many contexts in rabbinic literature and 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 practicing the Sabbath as a kind of rehearsal for the coming for the messianic age of shalom, with the practice of tikkun olam during the other six days of the week anticipating that future.)

I do not know if Jesus used the phrase tikkun olam, but its meaning sure seems to me to be 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 and work more willingly and steadily to heal their relationships. That might not repair the entire world, but it would repair the world around them. And that is be a pretty big deal.

Jesus was not being idealistic or utopian about the possibilities, however. Like the sages of old, he was realistic about human nature. 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.

Those who drew the sword, Jesus said, would die by the sword. As distinguished
international relations theorist Jonathan Schell reminds us, the sword described in the Gospels of Matthew and John was no symbolic weapon (Matthew 26:52; John18:11). “It was the sword of Simon Peter, and he had just cut off the ear of one Malchus, a servant of the high priest, who had been in the act of arresting Jesus in Jerusalem. It was in the heat and fury of this bloody altercation, not in the quiet of a philosopher’s study, that Jesus gave his advice” (The Unconquerable World, p. 2).

That admonition by Jesus during the end-times of his life carries with perfect pitch back to the beginning of his public ministry to what – oh, the irony! – may be the most oft-quoted of Jesus’ words by 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 or with the imperialist desires of a militant Islam. It is the peace of shalom. (“Shalom” is often translated with “eirene” in the Greek Bible. In turn, “eirene” is often “peace” in the English New Testament, as in “peacemakers” in Matthew 5:9.)

My takeaway from this is that the agency of wisdom urges us in the here and now, amid our own diversity, to seek to repair, to make whole, adversarial or broken relationships and situations. It seems to me that if there is any first step toward that in our time, it is to put away our swords, figuratively and literally.

4 thoughts on “WISDOM AND TIKKUM OLAM: HEALING BROKENENESS

  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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