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Jewish Ethics

Tikkun Olam

Fixing the world: An introduction

Tikkun Olam is the Jewish way of saying "the world needs fixing, and it's our job to fix it." In the words of the Talmud: "It is not upon you to finish the work, but you are not free to ignore it." (Mishna, Ethics, 2:21)

On this topic:
Tzedakah: Righteous giving
Other people

Jewish history began with God's call to Abraham; it is worth noting that this covenant included the rest of the world. God promised Abraham that his offspring would be a blessing to all peoples of the world. He and his descendants were to be an instrument of blessing and redemption for everyone.

Abraham took that mandate seriously, even to the point of arguing with God for the preservation of Sodom and Gomorrah. (Genesis 18)

But how are we to "fix the world?" How are we to become instruments of blessing and redemption?

For some Jewish mystics, any holy act contributes to a repair of the world's spiritual flaws, constituting a "fixing."

More concretely, the Torah doesn't differentiate between its varieties of commandments: God doesn't distinguish between our obligations toward each other, the planet, or Him. Running a society and caretaking the world are as sacred as worship and ritual.

At their basis, Judaism sees them all as related. All of humanity are descendants of Adam and Eve; we are all responsible to one another. Having all been created in God's image, we owe each other infinite respect.

First Person
I believe that we are bound to make the world a better place in all that we do. If we are the chosen people, we have an obligation. Our ancestors struggled to keep our faith and our people alive, and here we are, still a community in 1998, still sharing the stories and teachings of our ancestors, but how much have we used that to improve the world and not just maintain our community?

-- Ricki H., Mishpacha Aleph

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Tzedakah or Righteous Giving

While commonly translated as charity, tzedakah is actually a very different concept. Charity implies having mercy for those with less, whereas tzedakah is rooted in justice (tzedek). We give not because we have mercy, or because we feel like it, but because we are required to give in a world in which large gaps in income and quality of life are simply unjust. Tzedakah is not a matter of compassion, but of implementing a just vision for the world.

The Talmud says that everyone is obligated to give -- even those who depend on tzedakah should give to those less fortunate than they.

First Person
I read a survey where the really rich people in the U.S. think that the average American family makes about $80,000.00 a year! Sure, dream on.

--Eleanor G., Mishpacha Aleph

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How much should one give? The standard is one tenth of one's income - the tithe commanded by the Bible - and the maximum is one fifth. One is not supposed to "give until it hurts."

Over the years, Judaism has developed a hierarchy of different kinds of giving. The primary principle is consideration for the self-respect of the recipient. The highest form of giving is helping the impoverished support themselves (teaching someone to fish, rather than offering a single fish, providing employment, teaching business skills, lending money, etc.). Anonymous giving is valued as it protects the feelings, through protecting the identity, of benefactor and recipient.

One should give first to one's near relatives, then to one's extended family, to one's community and city, and finally, to those of other cities and countries. We are obligated to first take care of those close to us, only then does our obligation extend to those further away.

Food for Thought:

Discussion: What do you think of the Jewish values for giving enumerated here? Are they values that resonate with you? If so, why? If not, why not?

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Bein Adam le-Chavero: Interpersonal Mitzvot

Visiting the sick: Bikur Holim

The first recorded act of bikur holim is in Genesis, when three angels are sent to visit Abraham after his circumcision. This mitzvah is so important that one is allowed to violate the Sabbath to visit a close relative who is seriously ill.

Reproach your neighbor: Tochacha

You are not to hate your brother in your heart; rebuke, yes, rebuke your fellow, that you not bear sin because of him. (Lev. 19:17)

We are exhorted by the Torah to reproach our neighbor for poor behavior rather than harbor secret resentment towards him.

This mitzvah is connected with lashon hara (gossip). (Note its proximity in the Bible to the commandment against lashon hara). Unless we speak directly to those with whom we are upset, we are likely to speak behind their backs.

Do not gossip: Lashon Hara

You are not to traffic in slander among your kinspeople (Lev. 19:16).

The Rabbis declared that gossip destroys three people: the one who tells, the one who listens, and the one who is being spoken about.

The mitzvot concerning tochacha and lashon hara are two of the most difficult mitzvot to observe. They are the stuff of everyday life and far more subtle than the rules of kosher food, for instance. In Judaism, speech is considered powerful enough to build and destroy worlds, and is therefore a serious responsibility.

Food for Thought:

Discussion: Which of these mitzvot are important to you? What helps you observe them? Which ones are especially difficult for you? Why?  
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Mitzvot concerning the environment and its creatures

Do not destroy the world: Baal Tashkhit

  • When you besiege a town...: You are not to bring ruin on its trees, by swinging an ax against them, for from them you eat, them you are not to cut-down" (Deuteronomy 20:19) .

This verse, which specifically concerns protecting trees on enemy territory, is understood by the Rabbis to exemplify a general principle of nature preservation. They extend the specific situation -- of not destroying the trees of one's enemy during wartime -- to vigilantly protecting all of nature, always. This principle is called "baal tashchit," and is extended to cover manufactured objects as well.

Tza'ar Balei Chayim: Respect for animals.

  • When you encounter the nest of a bird before you in the way, in any tree or on the ground, (whether) fledglings or eggs, with the mother crouching upon the fledglings or upon the eggs, you are not to take away the mother along with the children. Send free, send free the mother, but the children you may take for yourself in order that it may go well with you and you may prolong (your) days. (Deuteronomy 22:6)

The mitzvah of showing respect for animals has its roots in the Biblical command of showing sympathy for a mother bird nestled with her young. Furthermore, the Midrash says that both Moses and David were chosen to lead Israel because of their kindness to animals.

As we discussed in our Kashrut unit, the Jewish food ideal is vegetarianism, as reflected in life in the Garden of Eden. According to the Bible, however, when God recognized how imperfect his human creation was, he allowed the consumption of meat, with some restrictions.

The killing of animals is restricted out of concern for animal life, and is expressed in the mitzvah of 'tza'ar balei chayim' - "the pain of living creatures."

Some compassionate mitzvot which emerge from this principle are: a mandated day of rest for animals (Exodus 20:10); the injunction that one's animals must be fed before oneself; and the requirement that one amply provide for all animals in one's possession.


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