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In the 19th century Reform Judaism was founded and conceived of a messianism stripped of the
supernatural trappings of traditional Judaism. Instead of an individual messiah that Orthodox Jews
spoke of, they referred to the messianic age; instead of praying for a restoration of temple sacrifices
and end of exile, which was a key feature of the orthodox tradition, they focused on the prophetic
promise of peace and harmony in the countries in which they had recently been granted citizenship;
instead of waiting for God to send a messiah as per the traditional doctrine, reformers believed human
beings would bring the messianic age through a commitment to ethical action and repair of the world
(Tikkun Olam).
Tikkun olam literally means fixing the world. But nowadays it is more often translated as Jewish
social justice. The phrase tikkun olam does not show up in the Five Books of Moses or anywhere in
the Hebrew Bible. Around the year 300 CE, the term tikkun olam appeared for the first time in the
Rosh Hashana (new year) service.
Maimonides, said “When you gain wisdom by studying Torah, develop character by doing acts of
kindness, and when you observe the mitzvot (commandments) you bring tikkun olam,”.
In the 1960’s, when the Civil Rights movement took centre stage in the United States, it was the
Reform movement of Judaism that took the phrase tikkun olam and turned it into “Jewish social
action.” Reform Judaism focused on the key Jewish ideas of, Chesed (acts of loving-kindness)
Tzedakah (charity and justice). The Torah says “justice thou shalt pursue” (Deuteronomy) and The
'mitzvah of tzedakah' is one of the most important laws.
Ultimately, tikkun olam has roots in many different Jewish theological arguments, and can mean
different things to different people and communities.
For some Reform Jews, the motivation is to bring the Messianic Era. For others, it’s to heal the world
by working closely with other communities. For some Orthodox Jews, it needs the ritual acts of
Judaism and Torah study for it to be Jewish. For others, simply living the ethical values of helping
God fix a broken world makes it innately Jewish.