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The Rabbi Who Would Save the World 

Michael Lerner has won many followers with his ideas for world peace. But if all he is preaching is the Golden Rule, why is he so controversial?

Wednesday, Mar 20 2002
After Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl was murdered last month in Pakistan, faculty at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism convened a panel of journalists to talk about the tragedy. Because Pearl was Jewish, the organizers invited Rabbi Michael Lerner, the head of the Beyt Tikkun synagogue in San Francisco and an internationally known Jewish theologian and peace activist, to open the discussion with the Kaddish, a prayer of mourning.

Lerner recited the centuries-old paean in Hebrew, then in English. The moment was moving and effective.

But Lerner wasn't finished. He pulled a prepared speech out of his pocket, and for the next five minutes he castigated the profession of journalism in general, and the Wall Street Journal in particular, as unethical lackeys of capitalism.

"Because Danny was a Jew, the terrorists did not see who he was as a human being. They saw an American, an imperialist Zionist serving The Wall Street Journal; [to his killers] he represented evil. The media ignores the realities of the global system of capital. [Journalists] make a moral choice when [they] select facts that highlight the concerns of the powerful and obscure the concerns of the powerless. [The] slavish media [are] a cause of cruelty."

The audience of professional journalists and students stared incredulously at Lerner as he finished and sat down. Panelist Peter Waldman, an editor who had worked with Pearl at the Journal, rose to defend his slain comrade: "I want to celebrate Danny's courage. He did not write the kind of articles that Michael Lerner is talking about. He had empathy and connection to his subjects and a commitment to exposing the truth and the plight of the downtrodden."

When the panel discussion later shifted to securing the safety of foreign correspondents, Lerner complained that the media has ignored the death threats he has received from Jews opposed to his frequent criticism of Israeli militarism. "Why not look at the media as an instrument of war and a legitimate target?" Lerner suggested. "Don't get me wrong -- I'm against violence."

After the program, the rabbi was filled with misgiving as he squeezed his large frame into a small chair in a campus cafe. "I shouldn't have gone to that," he muttered. "I want people to concentrate on my ideas, not my personality."

Lerner's ideas and personality, however, are impossible to separate. His ideas -- his life's work -- are focused on nothing less than bringing peace to the world and ending all human suffering. Yet in spite of those noble goals, Lerner is a controversial figure, in large part due to his personality.

The rabbi's performance at Berkeley was Lerner in a nutshell: It displayed, at once, his passionate -- perhaps compulsive -- need to express his thoughts, his penchant for contrariness, and his knack for drawing attention to himself.

Those qualities have made Lerner a lightning rod for controversy, but they have also established him as a legitimate "progressive" voice -- as a renowned Jewish intellectual, the author of several popular books, a former confidant of President Bill Clinton, the editor of a prestigious national magazine, a player in the Middle East peace movement, and, if he gets his way, the leader of a new political party based on spirituality.

To his supporters, Lerner is a visionary and a prophet, a learned and loving man with important ideas for establishing world peace.

To his detractors, he is a radical misfit, a New Age flake, a hopeless idealist, and/or an egotist whose "spiritual movement" is mostly a vehicle for self-promotion.

Neither supporters nor detractors would argue his reputation as a radical thinker: He is a Jewish rabbi who criticizes Israel and sympathizes with Palestinians, a respected intellectual who speaks at New Age conventions, and a religious leader with a political agenda that includes redistributing the world's wealth, dissolving national boundaries, and repairing the Earth's ecology.

To promote his notions, he has already created an influential magazine and a synagogue of followers, each fashioned in his own image. Now he is embarking on perhaps his most radical idea yet: establishing a new spiritual form of government -- a "love-ocracy," he calls it -- to run America.

Rabbi Lerner has a plan for bringing peace to the Middle East. It is based on his core philosophy of tikkun olam, or "healing and repairing the world."

When Lerner was 12 years old, he became a disciple of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a civil rights activist who founded the American "Jewish Renewal" movement, which is based on God's commandment that man must "love the stranger." According to Heschel's reading of the Torah, the Jewish Bible, after God and Moses led the Jewish people out of slavery in Egypt, he revealed to the freed slaves that their historical duty is to perform tikkun olam -- to transform and heal the world with the force of love. In short, says the Torah, people should not do to others what they would hate to have done to themselves.

On its surface, preaching the Golden Rule should not be especially controversial, but Lerner has made it so by translating it into demands for political and social change. By Lerner's interpretation of tikkun olam, for example, the Orthodox Jews who run the state of Israel are disobeying God -- and he has never been shy about saying so.

"Michael revels in radicalism," says Stephen S. Pearce, the senior rabbi at Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco. "He is in your face, he's the odd man out, he's created a cult of the personality around himself, his opinions push to the margin, he is extraordinarily well educated, he deserves to be a rabbi, he is a thoughtful, lovely man. Many people feel, however, that his approach to peace is misguided, that it does not provide sufficient protection for Israel against the Palestinians."

Lerner has long condemned Israel's policy of seizing Palestinian land through settlement and punishing innocent Palestinians for the sins of suicide bombers. ("Israel has become Pharaoh," says Lerner.) And he has frequently expressed empathy for the Palestinian cause.

"There is legitimate opposition around the world to Zionism," Lerner recently told a roomful of people at a Jewish recreation center. "We jumped out of the burning charnel houses of Europe and landed on the backs of the Palestinians. We must teach both sides to tell the story of the other side."

According to Lerner's peace plan:

- Israel must end its military occupation of Palestine in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and withdraw to the borders that preceded the Six-Day War in 1967.

- Israel should evacuate most of its settlements inside Palestinian territory.

- The Palestinian state will have no offensive weapons; it will remain demilitarized for 50 years; Israel may occupy a military buffer zone to enforce demilitarization.

- Jerusalem will be the shared capital of both states.

As a psychologist, Lerner attributes the cause of violence begetting violence to people's "pathological" compulsion to endlessly recycle childhood anger rooted in the fear of parental abandonment. He believes the Israelis will not be the first to break away from the region's cycle of murder, since they are much stronger ("Thanks to decades of military support from the United States") than the Palestinians.

"Palestinians have to be the first to practice nonviolence," Lerner says. "That means no rock-throwing, too. Even if the Israelis attack Palestinians that are practicing nonviolence, the Palestinians must win the hearts of the Israeli public by not fighting back."

Lerner says that if U.S.-based activists convince our government to boycott Israel until it withdraws to pre-1967 borders, peace will flood the Middle East.

The spectacle of a rabbi criticizing Israel and sympathizing with the Palestinians has made Lerner an object of contempt among many Jews. He has been targeted with e-mails from extremists expressing sentiments such as "You subhuman leftist animals. You should all be exterminated" and "I will do everything in my power to STOP your attempt at spreading Judaephobia and Anti-Zionism."

At the suggestion of police detectives, Lerner installed an alarm system in his house high in the Berkeley hills. He also asked for the help of the Anti-Defamation League, which investigates hate crimes against Jews. The ADL not only refused, it wrote letters published in the New York Times and Los Angeles Times complaining that, "while [Lerner] purports to endorse 'nonviolence,' his [writing] is a thinly veiled attack on Israel and its governments (past and present)."

Lerner's iconoclastic views were on full display last month at the Osher Marin Jewish Community Center in San Rafael, where about 70 well-heeled people had come to hear him talk about his new book, Spirit Matters. One sensed that many in the audience attended out of pure curiosity.

After a rousing sing-along session, Lerner, who had just turned 59, took the microphone. The rabbi is a round and energetic man with a shock of unruly brown hair. He favors rumpled, dark suits and seems an unimposing figure until he begins to talk. He speaks in a passionate tenor with the practiced air of a popular entertainer, unsullied by hesitation or second thought as he empties his cornucopia of ideas.

Lerner began by describing his parents as Zionists; that is, supporters of establishing a Jewish homeland in Palestine. His father was a judge, his mother an aide to a U.S. senator from New Jersey. Famous Zionist leaders such as David Ben-Gurion and Abba Eban broke bread at the Lerner table, alongside politicians such as Adlai Stevenson and John F. Kennedy.

