Sunday, March 26, 2023 -
Print Edition

Restoring tikkun olam to the rainbow

To redress the grievances of the poor

“To redress the grievances of those who are abandoned and alone, to protect the dignity of the poor, and to save the oppressed from the hands of his oppressor.”

This is the definition of the function of a rabbi offered by the legendary Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik (1853-1918), the rabbi of Brest Litovsk (variously in Lithuania, Poland or Belarus). At his insistence, his gravestone was to make no mention of his towering intellect and worldwide impact on Talmudic study.

Rather, he preferred to be remembered for his kindness, which is simply beyond our ken. His home was unlocked. Anyone was free to enter and to eat from his kitchen or to sleep there anytime. The poor were free to take from his storehouse of logs for heat. When community leaders, who paid his salary, objected, he said that if the poor were to have no heat, neither would their rabbi. Sometimes his own bed was occupied and he was relegated to sleeping on a detached door. He and his wife took in many foundlings. It was known that if a young woman were in trouble, she could leave her baby at the Soloveitchik doorstep, and it would be cared for — personally, by the Soloveitchik family, not by an agency.

He left in his will that his epitaph should contain but three Hebrew words, “He was a man of kindness.”

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes, “There is a direct line between Reb Chaim and the 50 percent of California Jews who, when asked what being Jewish meant to them, replied ‘social justice’ — three times the figure for any other factor.”

Rabbi Sacks continues, “The restless drive to ‘perfect the world under the sovereignty of G-d’ [tikkun olam be-malchut Sh-ddai] is a Jewish instinct that survives long after other practices have been abandoned.”

The light of Rabbi Soloveitchik’s practice of tikkun olam has reached down through the generations.

However, his outreach to the poor and defense of the oppressed overlaid a tall scaffolding of other rabbinic duties. True, he rescued unbelieving communist Jewish youth from the Tsar, he defied the wealthy of his community when they insisted on unearned privileges, he personally raised the funds to rebuild all the Jewish neighborhoods of Brisk after they burned down and would not sleep in a house until everyone else’s house had been rebuilt — but most of the time Rabbi Soloveitchik fulfilled other rabbinic functions. He studied or taught Torah virtually every waking moment not given to prayer or other mitzvot. His revolutionary approach to Talmud study drew an unending stream of students to Brisk for his tutelage, sometimes in formal groups, sometimes not. His genius was legendary, contagious and all absorbing.

Are we free to choose between Rabbi Soloveitchik’s other Jewish practices and his instinct for tikkun olam? Is it unrealistic to go for more than one or the other? Can tikkun olam and other Jewish practices be mutually enriching?

Regents Park

Rabbi Sacks describes Regent’s Park in northwest London, completed in 1827. I imagine I would enjoy it, for “it is a glorious mixture of lakes, tree-lined avenues, open spaces for games, and flower beds that half the year are a masterpiece of blazing color. There are coffee shops and restaurants, a zoo and an open-air theater and a magnificent rose garden. There are places for children to play and for people to have picnics or rowboats on the lake or simply stroll and enjoy the view…” Who owns this park? Everyone and no one.

“What defines the park and makes it so gracious a part of city life is that it is public space. It is somewhere we can all go — rich and poor, newcomer or resident — on equal terms.”

A park, writes Rabbi Sacks, “is a public good, something that exists in virtue of being shared, and public goods, by definition, are things I as an individual cannot buy, or make, or own. I can only participate in them by being part of the ‘We’ that creates the shared arena for the ‘I.’

“What the park is in space, Shabbat is in time.”

Just as the park, as a public space, is a place I step into, not a place I create, Shabbat is a time I step into, not a time I create. Just as I step into a park, I step into Shabbat. Rabbi Sacks: “It [Shabbat] is not ‘free time,’ time to dispose of as I wish. It differs from a vacation the way a park differs from a private garden. It is a world that exists only in virtue of it being shared by a community.”

What better example of a shared community than Jerusalem on Shabbat?

