Sunday, January 15, 2006

'Repair of the world'

05:37 PM CST on Saturday, January 14, 2006

By HOLLY LEBOWITZ ROSSI / Special Contributor to The Dallas Morning News

The world was perfect once.

It is a simple but radical suggestion, with a corollary that is even more startling – the world could be made perfect, whole, again.
[Click image for a larger version] MICHAEL HOGUE / The Dallas Morning News
MICHAEL HOGUE / The Dallas Morning News
Jewish mysticism calls on the faithful to 'gather up the scattered sparks.'

There is a term for this idea in Judaism: tikkun olam, or "repair of the world." The recent Fox Searchlight film Bee Season, which tells the story of one family's struggle to repair itself within the framework of Jewish mysticism, is the latest emergence of this ancient idea into mainstream culture.Jewish mystical theology holds that soon after God created the world, it experienced a cosmic "shattering" that sent sparks of goodness and godliness flying all over the earth. Tikkun olam calls upon Jews to gather those sparks back together, re-forming them into a unified whole and, ultimately, bringing about the coming of the messiah.

"This extraordinary idea that we can restore what has been shattered – in fact, it's our responsibility to try, each of us, to make our world whole again," says Saul Naumann, the Jewish cantor played by Richard Gere in Bee Season, which is based on a novel of the same name.

But as with many points of Jewish theology, there are multiple ways of interpreting – and living by – the idea of tikkun olam . From the mystical, or kabbalistic, to the political, the idea is as complex as the religion it comes from.

Lawrence Fine, a professor of religion and Jewish studies at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass., said tikkun olam's status as a "mantra or slogan," a widely used rallying cry for everything from personal moral behavior to social justice advocacy, is a relatively recent phenomenon.

"For most of Jewish history," he said, "Jews were concerned about their own well-being, their own welfare."

It wasn't until the late 18th century that a more "universalistic or humanistic" view of repairing the entire world – rather than just protecting and perfecting the Jewish people – came into Jewish thought.

Dr. Fine is the author of Physician of the Soul, Healer of the Cosmos (Stanford University Press, $25.95 paperback), a 2003 intellectual biography of Isaac Luria, a 16th-century kabbalistic scholar. Dr. Fine traces the term tikkun olam to two major sources. One is the ancient prayer, "Amidah," in which Jews pray "to repair the world under the kingdom of the Almighty." The other is Luria's theology.

Luria, who lived and wrote in the Israeli town of Safed, advanced the term as a way of creating "a world of repair, which is a spiritual world, other than this world, pristine and perfect," Dr. Fine said.

Tikkun olam (pronounced tee-KOON oh-LOMM) is a defining concept for many contemporary Jews who are intrigued by the call to action that the term implies.

"We must dedicate at least part of our time, energy, resources to improving the lot of others," writes Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff, an expert in Jewish law, in his new book, The Way Into Tikkun Olam (Jewish Lights, $24.99).

"But why should we?"

Rabbi Dorff offers several answers, writing that "God requires us to care" about the poor, our families, the Earth, and our communities in ways that are healing, repairing, and loving.

Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun magazine, head of Beyt Tikkun synagogue in San Francisco, and leader of the Tikkun Community, an organization that claims 50,000 members nationally, has built his career around his passion for the idea of tikkun olam.

It's not purely a spiritual idea, he says, but also has political and social justice implications, including inspiring people to give to charity, volunteer to help the impoverished, or participate in government by voting or writing to members of Congress.

"The world can be fundamentally transformed and healed," Rabbi Lerner said. "Our whole religion is based on that insight ... that there will be a time when human beings are no longer facing the radical inequality and unnecessary suffering generated by war and poverty and political oppression."

When Rabbi Lerner started his magazine in 1986, he was drawn to the concept of tikkun olam because he saw greed and injustice as the modern era's manifestations of the ancient shattering of the world.

"The tikkun that the world needs is a new bottom line – a bottom line of love and kindness," he said.

At a time when kabbalah has been popularized by celebrities such as Madonna and Britney Spears, some scholars are wary of any attempt – especially in fictional works like Bee Season –to mine the concepts of Jewish mysticism too deeply for new, modern applications.

Bee Season "abused the concept" of tikkun olam in order to capitalize on the fact that "kabbalah is in," said Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, of the Congregation Emanu-El of San Francisco. (Myla Goldberg, the novel's author, denies this, saying that when she wrote Bee Season she was unaware of kabbalah's celebrity cachet.)

The principal mistake of the film and novel, Rabbi Kushner said, is one often made by latter-day embracers of Jewish mysticism: They look at kabbalah as a system of self-help, a means to personal healing, and then lump every mystical idea into that category.

"There are many, many kabbalistic notions that apply to healing one's self and fixing one's sorrow – but tikkun olam is not one of those," said Rabbi Kushner. Rather, he said, tikkun olam is a call to heal others – "repair of the world."

Other scholars say tikkun olam fundamentally describes every aspect of what it means to be Jewish.

Rabbi Zalman Shmotkin, director of, the Web site of the mystically oriented Lubavitch Hasidic movement, said tikkun olam represents a perpetual opportunity to "transform the physical into the holy, and infuse the holy into the mundane."

"Every moment of our lives, we are involved in tikkun olam," Rabbi Shmotkin said.

"Every situation we come across is an opportunity to bring God into the world."