"My parents thought it was a waste of time to be a rabbi," he told the attentive audience. "They wanted me to be a politician."

He solved this defining dilemma by becoming ... both.

"The anthrax scare showed us that there is no protection in today's world, even for those with huge armies," Lerner continued. "I myself get death threats from Jews; if they hate you they will find a way. The only solution is to build a world in which there is no motivation for people to hate us."

Lerner wants to redistribute the world's wealth. This is justified, he says, because 3 billion people make only a dollar or two a day and live in misery.

"On 9/11, 3,000 Americans died, but 30,000 Third World children also died on 9/11 from diseases related to malnutrition. We should use our $1.4 trillion tax cut to rebuild the infrastructure of the Third World. The U.S. blocks the treaty to end global scorching. We must champion ecological sanity. We must become known as embodying the ethos of generosity and compassion, not materialism."

In answer to a question from the audience, which had responded with lukewarm applause to his foreign policy suggestions, Lerner said that, ultimately, he does not believe the state of Israel should exist. "I want to eliminate all armies and all national borders; although, of course, Israel cannot be the first country to do this. It should be in the first 20 percent, though, after the United States, Japan, Russia, France, Britain, and Brazil."

He answered a question about the realistic possibility of creating the utopian world he envisions: "Being called a utopian is not a put-down, it's a compliment. Realism is idolatry; utopians believe in the possibility of the possibility of God, in the possibility of a society based on love."

Lerner said he believes in the eventual coming of a messiah ("Though she may tarry"), but, until then, he will settle for creating a political Spiritual Party. That task is made more difficult because he and other idealists are seen by the "cynical" media as "kooks," due to the fact, he said, that most reporters are fallen idealists themselves.

"I am here tonight to find the few people who want to do this thing," he concluded, trading his yarmulke for a cowboy hat and signing copies of his book for purchasers.

Lerner has been successful in finding converts to tikkun olam -- provided they do it on his terms, which means agreeing with his ideas. He typically sets up organizations that are, by their very nature, dependent on him for leadership.

The tiny offices of Tikkun magazine on Van Ness Avenue in San Francisco are crammed with copies of his books and back issues of the national magazine, now in its 16th year. Tikkun has about 10,000 subscribers and twice as many readers. It is influential beyond its relatively small size because its readers tend to be influential people inside academia, the media, and the federal government. During the last 15 years, Tikkun has printed hundreds of provocative articles on culture, politics, and society written by well-known intellectuals, ranging from feminist novelist-poet Marge Piercy to sociologist Jonathan Kozol and from playwright David Mamet to Harvard professor Cornel West. The March/April issue contains a feature on "Prayer as a Rebellion," an article on the roots of feminism as seen in ancient scrolls, a long poem on bullets and God, film reviews, and an editorial by Lerner calling for a new political movement based on a "New Bottom Line of love and caring."

Lerner oversees the acquisition of the magazine's content, though a senior editor edits the articles. Dissenting views are allowed in the pages of Tikkun, but its tone -- and its overall operation -- is controlled by the rabbi. Tikkun contributors do not necessarily share Lerner's approach to tikkun olam. Piercy, who was poetry editor of Tikkun for many years, tactfully distances herself from Lerner's social movement. "In a larger sense, everyone involved in ecological activities is engaged in tikkun olam," says Piercy.

There are, however, hard-core Lernerites. "This is a religious movement encompassing very religious people," says Deborah Kory, the managing editor of Tikkun. The Harvard-educated, 28-year-old Kory was drawn into Lerner's orbit by his scholasticism, his stance on the Middle East, and his synthesis of psychology, politics, and theology.

"The movement is entirely dependent on Michael because, right now, nobody else is speaking as articulately," Kory observes. "Michael is absolutely brilliant." She does not attend his religious services ("I see God in my personal relationships," she comments), but she is very committed to Tikkun's work to "get Israel the hell out of the occupied territories."

