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Is ‘Tikkun Olam’ for the Betterment of the World, or Just for the Betterment of Divorce?

In this week’s ‘Daf Yomi’ Talmud study, Jews may not realize the origins of a central idea of modern social justice

Adam Kirsch
January 26, 2016
Main image: Augusto Tominz, The Letter, 1873.Wikipedia
Main image: Augusto Tominz, The Letter, 1873.Wikipedia

Literary critic Adam Kirsch is reading a page of Talmud a day, along with Jews around the world.

One of the secrets to the continuity of Judaism is that the same words can evolve to mean totally different things. The Talmud is full of this kind of semantic shifting: The rabbis regularly interpret the Torah in ways that, presumably, its original authors could never have anticipated. But a particularly striking example came in last week’s Daf Yomi reading, in chapter 4 of Tractate Gittin. In Gittin 32a, the mishna uses the phrase mi’pnei tikkun olam: “for the sake of the betterment of the world.” Today, tikkun olam is one of the most popular American Jewish mottos. We have interpreted “the betterment of the world” to mean the improvement of society in the name of social justice. In this way, liberal or left politics (of the kind espoused by the magazine Tikkun) are read into the Jewish tradition, as though working for social progress was an inherently Jewish activity.

I don’t mean to disparage this idea—there are certainly good foundations for it in many Jewish sources, starting with the Prophets—but there is no doubt that this is not what our ancestors meant when they used the words tikkun olam. Initially, as we will see, the Talmud used it to mean implementing Jewish laws in a way that was practical and fair. Later, for the Kabbalists, it came to refer to a mystical process of rectifying a broken world through prayer and devotion. Only in the last half-century or so, I believe, has tikkun olam taken on a political dimension. This way of attributing very different meanings to the same Hebrew words is a good illustration of how Judaism evolves. We continue to be Jews because we participate in the same conversation using the same sources, even as our understanding of ethics and divinity changes over time.

So far, the first four chapters of Tractate Gittin have revolved around a particular aspect of the laws of divorce. This is the use of an agent to deliver the get, the document that effects a divorce under Jewish law. While the Torah seems to envision a husband writing and handing over a get personally, the Mishna shows that the use of a scribe and what amounts to a process server later became standard. But as we have seen in past weeks, this arrangement opens up several possible complications. How does a woman know that the document she is given was prepared according to the law? How can she contest a get if she suspects that it was improperly written? To deal with these questions, the rabbis instituted a rule that two witnesses had to sign the get, and that it had to be delivered in the presence of witnesses.

In chapter 4, the Talmud considers a new wrinkle. A husband has the power to authorize an agent to deliver a bill of divorce to his wife. But what if, after the agent has set off but before the get is delivered, the husband changes his mind? Is it too late to nullify the get? What if the husband sends a second agent after the first, with instructions not to deliver the get, but the first agent reaches the wife and hands over the document? Is she legally divorced? What especially concerns the Talmud, as always, is the possibility that a woman might believe she is divorced even though technically she is still married. This could lead her to a bigamous second marriage and the birth of illegitimate children, mamzerim.

It is to avoid this kind of uncertainty that the rabbis instituted a reform in the divorce process—the kind of reform they refer to as mi’pnei tikkun olam, “for the sake of the betterment of the world.” Originally, we read in the mishna in Gittin 32a, a husband could nullify his get simply by going to a court and declaring that he had changed his mind. This court did not have to be in the same city as his wife, however; so it was possible that the wife would not hear about his change of mind and would receive the get believing it still to be effective. Clearly, the very existence of this possibility would have made it treacherous for any woman to trust in a get she received by means of an agent. At any moment she might learn that her husband had changed his mind about the divorce.

It was to avoid this problem that Rabban Gamliel “instituted an ordinance that one should not do this.” In other words, Gamliel made it impossible for a husband to revoke a get by means of a court declaration. From then on, the get could only be revoked by means of a direct message, either to the agent delivering it or to the wife receiving it. If the message failed to get through before the get was delivered, then it was too late to revoke it, and the divorce was effective. “Once the bill of divorce had entered her possession, he can no longer render it void,” the mishna declares. It’s easy to see how this ruling improved the world for Jewish wives, by removing a cause of doubt about their marital status.

As we saw earlier in the Daf Yomi cycle, in Tractate Nedarim, the taking of vows is a serious matter in Jewish law, and the exact phrasing of a vow is crucial. Say it the wrong way and it has no legal standing. So, too, with the revocation of a get. The principle is that a man can revoke a get only by means of a prescriptive declaration: He must say, “This bill of divorce shall not be effective, shall not release, shall not divorce,” or some equivalent thereof. It is not enough to use a descriptive statement—for instance, to say, “This bill of divorce is invalid” or “This bill of divorce does not release.” Simply saying that the get is invalid doesn’t make it invalid, since there is nothing actually wrong with the way it was written.

So, too, a mere statement of regret on the husband’s part is insufficient. In Gittin 34a, the Gemara tells the story of a man called Giddul bar Re’ilai, who sent an agent to deliver a get to his wife. The wife refused to accept the document, however, telling the agent to come back the following day. If this was a strategy to get Giddul to think again, it worked, for when he learned that the get had not been delivered—and so the divorce was not yet in effect—he said, “Blessed is He who is good and does good.” This sounds pretty clearly like a declaration that he did not want the divorce to happen. But Abaye ruled that this inference has no legal standing: “Disclosure of intent with regard to a bill of divorce is not a significant matter.” Unless Giddul actually spoke the words “It shall not release” or the equivalent, the get could still be delivered and effect a divorce.

Another divorce reform was also instituted “for the betterment of the world.” This was the requirement that a get include not only the names of the husband and wife, but all their aliases and nicknames, or else the blanket phrase “so-and-so and any other name that he/she has.” In Talmudic society there were no birth certificates or Social Security cards, and evidently it was common for there to be some fluidity in what people were called. For instance, the Gemara envisions a case where a man is known by one name in Eretz Yisrael and another name abroad. This might lead to a situation where a man could divorce his first wife in Judea under one name, and then divorce his second wife in the Galilee under a different name. How could each wife be sure that the get was referring to her husband and not someone else? It was, again, to avoid doubts about a woman’s marital status that Rabban Gamliel created the new rule.

The Talmud often introduces subjects unrelated to the main theme of the discussion, simply because of a verbal analogy or a shared rabbinic source. That is the case here, when we learn about another law introduced mi’pnei tikkun olam, which has nothing to with divorce. This is the prosbul, a key financial innovation introduced by the great Hillel. According to the Torah, debts among Jews are supposed to be wiped out every seventh year, during the Sabbatical Year when the land of Israel lies fallow. Already in Deuteronomy itself, there is an anxiety about the effect of this law: “Beware that there be not a base thought in your heart, saying: The seventh year, the year of release, is at hand, and your eye be evil against your needy brother, and you give him nothing.”

But this warning was not enough, since plainly it would make no sense to loan someone money just before the Sabbatical year, knowing it would never be repaid. To avoid this problem, Hillel introduced a legal instrument known as a prosbul (the word has disputed Greek origins). This was a way for a creditor to make over his claim to a court, whose power to collect it was not affected by the Sabbatical Year. The court could then seize the debtor’s property and return it to the creditor. The practical utility of such a device is obvious, and in the largest sense it was “for the sake of the betterment of the world”: An economy that was programmed to collapse every seven years was bad for everyone.

From a narrower point of view, however, the prosbul looks very much like a way to violate the purpose of the biblical law—the forgiveness of debts and the leveling of differences between rich and poor. Judaism is full of legal fictions; just remember the eruv, which uses nominal enclosures and token deposits of food to greatly increase the area a person can walk on Shabbat. But few of those fictions are so bold as the prosbul, and the rabbis themselves exhibit a great discomfort with it. “Come and hear that which Shmuel said: This prosbol is an ulbena of the judges; if my strength increases I will nullify it,” we read in Gittin 36b. An ulbena is a disgrace, an act of insolence, and Shmuel seems to be saying that he would do away with the prosbul altogether if he had the legal authority to do so. Here is an interesting test case for the power of tikkun olam: What happens when Torah itself seems inimical to the good ordering of society? Even the rabbis couldn’t fully resolve that dilemma.


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Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.