“The shops are closed, the streets are quiet, there are no cars on the roads. In the midst of the city you hear the leaves rustle, the birds sing, the sound of children playing, the songs of families around the table. You can feel the Divine presence in the public square. This is peace as the prophets envisaged at the end of days: utopia in the present.”

It is not my personal performance that creates this. What, precisely, does create it? The Torah, specifically its command to refrain from 39 types of constructive work whose renunciation alone yields the “rest” (menuchah) that Shabbat mandates; the “rest” that Jewish law creates as an “island in time.”

Were the time of Shabbat to dispose of as I wish, there could be no Shabbat in Jerusalem where the Divine presence is felt in the public square. Vehicles rushing back and forth would recast and undermine its quiet and peace.

The utopia in the present, week in and week out, rhythmically elevating and embodying the essence of life, comes into existence via the laws of Shabbat. As Rabbi Abraham I. Kuk, said, “Just as there are laws of poetry, there is poetry in law.”

What is light?

In the nature of Jewish sacred existence, its light is white and whole. This is what emanates from Rabbi Soloveitchik’s tikkun olam. A whole loaf, not half a loaf.

“Light” is a metaphor. What, precisely, is the metaphor? What is light?

Before Einstein, light was understood as wavular; after Einstein, it was understood as now corpuscular, now wavular. Either way, the metaphor of light favored by Jewish mystics, or kabbalists, retains its coherence. Kabbalists used the image of a pure stream of white light to signify the unfathomable essence of G-d because white light, like G-d, is undifferentiated, absent the rainbow of color and diversity; absolutely One.

To understand how G-d “breaks through” to us — to contingent, fathomable, differentiated human beings — the pure stream of white light must be modified. Pure light is a metaphor for G-d, not for us. The modification that human beings require is for white light, which, as Newton showed, contains all colors, to pass through a prism, which divides light into its colored components and reveals the optical spectrum.

This, human beings can grasp. We need the light of the rainbow.

The number of colors on the optical spectrum is infinite. If I take the infinite color range of the rainbow as the metaphor for the teachings of the Divine Torah as it is made accessible to me, a human being, I may prefer any piece of Torah — any shade on the color spectrum — as my personal favorite. Tikkun olam, for example.

Beware the potential slippery slope. From the choice of a personal favorite to the choice to reject a color on the spectrum — to exclude a teaching of the Torah that I disfavor — is a confusion that abounds in Western society, which idealizes personal autonomy. The rainbow retains its integrity only as the derivative of pure white light. All the colors, stemming from the same source, are of equal significance. If I want to retain the integrity of the metaphor of light, I must retain the Torah in all of its teachings — from the tikkun olam of the master, Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik, to Shabbat a la Regents Park. What the park is in space, Shabbat is in time. I step into Shabbat, via the Torah’s laws of Shabbat.

“Shabbat” here is but an example. The laws of the whole Torah I may not dispose of as I wish. I step into them, honor and treasure them. The whole rainbow is resplendent.

The same arc

Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik’s tikkun olam and dedication to Jewish law were one. Neither overrode the other; au contraire, they were mutually enriching, different wavelengths of light on the rainbow, derived from the single stream of pure white light.

The opportunity for contemporary Jewry, much of which has abandoned Jewish practice such as Shabbat, is to see it as the other half of the loaf, on the same arc as tikkun olam. The opportunity is for a full loaf, not half a loaf.

The Creator, expressed as a stream of pure white light, contains all the teachings of the Torah, all the colors of the rainbow. Tikkun olam is one of them, living and breathing on the rainbow, not in splendid isolation, but in deep communion.

Sources: Nathan Kaminetsky, The Making of a Godol (2002). Jonathan Sacks, A Letter in the Scroll: Understanding Our Jewish Identity and Exploring the Legacy of the World’s Oldest Religion (2000). John Gribbin, In Search of Schrodinger’s Cat: Quantum Physics and Reality (1988).

Avatar photo

IJN Executive Editor |

Leave a Reply