Dear Partners in Green,
Recently as a fundraiser, PBS aired the documentary, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” a film that examines the life and legacy of Fred Rogers. In the program, the beloved host of “Mister Roger’s Neighborhood” was described as a person who lived tikkun olam, a concept in Judaism often interpreted as an aspiration of perfecting or repairing of the world. I knew of the term, but I had never associated it with Fred Rogers. But, yes, that is how he lived. He cared deeply about the world and its inhabitants and aspired to make the world a better place for all.
Tikkun olam is most often used when discussing issues of social policy, with the purpose of creating a safeguard for those who are disadvantaged. In Jewish communities, tikkun olam has become synonymous with the idea of social action and social justice.
In this letter, I will take a moment to explore the meaning of tikkun olam and how it has been embraced by and has informed the Jewish community in the area of environmental justice. A source for the letter is Tikkun Olam and Environmental Restoration: A Jewish Eco-Theology of Redemption by Rabbi Laurence Troster. Director, Fellowship Program, for GreenFaith: Interfaith Partners for the Earth, bjpa.org.
In the past, tikkun olam has been interpreted as being a partnership between humanity and God in which limited divine action allows and encourages human freedom for action. Since the 1950’s it has been interpreted to mean that humans have the responsibility for the perfection and maintenance of the world, not with an apocalyptic view of environmental disaster, but with a positive view of what a sustainable world would look like.1
Steven J. Pyne, an environmental history professor at Arizona State University wrote: “The real future of environmentalism is in rehabilitation and restoration. Environmentalists have told the story of the Garden of Eden and the fall from grace over and over again. But we haven’t yet told the story of redemption. Now we need to tell that story. Both secular and religious environmentalists need to articulate where they want the world to go. What is a perfect world in accordance with how the natural world really works?”2
Daniel Botkin, a biologist who studies the world from a planetary perspective has written that before the Industrial Revolution nature was viewed as either an organic entity or a divinely created order. After the Industrial Revolution, the natural world was viewed as a machine, a model that is still with us and accounts for much of the distance that humans feel from the natural world. A new model has now emerged that incorporates the understanding that change is intrinsic and natural at many scales in time and space in the biosphere. 3
And while change is natural, it is necessary to understand which changes are good and which are not. For example, E. O Wilson, a biologist, and naturalist has written that the “natural” extinction rate is estimated to be one to two species a year, now he suggests that it is 6 percent of all species per decade! Whatever the actual extinction rate, over the last 200 years, human alteration of the biosphere has resulted in a radical increase in the number of extinct species.
Yes, change is normal, but now scientists believe that humans are causing it to occur at an unprecedented rate. It is necessary for us to understand which changes are good and which are not, as well as which rates of change are natural and desirable and which are not.
Rabbi Troster writes that a new redemption vision is required that can incorporate the Jewish concept of tikkun olam into an ecologically sound, dynamic concept of Creation. He suggests that there may be two ways to approach this: the minimal and the maximal. The minimal approach to redeeming the planet might be summed up by what J.R.R. Tolkien had Gandalf the wizard say about the future:
“Yet it is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succor of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule.”4
A more maximal approach would be to redefine tikkun olam as ecological restoration. Eric Higgs, a professor of environmental studies at the University of Victoria has defined ecological restoration as “the process of assisting the recovery of an ecosystem that has been degraded, damaged, or destroyed.”5 Ecological restorations must be a process, not an end product. It requires what Higgs calls a “genuine conversation” between those doing the restoring and natural processes in order for it to work properly. That conversation would ensure that the interests of both people and ecosystems are understood and appreciated. This would require that those doing the restoration take the time to fully understand the place as it is and to “listen” to the ecosystem. As Higgs points out, “The loud, garrulous humans will always dominate unless specific attention is given to the soft-spoken ecosystem…”6
“Tikkun Olam requires us to give up the idea that we always know what is best for the natural world. It requires us to listen to the other voices in the choir and to take their needs and goals into account, not only our wants and desires. Tikkun olam then becomes a vision of restoration, of partnership with the rest of life, and a kind of harmony that is not a static, changeless world, but more a “discordant harmony,” a grand symphony of theme and variation which celebrates the beauty and the tragedy in the diversity of Creation.”7
A few suggestions for the month of October:
- When you vote, volunteer at the polls, lower the thermostat, go meatless, compost, refrain from impulsive shopping, submit an OPED piece, donate to an environmental organization, think of your action as tikkun olam or an act of repair and restoration.
- Support or join an environmental group such as the Sierra Club, National Forest Foundation, or the Nature Conservancy.
- Watch the you-tube video, The 10 Largest Forests on Earth. (It’s a bit long, but worth the time.)
by Gerard Manley Hopkins (1877)
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
In “God’s Grandeur” Hopkins conveys his reverence for the magnificence of God and nature and his despair about the way that humanity has seemed to lose sight of the close connection between God and nature during the Second Industrial Revolution.
I leave you with this song, Tikkun Olam.
Wishing peace and health to you and your loved ones.
Thank you for being on this journey.
Till next time,
- Troster, Lawrence, Tikkun Olam, and Environmental Restoration: A Jewish Eco-Theology of Redemption. bjpa.org
- Pyne, Steven quoted in Merchant, Carol. Reinventing Eden: The Fate of Nature in Western Culture. New York: Routledge, 2003, p. 207.
- Botkin, Daniel B. Discordant Harmony: A New Ecology for the Twenty-First Century New York: Oxford University Press, 1990, p. 8. Troster
- Higgs, Eric. Nature by Design: People, Natural Process, and Ecological Restoration. Cambridge, MA: