Looking into the values of Tikkun Olam, Kindness and Integrity
“Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.” – Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5
Tikkun olam has become a catchphrase for social justice in contemporary Jewish life—and for good reason. Our emphasis on repairing the world speaks to something centrally Jewish: our belief in human responsibility. Jewish worship isn’t just about contemplation or petition, it’s about action. We don’t just sit around believing in God or asking God for things and having faith that it will all work out for the best. We are empowered and expected to act.
The most modern and broadly understood notion of tikkun olam is that of “repairing the world” through human actions. Humanity’s responsibility to change, improve, and fix its earthly surroundings is powerful. It implies that each person has a hand in working towards the betterment of his or her own existence as well as the lives of future generations.
One who destroys a life, Jewish tradition tells us, is considered to have destroyed the entire world; one who saves a life has saved the entire world. A person is not a statistic, or a unit of GDP, but a boundlessly precious being who has an entire universe of potential. This may seem obvious, but how many of us have walked right by a homeless person on the street who asked for our help? If that person had been a celebrity, would we have stopped? If we had seen a laptop lying on the street, would we have stopped?
It is important for Jews to participate in repairing the world through tzedakah (social justice) and g’milut hasadim (acts of loving kindness). Increasing the well-being of humankind is one of the key elements of repairing the world. Helping those who are in need, no matter in what capacity, relates to practical methods, applies to working in all communities, not just Jewish communities. Jews are members of greater society, and as such, their actions are not limited to their own communities. Social welfare and volunteer work, as well as the donation of monetary and physical resources, are ways in which people be involved in tikkun olam.
We are all part of the same human family, and none of us is more or less important than anyone else. Whether or not you buy the theology here, you can appreciate the sentiment.
Kindness (Chesed) is fundamental to ‘healing the world’. There is a great deal of Jewish commentary on speech—about gossip, shaming, lying, and more—and a verse from the biblical book of Proverbs warns, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue.” This may seem hyperbolic, until you consider this quote from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel: “The Holocaust did not begin with the building of crematoria, and Hitler did not come to power with tanks and guns; it all began with uttering evil words, with defamation, with language and propaganda.”
Like tikkun olam, we take for granted that “loving the stranger” is a core Jewish value—but its origins are quite radical. In the Torah, God repeatedly tells the Israelites to care for the stranger “for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” The stranger is one who lives outside the normal securities of home and belonging. He or she is, or feels, alone – and, throughout the Torah, G‑d is especially sensitive to the sigh of the oppressed, the feelings of the rejected, the cry of the unheard.
That is the emotive dimension of the command. And again and again, it tells us: No matter how powerful or secure you may one day become, your fundamental moral orientation must always be in the direction of the outsider, for in some essential and eternal way, the plight of the stranger was, and always will be, your own.
Integrity is the ability not only to say what you mean, but to mean what you say. In Judaism, truth, emet, is more than just a virtue. It is one of the three fundamental principles, along with justice and peace, upon which the world stands. “Integrity includes but goes beyond honesty. Honesty is … conforming our words to reality. Integrity is conforming reality to our words — in other words, keeping promises and fulfilling expectations. This requires an integrated character, a oneness, primarily with self but also with life.” (Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People).
Honesty and integrity are not just descriptors of individual persons’ characters. Rather, they are social values, which ideally should define the essence of human communities and entire societies. From a Jewish perspective, “honesty” and “integrity” cannot be restricted to individual paragons of virtue, saints and holy men, but must become universal cultural norms.