Perhaps you’ve heard: The latest studies on American Jewry’s apathy and even antipathy towards Judaism are in, and guess what: It’s worse than you had imagined, even after Pew.

A Jewish People Policy Institute study, for example, looks at American non-Hareidi Jewish adults—the whole spectrum from Modern Orthodox to unaffiliated—between the prime child-raising ages of 25 and 54. Only 21 percent have a child who is being raised as a Jew by religion. Twenty. One. Percent. (Make that 13% for those under 40.) 1

In other words, eight out of ten young Jewish adults—your Hebrew-schooled, bar- and bat-mitzvahed, synagogue youth, college-educated Jewish kids have grown up. And unlike their parents, or any of their other ancestors going back to Abraham and Sarah, they are choosing not to have Jewish children and families of their own.

Why not? There are lots of elements to these millions of individual decisions to opt out of perpetuating Judaism, The bottom line is that nobody has shown them the point in having a Jewish family. but the bottom line is that nobody has shown them the point in having a Jewish family.

What does that mean for Jewish institutions like synagogues, community centers and day schools? What does it mean for support for Israel? What does it mean about funding for major Jewish organizations and their programs?

Is a population sustainable at a reproduction rate of 21%?

We Found the Culprit!

Everybody agrees that these are urgent questions and concerns and it’s only natural not just to round up the usual suspects, but to look for new culprits, and here’s one:

Tikkun olam.

Tikkun olam was, for a few brief decades, the tried and true feel-good meme—defining without-borders social activism as “the mandate of Judaism”. But some have now identified it as a cause and a culprit in Jewish assimilation and intermarriage. By making universal issues such as planting trees and defending civil rights the is-all of Judaism, we have diverted and sapped Jewish youth and energy from our own survival as a people. By making universal issues such as planting trees and defending civil rights the is-all of Judaism, we have diverted and sapped Jewish youth and energy from our own survival as a people.

In many ways, that argument makes sense. If you want to save the whales, you give money to Greenpeace, not Hadassah. If you want to make the economy more equitable, you turn to your congressman, not your rabbi. If you are interested in global anything, you volunteer at UNICEF, not at your local JCC-Y.

If the main thing to being Jewish is fixing an environmentally damaged planet and assisting broken and desperate people wherever in the world they live, why should anyone care for Jewish ritual, Jewish community, or building a Jewish family?

So, those people knocking tikkun olam are right, right? As the adage of Hillel the Elder goes, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?”2 Jewish people should stop worrying about Muslim refugees from Syria, starving kids in Africa, endangered species, disappearing rain forests and persecuted religious minorities, and start focusing on their own Jewish backyards, right?

Wrong.

Because there’s the rest of the adage: “And if I am only for myself, what am I?”

A Jew has to ask himself: what am I doing in this world? Why am I witness to suffering, injustice and reckless destruction of natural resources, if there is really nothing I can do about it, if it has no relevance to my existence as a Jew?

Tikkun olam is not the problem. Tikkun olam is the solution. The problem is that we’ve fed an entire generation of Jews an ingenuine, shallow version of a great idea.

Ripped from its roots, tikkun olam dries up like cut grass in the sun. As an integral part of the Tree of Life, it provides rich and powerful meaning to all of Jewish teaching and practice.

The Meaning of Tikkun Olam

Let’s go back to the meaning of the Hebrew words. “Tikkun” is generally translated as “fixing.” Wrong. It’s true meaning is “improving” or “touching up.”

That’s the first thing you need to know—we’re not just trying to “get back to the garden.” We want to improve the garden.

Yes, you have the capacity to improve upon G‑d’s creation. Now that’s an empowering notion.

Next: “Olam” is used to refer to the world in time and space. It’s related to the word “helem,” meaning “concealment.”

That’s a key concept in Jewish thought—that in order for the world to come into being, G‑d had to conceal His presence.

Problem is, when G‑d hides, people assume the position is up for grabs. Every man can think that he is G‑d. And if he is G‑d, he can do as he pleases. And that is the source of all injustice and suffering.

Tikkun olam, then, means getting to the source of the problem and fixing up this concealment. Tikkun olam is the world discovering itself. Discovering that it is not a junkyard or a no-man’s wasteland. Discovering that its beauty is endless and its wisdom unfathomable, because it is the ultimate expression of the mystery of the divine.

Torah study, prayer, all the mitzvahs—these are the first-line approach to unveiling G‑d’s presence in His world.

When you wrap tefillin on your head and arm, you are unveiling that mystery within yourself. When you make your consumption of food sacred by keeping kosher, you are unveiling that mystery in the world of that feeds you. So it is with every mitzvah—all connect you and your world to a higher, divine purpose. To its true meaning.

Yet, ultimately, the darkness is only transformed when met face-to-face, on its own ground. By grappling with the apparent absence of G‑d in our world today. By struggling against the darkness, whether it be manifest as hunger, as war, as wanton disregard of life, or as reckless abuse of the divinely-designed ecology that supports life.

