The Tikkun Olam of Rabbi Hillel
I. This piece is a parochial look at a universal question. It offers an approach that would not, I think, presume to claim it is the only—or even the best—approach to that question. But it’s an old—and, I think, wise—voice that deserves to enter our conversation. But before addressing inequality, a brief discussion of obligation is in order. It is one of—perhaps the—core concept in “Jewish” visions of society.
Freedom, from this perspective, is not a freedom from constraints or for certain things or goods—it is, rather, a freedom in order to fulfill certain obligations. Rights—which in this view are essentially the presupposed obligation not to violate the ability of another’s in order to—flow from obligations. Obligation is a—the?—central mediating concept. But what do I mean by “obligation” in this Jewish sense?
The Bible obligates us toward one another in terms of love: Love the neighbor and the stranger as yourself. And one is also obligated negatively, in terms of the spiteful: “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your kinfolk.” Or, in the formulation of Hillel: “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow man.” We can understand this as a two-fold nature of love: in the latter, an absence of doing harm; in the former, an active doing-good, through hospitality, through welcoming, through feeding, through clothing, and through the radical egalitarianism of the Mosaic economic system.
As far as the Bible, or Written Torah, is concerned there is no limiting principle that says a suffering stranger seen on TV has anything less than an equal claim to my aid. One is obligated toward all. 
But: this is not a system that can be practiced. It requires a mediating principle, as the Rabbis of the Talmud recognized. They organized a hierarchy of charity based primarily on proximity. Whatever one thinks of their order, it cannot be denied that they enable charity to move from an abstract, impossible fulfillment to a positive act of love that can be practiced with regularity. They recognized, as Levinas put it, that “My neighbours are also my Others.” While, in theory, one is obligated, in love, toward all equally (God loves all equally), in practice, one is obligated toward all differently, on the basis of proximity and ability. God loves all equally, but all uniquely.
II. Nonetheless, the Bible clearly and definitively demands a radically egalitarian economic system. One must leave the corners of fields unharvested: the farmer himself has no rights to these fruits. They belong properly to the widow, the orphan, the indigent, and the wandering stranger. Even animals and the land have Sabbath rights. Charging interest is forbidden. Every seventh year, all debts are cancelled. Every fifty years, land title reverts to the original property holder under the Mosaic code—economic dynasties, that is, are effectively prohibited.
But these laws led to turmoil. Commerce was mediocre. Economic development stagnated. And—worst of all, from the standpoint of the Rabbis—no one offered aid or charity to the poor. The wealthy read the code and understood it as saying that it was better not to care at all about the poor than to lose the money that they would otherwise loan them. Rather than creating the radically egalitarian society it commanded, the law, in practice, led to a callous, careless, pitiless country.
This dilemma, as Hillel Halkin notes in an essay mine to which mine owes a great debt, led to the first Talmudic use of the phrase tikkun olam. Commonly translated as “repairing the world,” the words are, today, strongly associated with calls to social justice (and environmental reform) among politically-active liberal Jewry. But in Tractate Gittin 36a of the Babylonian Talmud, we read that the same Hillel of Golden-Rule fame, “saw that people were unwilling to lend money to one another and disregarded the precept laid down in the Torah, Beware that there he not a base thought in thine heart saying [Deut. 15:9]. He therefore decided to institute the prosbul [prohibiting the cancellation of debts].”
Hillel, the Talmud informs us, “enacted a prosbul for the sake of tikkun olam.” He cancels the cancellation of debts for the sake of the poor, for the sake of salvaging something of the economic order. His prooftext is, in fact, part of the Biblical command to cancel debts: it is the negative half. The positive had become impossible—or, worse yet, backfired—and so, to preserve the negative aspect of the command, he was forced to limit the radical egalitarianism it called for. In practice, Hillel’s prosbul recognizes that a certain degree of inequality must be tolerated, however grudgingly, in order to preserve society—and to preserve charity and love. His tikkun olam is pragmatic, piecemeal, and realistic; only idealistic insofar as it has one eye on the Messiah. By striving too much, too quickly for economic egalitarianism, the law had caused the people to forget the true nature of their obligations. And, if obligation is taken as the mitigating principle, we can say that the obligation at the core of the economic order was not its egalitarianism, but to alleviate the suffering of those with less.
Hillel’s prosbul limited the nature of the economic regime, but it did not limit the obligations due from one to another. These, as a Galilean would put it a few years later, by neither a tittle nor a jot.
III. What might this mean for the question of practical inequality today? Hillel’s prosbul, as the origin of the concept of tikkun olam points toward something closer to a dispositional approach to alleviating consequences of inequality than the agenda of social justice, or any other specific political program. The Talmud’s does not view inequality as necessary but does, I think we can say, view it as inevitable. The laws, after all, had presupposed (and still do) a society in which inequality exists and continues to require alleviation.
Consider the reversion of property titles in Jubilee years. Such a reversion acts as an impediment to massive property accumulation, but does not serve to re-establish society in a primordial economic harmony. Such a time never existed; the initial, tribal division of lands to which this refer was not, in a strict sense, equal. Moreover, as we know, the resource wealth and value of a plot of land changes over time; even if cared for properly, with time, different resources are valued differently. Inequality, it says, is inherently arbitrary.
Even the seemingly radical Mosaic code strives not to eliminate economic inequality, but to contain and alleviate it. This point cannot be stressed enough. Arbitrary inequality may well be the “natural” state of things—but as Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik passionately argues in The Emergence of Ethical Man, Judaism does not view the natural as the end. Is must be brought into line with Ought; even natural inequality must be infused, in its own (strange) way with holiness. It must be contained, its negative consequences alleviated, and those who suffer under it met as equals in individual humanity.
What the Talmud adds to this policy of containment is the clear recognition that not all ways of alleviating suffering caused by inequality may or will work in all times and places. It is this non-ideological skepticism that leads me to draw in Conor’s concept of the dispositional. Tikkun olam, thus understood, suggests not a seeking out of the way to eliminate inequality, but an open-minded and open-handed seeking of whatever way will work to alleviate it. It looks with sympathy but sincere skepticism at projects that are too long, that would do too much too fast, that would chide the Messiah for tarrying. And it would look with equal skepticism, and I daresay less sympathy, on any system that downplays the consequences of economic inequality to those who, individually, suffer. From this perspective, there is little daylight on the question of economics between Ayn Rand and the Soviet Union she fled.
But understanding inequality, like all inter-human matters, as a question of obligation allows us something of a path forward. The Torah, both Oral and Written, treat the alleviation of inequality as a matter of individuals obligated, individually, toward one another. Whatever the communal response is, it does not abrogate the individual obligation to individuals in need. This, perhaps, offers guidance. Whether one would err on the side of government or market, there is a need for activity separate and distinct from that response—activity on the individual, the local, and the sub-communal. In these small groups and small loyalties, one might find some of the necessary flexibility, particularity, and recognition of individuality. This in addition to whatever the political response is or is not.
IV. A closing note—and I promise brevity. The haftarah reading on Yom Kippur is, as a former rabbi would say, famous to those who know it. Isaiah castigates Israel for its insincere fasting, asserting that God does not desire sack-cloth, ashes, and hunger. The prophet declares:
No, this is the fast I desire:To unlock the fetters of wickedness,And untie the cords of the yokeTo let the oppressed go free;To break off every yoke.It is to share your bread with the hungry,And to take the wretched poor into your home;When you see the naked, to clothe him,And not to ignore your own kin. [Is. 58.6-7]
We can’t be so lax as to read the prerogatives of social justice into the agenda of rabbis who lived and died well before the term had any possible meaning. This is not to deny the radicalism of the prophets or to ignore the importance of their voice. But I have trouble reading it as a kind of “counter-voice” inserted into the Yom Kippur liturgy, quietly trying to challenge the validity of the practice. Read in its context—in the middle of the Day of Atonement, when all vows have been abrogated and every individual stands (presumably) momentarily clean of sin and imitating the angels by dressing in white and forsaking food, sex, and bathing—the haftarah is the reminder of an obligation and a debt that have not been abrogated. The reminder that, when all our other obligations have been suspended, our individual obligation—in love—toward the other individual still remains.
The political response to inequality does not fulfill what is required of the individuals that make up a community. Our obligations still remain.
 For pre-modern arithmetic as prooftext, see the Sotah 37a-37b; for a post-modern calculus/gloss on the rabbinical math, see Emmanuel Levinas, “The Pact,” in Beyond the Verse.