Doing Good Without Being Perfect: A Jewish Vision for Repairing the World

By Melissa Anthony


Review of The Jewish Approach to Repairing the World (Tikkun Olam): A Brief Introduction for Christians by Rabbi Eliot N. Dorff with Reverend Cory Wilson. (Jewish Lights, 2008)

I am a former Christian who has been looking toward Judaism for guidance in my life. In his book on the concept of repairing the world (tikkun olam), Rabbi Dorff lays out the values in Judaism that are universal. I felt very included by this book, even though I usually feel like I don’t have much of a place anywhere else.

Though the concept of repairing the world originally came from Jewish mysticism, Dorff establishes that it is central to today’s Jews. Dorff cites a 1988 Los Angeles Times poll of Jews that showed that more than any other facet of Jewish life and tradition, social equality and the fight for it rates number one– it is what Jews recognize as both their duty and identity.

Tikkun Olam coverBut how do you explain something that encompasses so much of Jewish life? In this book, Dorff sets out to explore the theory and practice of tikkun olam to make it accessible to everyone. He presents Torah teachings and New Testament verses side by side to address parallel themes in the two religions. It’s hard to write about Christianity and Judaism for me because they are so separate in my mind. Many of the positive values that Dorff finds in Christianity in this book were not part of my main experience of it growing up. I saw more of the intolerant and strict face of Christianity than the loving tolerant face that Dorff presents here.

I was raised Southern Baptist/fundamentalist Christian. There was no interfaith dialog in the churches I attended. We thought we were being progressive if we had a shared covered dish dinner with some Methodists. I believe there are many ways to the Divine. In Judaism, the emphasis isn’t on what you BELIEVE, but on what you DO, and this makes the most sense to me. There is room in Judaism for faith, but there’s also plenty of room for questioning. I felt stifled as a Christian, and was afraid my faith–that which was most important at the time–was weak. Every time I questioned, I felt guilty. With Judaism I can question as much as I want and feel closer to the tradition as a result. Reading this book reminded me of what I liked about Judaism in the first place: the emphasis that Jews place on making the world better.

I was familiar with many of the scriptural passages in this book because I worked really closely with New Testament scripture for a number of years. I was unfamiliar with some of the other Christian sources used, since a lot of them came from Catholic writings.

Since Judaism is so concerned with how to behave ethically, Dorff wants the reader to ask why. Why should we care? Why should we act? He starts with the example of caring for the poor and explains that Jewish tradition emphasizes worth of every individual person. Dorff compares the Jewish texts that assert the importance of the individual human being with similar Christian traditions. Throughout the book, Dorff continues to present the Jewish and Christian answer to Why. I think one of the best things about this book is the compassionate way it acknowledges human failings.

One area Dorff explores in detail is speech ethics. In Judaism, there are specific rules about truthfulness and limitations on what is ethical to say about another person. Dorff finds both Christian and Jewish voices on the importance of truthfulness and of not gossiping or slandering people. He even found the same phrase in rabbinic literature as in the New Testament, “Let your yes be yes and your no be no.”

Judaism has specific requirements for fulfilling the commandments to visit the sick and to comfort mourners. Through acts of lovingkindness and emotional support, Dorff explains, we fulfill these requirements. Attending the sick, visiting them and giving them hope (whether for a recovery or for other things) and helping ease the isolation and depression of illness: these are what the tradition of tikkun olam gives us. Attending mourners, supporting them through concrete acts to ease their lives and through physical and emotional presence, we honor the dead and living alike.

The book goes on to deal with the tradition’s ideal for how we relate to our spouses, parents, and children. In the chapter on marriage, Dorff compares ideas about divorce in the Christian and Jewish traditions. In some denominations of Christianity, divorce is considered a sin. As Dorff put it, “divorce, though not a sin, is nevertheless sad and hard.” In spite of their radically different philosophies about what marriage is, Dorff is able to find among both Jewish and Christian figures similar principles about how to behave.

The last part of the book is devoted to the vision of a world repaired, of peace and justice for everyone. I think what makes this book unique is the idea that everyone can have a part in making this dream come true, that it isn’t just a Jewish responsibility. Everyone can do their part in making the world a better place. With a thought-provoking ideal given, Dorff gives examples of what anyone–everyone–can do, at home and in the world.

The intention of the book is to bridge a gap, but it wasn’t a gap that I needed to bridge. It might fill that purpose for others who don’t carry the same baggage as I do about Christianity. For me, the book felt inclusive because it was about how I could contribute to an ethical vision for the world. I liked the practical examples, which were more meaningful to me than the parallel placement of Christian and Jewish texts. Others might feel more included by Dorff’s work finding a common ethical vision.


About Melissa Anthony

Melissa Anthony lives in Florida. She's a single mom of a child with special needs.