Tikkun Olam and Yirat Shamayim, – between spirituality and ethics

Ethics & social issues By Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg 04th Aug 2015

Ahavat- and Yirat- Shamayim, love and awe before Heaven, are shorthand for a lived and experienced reverence for life, not only as it is encountered in its particularity, in tree, bird, deer, people, but as it is inhaled in its essential vitality, as a vibrant awareness of the invisible oneness which fills all being, the ‘one motion and one spirit…that rolls through all things.’ [Wordsworth: Lines Written above Tintern Abbey]

Such awareness opens the heart to wonder and respect for the essence of life, to that to which the word ‘God’ serves as pointer, to what the kabbalists and mystics called Ein Sof, the unending and inexhaustible source of existence and the wellspring of being and beauty. Prayer is the attempt to spend time undistracted in the presence of this reality, to let it cleanse the mind, fill the heart, reinvigorate the spirit, motivate our conscience and guide our actions.

The very awareness of such a relationship with life is in itself a form of responsibility. How can one know and feel kinship, but then not care? Each person ‘has an infinite sphere of responsibility before the infinite’ [Buber: My Way to Hasidism]. This is expressed not only in bonds of heart and soul, but in action, classically in the performance of the mitzvot, by doing what we experience ourselves as commanded to do.

The goal of this action is always Tikkun, reparation, motivated by the longing for the world to be as we believe God wants it, or dreams it, to be. The purpose is to respond to what Hans Jonas called ‘the mutely insistent appeal of [God’s] unfulfilled goal’. [Hans Jonas: The Concept of God after Auschwitz]. Such Tikkun calls us to dedicate ourselves in two mutually necessary and inter-dependent ways.

The first aspect of Tikkun requires us to act. The possibilities are endless. The Mishnah’s remarkable statement that everybody needs to be able to say ‘for my sake the world was created,’ can be taken to mean that there are aspects of life, its need, vulnerabilities and wounds, which call out to us especially because of our own particular gifts, sensitivities, experiences, and even our wounds and failings, calling on us to work, advocate, and seek healing for ourselves and others in those specific domains. One person is drawn to care especially for children, another for the disabled, a third to plant trees and protect wild spaces. [Mishnah: Sanhedrin 4:].

This commitment to care is always multiple. Rooted in the mutuality of community and the commonality of history, we are as Jews primarily responsible to the Jewish people to Israel, just as other peoples and faiths are to their own members and countries. At the same time, we are answerable before all human life, since we share the equal privilege of being created in the image of God. No one may stand idly by the suffering of another, or witness the debasement of their humanity, without compromising their own integrity and morality as human beings. In the words of Immanuel Levinas ‘To follow the Most High is to know that nothing is of greater importance than the approach made towards one’s neighbour, the concern with the fate of “the widow and the orphan, the stranger and the poor.”’ [Immanuel Levinas: Revelation in the Jewish Tradition.]

We are also accountable before creation itself, the animals, birds, trees and plants entrusted to our safeguarding, as the rabbis enjoined: ‘Do not destroy my world [says God] for there is no-one after you who can put it right’. There is a contemporary urgency to this responsibility which demands us to change the way we live; our relationship to the earth itself has become mindless and exploitative and the very elements are demanding that we reconsider and change our habits. [Midrash Kohelet Rabbah, 1 on Kohelet 7:13].

The second aspect of Tikkun requires us to sensitise our mind and spirit, to listen and be still, so that we intuit and take inspiration from the speech which is latent in all things, powerful and inaudible at once, the often almost silent call of the sacred: Behold the heavens and their hosts proclaim the awe of you, without their voice being heard at all.    [Yehudah Halevi: God, where shall I find you, and where shall I find you not?].

For many, this is where we find our God, not in the belief in an external, interventionist Deity who will resolve all the tensions of history and of our own lives; but as the essence and inner being of all life, who speaks to us out of all existence and from within our own life also, humbling us, filling us with awe and wonder, and teaching us to do what is compassionate, just and good.

In these ways Tikkun Olam is both what we endeavour to do for one another and the world, and also an inner work of Teshuvah, return to and rediscovery of the person we could be and seek to become, a tikkun or reparation of the olam katan, the world in miniature, which each of us constitutes in our own life and spirit.

Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg is the Rabbi of New North London Synagogue and Senior Rabbi of Masorti Judaism.

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