How the Ideas of Samson Raphael Hirsch Can Help to Rectify American Judaism’s Shallow Obsession with Tikkun Olam

June 15, 2021 | Kylie Unell
About the author:

One of the outstanding German rabbinic minds of his day, Samson Raphael Hirsch sought to articulate a vision of Jewish Orthodoxy capable of appealing to a Jewish community that was increasingly secularly educated, bourgeois, patriotic, and at home with Gentile mores. To Kylie Unell, Hirsch has much to teach the American Jews of today, especially those for whom the notion of tikkun olam—an ancient concept of “repairing the world” that has come to be synonymous with contemporary notions of “social justice”—is paramount.

Action on behalf of justice and love, Hirsch argues, is how humans fulfill their fundamental purpose of being created in God’s image. What is crucial about this, and the way it differs from most tikkun-olam efforts today, is the centrality of God. Throughout the Nineteen Letters, [one of his early works], Hirsch fills the heart and soul with a vision of God in the world. . . . God is at the center. The problem with tikkun olam today is that it has been secularized, putting humans at the center; God has largely been removed. Human beings are told to act for their own sake, not for God’s.

“Man’s entire life,” [Hirsch wrote], “all of himself, his thoughts, feelings, speech, and action—even his business transactions and personal enjoyments—[ought to] represent service of God. Such a life transcends all vicissitudes.”

Especially in America, where the denigration of religion is a creed in and of itself among most of the elite, people trying earnestly to help young Jews feel connected to [their] Jewish heritage tend to believe that God is the ultimate turnoff. Mention God and young people will run for the hills. But as a young person, and as someone who is committed to helping other young people feel that Judaism is a treasure given to them, I know that this misses the mark for many. Young Jews, like many young Americans, are starving for a conversation about God.

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