And that begins—first and foremost—with your personal struggles with the darkness in your own life. Taming the beast within you to recognize that there is a Master to this garden, and that it has valuable work to tend to. Standing up to the challenges that threaten your belief in a loving Creator. Uncovering the light within your heart and your mind, a light that empowers you to become a new being.

Tikkun olam, then, means revealing the true meaning of the Creator’s concealment. G‑d is not silent because the world does not matter to Him. He is simply making room for us, so that we can have a part in improving His world.

That’s why we were placed in this world—to grapple with the apparent absence of G‑d, and to discover Him even in His act of hiding Himself. Once that is accomplished, there can no longer be any evil or suffering—because the root cause will be gone.

Aid and medical workers in a tent outside Chabad of Kathmandu treat the injured and ill following a 2015 earthquake.
Aid and medical workers in a tent outside Chabad of Kathmandu treat the injured and ill following a 2015 earthquake.

Tikkun Olam, For Real

Writing in 2010, Abraham Socher, an Oberlin College scholar, noted:

For decades, the Reform movement has defined its mission as tikkun olam, “repair of the world,” understood not as metaphysical doctrine but as social justice. And yet it is the unabashedly metaphysical Chabad that opens drug rehabilitation centers, establishes programs for children with special needs, and caters to Jewish immigrants, to name just three of a seemingly endless list of charitable activities. 3

You might think Socher’s “endless list” includes only activities within the Jewish world. No one doubts that this is Chabad’s priority. But it’s a fallacy to believe that it stops there.

The Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, spoke publicly about such issues as solar energy, moral education in public schools, prison reform, nuclear disarmament and his concern for wanton loss of life in world conflicts. Countless anecdotes describe his personal intervention in such matters.

And indeed, peruse the pages of Chabad.org/news and you will find story after story of Chabad activists involved in everything from rebuilding homes in Nepal to a providing food for Muslim families in Morocco at the conclusion of Ramadan.

Meals are provided in Milan, Italy, to Eritrean, Ethiopian, Sudanese and Syrian refugees, many of them Muslim, who temporarily stay in rooms below the Milan central train station, these days retrofitted as a Holocaust memorial and museum. Some of the cooking staff and volunteers, shown with Rabbi Igal Hazan, who oversees the kitchen.
Meals are provided in Milan, Italy, to Eritrean, Ethiopian, Sudanese and Syrian refugees, many of them Muslim, who temporarily stay in rooms below the Milan central train station, these days retrofitted as a Holocaust memorial and museum. Some of the cooking staff and volunteers, shown with Rabbi Igal Hazan, who oversees the kitchen.

Why were these Chabadniks involved? No, it’s not their institution’s mandate. But as individuals, they simply could not stand idly by. Because if that’s what comes your way, it’s up to you to do something.

After all, wisdom cannot flourish in a world at war with itself, the beauty of life cannot be told when children are starving.

This is what Maimonides is saying when he describes, in the very last halachah of his Code, the ultimate state of this world, an era when…

…there will be neither famine or war, envy or competition for good will flow in abundance and all the delights will be freely available as dust. The occupation of the entire world will be solely to know G‑d.4

Meaning: What is the point of eliminating famine, war, envy and competition? So that the entire world can be thoroughly engaged in the true purpose of the human being—to know our Creator.

Yet all this is with a mighty caveat: First ensure your own house is tidy.

Not just because you can’t help someone else with their oxygen mask until you’ve put on your own. That’s also true. But there’s a much greater reason: If it’s your house, it’s your primary divine assignment in this world. If so, for you, nothing can be more important.

Nothing can be more important for a Jew than building a Jewish home, ensuring the children and grandchildren will be good Jews, reaching out to other Jews, learning and teaching Torah, doing as many mitzvahs as possible. There is no greater contribution to tikkun olam.

The Meaning of a Mitzvah

Judaism, then, is synonymous with tikkun olam. Jewish life as a whole is an exercise in unveiling the divine in every detail.5 That’s why Judaism in general and tikun olam in particular encompasses every aspect of life—because there’s something divine hiding in your home, at your place of work, in the news you read, in all that exists.

Every one of us is assigned our particular sparks of the divine to seek out and rescue. Where will you find those that belong to you? As the Baal Shem Tov would say, wherever providence carries you.

The Rebbe was fond of repeating Maimonides, that “any one small deed could be the one to tip the scales for the entire world.”6

Get that? Not “change the world one mitzvah at a time.” No: This mitzvah that happened to come your way is the one to change the entire world.

Some are fond of describing the last decade of the Rebbe’s life as “messianic fervor.” If only they would realize that the fervor was for the same tikkun olam of which we all dream—and far beyond.

In Los Angeles, Donna Miller catalyzes addiction treatment with chassidic philosophy.
In Los Angeles, Donna Miller catalyzes addiction treatment with chassidic philosophy.

The Struggle With Halachah

Judaism has a unique means of preserving its stability through the complex field called halachah. Within this rich enterprise of the Jewish legal system, everything requires a precedent.

In 1994, Yeshiva University held a symposium entitled “Tikkun Olam: Social Responsibility in Jewish Thought and Law.” The symposium turned out to be more than a delivery of academic papers. It was a soul-searching of halachic Judaism.

The burning question: The burning question: Does halachah render Judaism an insular religion, focused entirely on its own self-preservation, or does it also include a mandate for us to care for the world’s future? Does halachah render Judaism an insular religion, focused entirely on its own self-preservation, or does it also include a mandate for us to care for the world’s future? Where is our precedent in halachah for tikkun olam?

Many of the speakers pointed out that Judaism, from its very origins, provides practical guidelines for society beyond the tribe. The Talmud lists seven laws prescribed in the book of Genesis that apply to all the descendants of Noah—i.e., all humanity.

Like the bare-bones protocol that makes the Internet so robust, these laws provide universal fundamentals. If you were a stranger under the ancient Jewish state and accepted these laws, you were considered a ger toshav (resident alien)—making you eligible for all forms of communal welfare.

These are not laws meant to make everyone Jewish, or to create any form of religion at all. They simply say that there’s a Creator, that He would like His creatures to act responsibly and get along, and here are the rules. They are a basis, in other words, for a harmonious diversity of humankind.

The concept is historically significant. In the Roman era, those who abandoned idolatry and accepted these fundamental laws proliferated throughout the empire.

In the 17th century, when England and the Netherlands realized they needed some form of international law to avoid conflict, Hugo Grotius and John Selden laid its foundations. Both considered the institution of the resident alien, as described in the Hebrew Bible and Talmud, a precedent for religious tolerance and universal law.7

Nevertheless, at this symposium, speaker after speaker questioned whether delivering this universal message was truly our obligation, or just a nice thing to do. Yes, Maimonides writes in his legal code that we were commanded to do so. But perhaps that’s an obligation only of a king, or a supreme court. And who says other authorities agree with Maimonides? After all, the paucity of discussion on the topic since the Talmud is undeniable.

Michael Broyde cited a responsum of the Rebbe, and contributed the following comment: 8

Rabbi Schneerson’s view is unique in that he not only assumes that Maimonides is correct in ruling that there is a general obligation to compel gentiles to observe Noachide law, but he also assumes that the obligation to compel observance includes within it the obligation to persuade. Rabbi Schneerson thus extends to the obligation to cover a much greater area than any other rabbinical authority, both in terms of the responsibility to do so and in the means by which to do so. 9

Broyde was not alone. “Rabbi Schneerson gave the amorphous concept of participating as role models in the general society even sharper halakhic definition.” Jack Bieler pointed out that “Rabbi Schneerson gave the amorphous concept of participating as role models in the general society even sharper halakhic definition.”

The Rebbe’s argument does not rest on Maimonides alone. The Rebbe asked, “How does Maimonides know this? Where does he get it from?”

His answer is that Maimonides asks a simple question: The Torah was given exclusively to the Jews. If so, why does it discuss how the rest of the world should behave? It could only be that we have responsibility to influence the rest of the world, by whatever means available, to keep these foundational laws.

Nepal was devastated after a 2015 earthquake that leveled homes across the nation. Rabbi Chezky Lifshitz, co-director of Chabad of Nepal with his wife, Chani, partnered with an Israeli firm to design affordable metal frames for houses that can be finished using local building materials.
Nepal was devastated after a 2015 earthquake that leveled homes across the nation. Rabbi Chezky Lifshitz, co-director of Chabad of Nepal with his wife, Chani, partnered with an Israeli firm to design affordable metal frames for houses that can be finished using local building materials.

Now Is the Time

As to the reticence of so many halachic authorities on the subject, the explanation is obvious: Since the rise of Christianity and Islam, any Jewish interference in the realm of beliefs and teachings would have placed whole Jewish communities in grave danger. So, with rare exceptions, we had to keep our mouths shut. Until now.

We live now in a time when the world wants to hear what Judaism has to say. An era when the greatest contribution you can make to society is to sit down to dinner with your family every Friday night.

We live now in a time where nothing can be left behind. If you can find any way to use something for the good, don’t leave it lying in the mud. If you can’t find the good within it, struggle to look deeper.

We live in a time when all the promises of the prophets and sages suddenly appear plausible even through natural means alone—a time void of suffering and illness, a time of peace and harmony.

But it is left up to us to make it happen. The main thing, as the Rebbe so often repeated, is “just do something.”

You can start by raising a Jewish family. A family that sits together in peace and harmony at a Shabbat meal and celebrates the creation of heaven and earth. A taste of the world we are struggling make happen—now.