Social Justice

Tikkun: To Heal, Repair, and Transform the World

posted on 03/09/10 03:51 pm by Fr. Paul Hansen, C.Ss.R.  

A few weeks ago, while attending meetings in Germany and with writings of Holocaust theologians in hand, I visited the grave of the bishop who ordained me in 1968. Johann B. Neuhausler, as a young priest, stood up in a pulpit of a church in Munich and spoke out against National Socialism. In so doing he disobeyed the State and to a degree the Church. He was arrested, tried and sentenced first to Sachsenhausen and then in 1941 to Dachau where he was held until 1945.

In his will, Neuhausler asked to be buried in Dachau and that is where he rests in a silence that screams to all visitors: “To those who died honour, to those who live a warning.” ( Den Toten Zur Her – Den Lebenden Zur Mahnung)

When Johann B. Neuhausler ordained me in 1968, he first took me for a walk and spoke to me of his six years in the camps and of what he had learned about himself, God, evil and the world of his time. He spoke to me of believers who lost their faith in God in Dachau and of others who found a profound faith in that hell. He spoke of humanists whose behaviour put Christians to shame and of Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals and others who lived heroic lives. He told me that when he would later that day place his hands on me in ordination that I was to learn and know well: “…whenever the ICON of God – the human person – is defiled, I with me life, I must say NO.” Needless to say I was nervous and remain so to this day.

Over the past years, I have had many opportunities to visit Germany and I would often go to visit the grave of Bishop Neuhausler. I would spend the better part of a day there and I would try and hear the message of his life and the lives of so many others who were tortured and who died because they resisted such a tragic ideology. I would always hear the call to heal and live a life of healing. I came to know a sense of TIKKUN – truly a call of these our times.

In these times, not only is the Human in need of healing and care, so also is our planet and Mother Earth. With the development of consciousness we have come to see that we are inter-connected and that if all is not well, then no part is well. The water in Lake Ontario and the water in my body is of the same water. The air that nourishes my and your life and the air all around us is of the same air. We either move from an individual self consciousness to a species self consciousness or we will not survive and have a future for coming generations.

With the birth of consciousness, the human is the creation’s ability to dance, to know joy and to celebrate. On the other hand, the birth of consciousness has taken mother nature off automatic pilot. It seems that the human species is in conflict with other species and the very nature of the planet itself.

The human species has caused so much death and destruction, not only in the wars of this past century – more people have died at the hands of other humans in this century than in the entire history of humanity – but also to other species and life forms.


The 20th century has been called by many a century of progress. In many areas of human life we have seen incredible development. There is however a shadow side to this century of progress and development. It has also been called a century of Mass Death. Some would like to see two new empty seats at the United Nations as a critique on this century of progress. One seat for the Nation of the Dead, the other for the Nation of the Living Dead. The Nation of the Dead is used because those who have died have common characteristics, the leading one being that they died at the hands of fellow human beings. The Nation of the Living Dead because millions are now living a tragic existence as a price of progress in other parts of our world.

The call of today is to see, hear, convert and live TIKKUN.

It is a sobering reflection to be in a concentration camp accompanied by the works of ‘holocaust theologians’ – Elie Wiesel, Irving Greenberg, Emil Fackenheim, Richard Rubenstein and Hannah Arendt. I carried the beautiful writings of Etty Hillesum – “An Interrupted Life” – and I hear her say that in these times, we have to help God be God.


Tikkun derived its true power and importance from the 16th century Kabbalistic teachings of Rabbi Isaac Luria. The Kabbalistic view of the act of creation began with God withdrawing into God’s self thereby creating space for our created universe. In a sense, God is making room for the world. Although complicated in its formulation, the essence of the idea is that God sent forth Light into this created space. Some of the vessels receiving this Light could not contain it and so shattered. In their breaking some of the Light returned to God and some fell as sparks. Often referred to as Shekinah, these sparks are trapped as it were in creation, unable to return to God. The human task is to liberate these sparks. This is an early meaning of tikkun.

With Isaac Luria, tikkun is at the very least the raising of these sparks back to their source. It is the reconciliation of the world, ourselves and God.

For the mystic Luria, this act of reconciliation was accomplished in gestures of blessing, prayer and meditation, the living of the Torah.

Tikkun invites a co-operation between God and the human. God needs us. This 16th century understanding of tikkun has often been referred to as ‘the repairing of the Face of God.’ Tikkun is essentially collaborating with God to repair the world. Tikkun should saturate every living moment. It is akin to Thich Nhat Hanh’s notion of mindfulness. It is like Merton’s notion of Oneness. It is the profound awareness of God and the sacramental life of creation.


Kabbalism is full of symbols where the life of the creator and that of the creation are one so much so that all of creation is an expression of God’s hidden self. Such an awareness calls upon each and every one of us today to take responsibility for our moment in creation. It is our profound act of faith – a movement from solitude to solidarity – with all of creation to repair the face of God.

The Bible says Rabbi Jeremy Schwartz never uses the phrase ‘tikkun olam.’ The current use of the terms is the result of a very early mixing of Jewish thought. The first of these streams is Biblical formulated in the first two centuries of the common era on the part of the prophets of Israel that the oppression of the weak, of the poor, the widow and orphan, the stranger, was not only sinful, but was tantamount to idolatrous rebellion against the living God. The prophets insisted that it was possible for human beings to have a just and loving covenantal relationship with each other and the land. (Leviticus 25 and Jubilee)

The second stream is that of the theory of creation finding its full expression in the Kabbalist thought especially of the 16th century Rabbi Isaac Luria as explained earlier in this reflection. For the Biblical authors, the wonders of creation were a testament to the workings of God. This notion was primary for the Kabbalists and the Hasidim. The entire world is a mask, which hides the great Light of God

Today when people use the phrase “tikkun olam” (to heal, repair and transform the world) they usually are referring to a set of ideas and actions that include social justice, kindness to others and environmental health that are intended to make the world a whole place. This activity is expressed best in Etty Hillesum’s insight: “….one thing is becoming increasingly clear to me: that You (God) cannot help us, that we must help You to help ourselves.” (p. 186) In a broken universe, the human task is to heal, to repair, to transform = tikkun olam.

Given that all of creation is an expression of God’s hidden self, our call to heal, to repair and to transform that, which is broken, is truly a holy gesture, a standing in wonder before God and the creation. Tikkun is not a passive posture of simple assent but rather is a total life lived in constant dialogue and healing action with all creation, with all that is God.

Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote in his poem: “I Befriend Forests:”

You are a soul incognito

My beloved tree….

As I step lightly into the forest

How tree-like I become!

‘Grandfather! Grandfather! I call to the spruce

Your offspring has come to you.

For many spiritual writers, the sense of wonder is basic to all religious consciousness. We are invited in wonder to make our lives holy and the world more whole. Wonder is an act of healing. More than simply assent, wonder is a life lived in solidarity, a life that is tikkun – healing, repairing and transforming. All the rest is commentary.

Paul E. Hansen

END NOTES 1. Toward a Jewish Theology of Liberation. Marc H. Ellis. Orbis Press, Maryknoll, New York. 1987 2. Faithfulness in an Age of Holocaust. Marc H. Ellis. Amity House. New York. 1986 3. An Interrupted Life. Etty Hillesum. Square Press. Washington 1981 4. TIKKUN, A Bimonthly Jewish Critique of Politics, Culture and Society. January/February 1999 5. Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism. Gershom Scholem. Schocken Books. New York, 1995

Understanding Jewish Mysticism. David R. Blumenthal. Ktav Publishing House. New York. 1978

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