Like other young people who have passed through the Tikkun office over the years, Kory has had her struggles with Lerner's authoritarianism. "I am tough and scrappy. I demand respect from Michael. He knows he needs whole people," she explains. On the other hand, Megan McCarthy, who worked for nearly a year as an editorial assistant at Tikkun in 1998 and is now a doctoral student in clinical psychology at UCB, does not mince words. Lerner does not live up to the spiritual principles he preaches, she says, and is not interested in the free exchange of ideas. "He is the opposite of the benign, absent-minded intellectual. He is paranoid and a hypocrite," McCarthy says, still furious at being treated as "dispensable" by the editor.

Lerner admits that, like most humans, he is afflicted with character flaws. "Sometimes I say or do things in anger that I regret." He wrote in his 1994 book Jewish Renewal: A Path to Healing and Transformation that followers should recognize that leaders may "have selfish motives, ego needs, and at times are petty, self-aggrandizing, insensitive to others." He speaks of himself as a "wounded healer." He declined to psychoanalyze himself for this story, but it is clear that the institutions he controls act as a sort of buffer, keeping away those who would challenge his authority. This is a reaction to bitter experience.

While getting his doctorate in philosophy at Berkeley during the politically roiling 1960s, Lerner was a leader of Students for a Democratic Society, an anti-Vietnam War organization that fractured into warring splinter groups. In 1968, Lerner was indicted for "intending to incite a riot" in Seattle; he did time in Terminal Island Penitentiary for contempt of court. (The original riot charges were eventually dropped.) As the revolutionary fervor of the '60s abated, Lerner and a friend founded the Graduate School of Psychology at New College in San Francisco. Working as psychotherapists, they determined that the main mental stressor in the lives of middle-class people is not lack of money but lack of spiritual meaning and purpose. Appalled by the growing influence of right-wing Christian fundamentalist groups, such as the Moral Majority, Lerner coined the slogan "politics of meaning" to inject a dose of spirituality into the secular arena of leftist politics.

In 1986, Lerner and his then-wife, Longs Drugstore heiress Nan Fink, founded Tikkun magazine, which attracted attention by harshly criticizing Israel's treatment of the Palestinians. Tikkun drew tens of thousands of liberal-minded readers, including the governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton, who periodically sought Lerner's counsel. When Hillary Clinton referred positively to Lerner's politics of meaning in a 1993 speech about universal health care, the magazine editor was attacked as a New Age "guru" by the establishment media, including the New York Times Sunday Magazine, the New Republic, and the Wall Street Journal. The First Couple quickly dropped their association with Lerner.

Lerner was ordained a rabbi in 1995 and soon thereafter wrote The Politics of Meaning, Restoring Hope and Possibility in an Age of Cynicism. In 1996, he founded the Beyt Tikkun synagogue, which now has a congregation of 120 families who have agreed that their "social and Jewish concerns will adhere to the positions articulated within [Jewish Renewal and The Politics of Meaning]."

Lerner is not an advocate of democracy in the organizations he leads. The "founding perspective" of his Beyt Tikkun ("House of Healing and Love") synagogue states: "People who have little knowledge, spiritual experience, or psychological sophistication sometimes use the democratic process to work out unresolved childhood issues. ... Some of the most talented leaders find themselves the targets of unwarranted suspicion and hostility. They often withdraw, leaving the democratic group under the control of the most psychologically needy people. ... What we intend to do is create a context in which Rabbi Lerner is given the real opportunity to lead, to teach, and to shape a spiritual reality. ... [Democracy] is not the practice or expectation of this community."

Lerner says that, in practice, he is the ultimate authority in his congregation only in spiritual matters; the members are allowed to decide nontheological questions.

"Some people thought I was authoritarian," Lerner says. "They wanted to buy pizza on Shabbat [the day of rest]. It is forbidden to use money on Shabbat. I said no. They left.

"I would be scared if Catholics, or people who are just dipping a toe into the [religious] water, could vote on what prayers to use; that would not be satisfying to me. I want a place for me to pray, where others can join."

It is a perfect-weather day on the Berkeley campus, a good place to recruit members for what Lerner calls the "vanguard." About 50 curious people -- students, housewives, nonprofit lawyers, fresh-faced peace activists, and gray-haired revolutionaries -- gather at the International House to hear Lerner lecture about politics, meaning, and Israel. