Finding Jewish Tikkun at Home

Jewish tikkun at home

Together with my girlfriend, I’ve been living for a little while now in the house in which I grew up. We’ve been cleaning it up, sorting through its contents, and trying to make it into an enjoyable habitat all at the same time. In the almost 200 years of its existence, the house has accumulated quite a number of items, despite the much larger amount that has already been discarded.

While rummaging through the current contents of the house, we’ve found a number of curious objects, from Tempscribes to speakeasy doors serving as walls. These things appear – depending on who looks at them – as historical, as sentimental, or as junk.

In between treasure hunts, I happened to come across, on the Wikipedia entry for Walter Benjamin on the Concept of History, Margaret Cohen’s definition of the Jewish concept of tikkun:

“According to the Kabbalah, God’s attributes were once held in vessels whose glass was contaminated by the presence of evil and these vessels had consequently shattered, disseminating their contents to the four corners of the earth. Tikkun was the process of collecting the scattered fragments in the hopes of once more piecing them together.”

Having been familiar with this Jewish term mostly in reference to the radical French journal Tiqqun, this idea of “collecting the scattered fragments in the hopes of once more piecing them together” resonated with me, especially because of the work we’ve been doing in the house.

Cohen applies this description to Benjamin’s Theses on the Philosophy of History, a short but dense essay written before his attempted escape from French collaborationists who likely would’ve handed him over to the Nazi Gestapo. After reading Cohen’s conception of Jewish tikkun, I decided to reread Benjamin’s essay, one that I had read straight through (or did I even finish it?) and barely comprehended the first time.

Rereading it, On the Concept of History (as it’s also known) retained its difficult blend of mysticism and theory. I had a slightly better grasp on it this time… but not by much. The essay consists of 20 numbered paragraphs, and this time one section stood out strongly for me.

Benjamin begins paragraph XI by criticizing the social democracy movement for putting all its faith in labor, progress, technology, and the intersection of all of these three. As a capstone to this belief, Benjamin cites one of the movement’s most influential philosophers, Joseph Dietzgen: “Labor is the savior of modern times… In the… improvement… of labor… consists the wealth, which can now finally fulfill what no redeemer could hitherto achieve.”

Continuing, Benjamin counters as follows:

“This vulgar-Marxist concept of what labor is, does not bother to ask the question of how its products affect workers, so long as these are no longer at their disposal. It wishes to perceive only the progression of the exploitation of nature, not the regression of society. It already bears the technocratic traces which would later be found in Fascism. Among these is a concept of nature which diverges in a worrisome manner from those in the socialist utopias of the Vormaerz period [pre-1848]. Labor, as it is henceforth conceived, is tantamount to the exploitation of nature, which is contrasted to the exploitation of the proletariat with naïve self-satisfaction.”

While the Jewish notion of tikkun as expressed by Margaret Cohen pleases me in an affirmative and romantic way (“Let’s go look for the fragments of God’s vessels in Grandpa’s chest in the basement!”), Benjamin’s critique shows me exactly what my romantic tikkun opposes: a blind faith in progress through technology and labor, at the expense of nature. Against the mass production of new junk for the forward-trudge of capitalism, return with me to the basement and I’ll look for some old gold to piece together and share.

Faced with a nearly empty living room upon arrival, we would have had to drive 186 miles to get to the closest IKEA, but the trip would have been pointless (and wasteful). We’ve since found a comfortable chair from the corner of my childhood bedroom, an old rocking chair from the attic, a ’70s-era green chair from the family cottage, and a wooden barrel, re-purposed as a drink-stand, from the garage.

Rather than supporting the labor and destruction of natural resources necessary for new furniture, we’ve put together a pleasantly livable, albeit mismatched, living room set from found resources. We’re not exactly piecing together God’s attributes from the four corners of the earth, but as much as we can, we are collecting bits of history – from the far corners of the house – and trying to put them to good use.

(Top image note and source: Grandma’s doll house kitchen, pixabay)
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About the Author

I like to write, make films, play and watch soccer, meditate, read, and wander. I also enjoy psychogeography, Filipino cinema, craft beer, and strawberry shortcake. You can find me on Twitter and Google +.