Holly Lebowitz Rossi, a Boston-based freelance writer, can be contacted through her Web site,

Myla Goldberg's 2000 debut novel Bee Season came along just as kabbalah, or Jewish mysticism, was heating up in the mainstream, thanks to Madonna and other celebrities.

The News review: Bee Season

Official site: Bee Season

Although the author says she was unaware of the buzz, the book hit a nerve with readers interested in what the ancient world of kabbalah means to people today.

The acclaimed novel, as one critic wrote, mixes "mysticism, mental illness, and the bizarre subculture of spelling bees." It's the story of an 11-year-old girl whose powerful gift for spelling wins her acclaim but exposes painful truths about her family.

Five years later, interest in Jewish mysticism has not abated. A movie version of Bee Season, starring Richard Gere, opened in the fall. (It is not currently playing in Dallas, and is not yet out on DVD.)

Ms. Goldberg, a 1993 graduate of Oberlin College, lives in Brooklyn with her husband and 2-year-old daughter. She spoke with Special Contributor Holly Lebowitz Rossi. Here are excerpts:

How did you come to the story of Bee Season? What fascinated you first, spelling bees or Jewish mysticism?

When I was in college, I took a class in Jewish mysticism, kind of on a lark. It ended up being taught by this brilliant professor who made the topic come alive. Then I kind of forgot about it.

Bee Season started with spelling bees. I had read an article that framed spelling bees in terms of all the kids who lose rather than the one kid who wins. That really sparked something for me. I woke up one morning and my back brain had retrieved all my information about [13th-century kabbalist Abraham] Abulafia and his methods.

I woke up realizing that what I'd witnessed with these kids spelling out these words letter by letter onstage corresponded almost exactly to the methods that Abulafia had described for achieving transcendence.

What does the idea of tikkun olam mean to you?

For modern-day Jews who aren't so into the traditional and deistic elements of religion, tikkun olam provides a philosophy of volunteerism. This is the idea that the world is flawed, and the only way it's going to get better is if each individual does something to try to make it a better place. That's always had a lot of resonance for me.

Hearing about it in the context of Jewish mysticism, and then returning to the idea of a shattered vessel and the light – it's gorgeous imagery and it's really interesting language.

Do all people have an inherent ability to achieve wholeness in their lives?

I think it's within our powers to be better than we are when we wake up on any given morning. It's a noble quest to achieve your fullest potential as a human. And there are all sorts of different realms to try and do that – personal realms, professional realms, they all help. Trying to make yourself a better person is in turn going to make the world a little bit better than it was.

How do the characters in your novel come out on that score? Do they make themselves better people?

They're all on their way. How long it's going to take to achieve some sort of peace with themselves is up for grabs. Eliza [the spelling prodigy], at the end of the book, has taken her first definitive step toward selfhood. It was the first time in her life where she said no to something.

Taking a step toward individuality is the first step. Until you know yourself, you can't possibly make yourself better. So she's on the journey to selfhood, and I think her beginning that journey is a wake-up call to the rest of the family.

Why are so many celebrities drawn to kabbalah?

To be honest, I'm not terribly interested in celebrity culture. I had no idea that the whole mysticism thing was popular until I wrote this book and people said, Oh, did you know Madonna's really into it? I just don't follow it.

We hear about it more because they're celebrities, but they're not unique. There's a huge subset of American culture that's always looking for that new thing – yoga, feng shui, or whatever.

Does it surprise you that something Jewish would be considered "exotic"?

America is a really big place, and outside of some urban centers, I think Jews are still pretty exotic creatures. I think Jewish mysticism is exotic even to Jews, frankly. It's not a part of mainstream Jewish practice or belief.

One theme of your book seems to be chronic frustration.

Everybody in that family is looking for something to carry them above the banality of everyday existence. Their frustration stems from not finding it.

They're all looking for the same thing and never realize it, and they never become a family in the true sense of the word because of that. They're just four individuals who happen to be living under the same roof.

How universal do you think that experience is?

Families go through crises. Everyone is going to have hard times, and hard times tend to expose unspoken rules, weaknesses and frailties. The challenge is to recognize them, deal with them in an honest way, and overcome them together.

Do you consider Bee Season a Jewish book, a spiritual book, both, or neither?

I just consider Bee Season a book. I wrote it hoping that people who like to read good books would like it. I have no problem with people calling it a Jewish book. It's got Jews in it, it's got Jewish mysticism in it, so I can see why people would think of it as a Jewish book. But I personally think of it as literary fiction.

Do you practice kabbalah?

No. That's serious stuff. From a traditional point of view, you've got to be a very strict Jew who's done all this reading, and pretty much a man, although there are modern schools of kabbalah that would disagree with that. But it was purely an artistic and intellectual interest that guided me to it as a theme.

Holly Lebowitz Rossi, a Boston-based freelance writer, can be reached through her Web site,

Here are 10 ways that Jews (and others) might embrace the concept of tikkun olam in their daily lives:

Each Jewish movement practices tikkun olam in its own way.

Orthodox movement

Lubavitch Hasidic movement

Reform movement

Reconstructionist movement

Tikkun community, magazine

1. Volunteer at a soup kitchen or homeless shelter.

2. Register to vote – and vote in every election.

3. Write to elected officials on issues of social justice.

4. Donate to charitable causes.

5. Take steps to preserve and protect the Earth.

6. Support companies that have ethical business practices.

7. Refrain from lying or deceitful behavior.

8. Mend damaged relationships with loved ones.

9. Carry out one's duties to family and friends.

10. Study traditional Jewish texts.

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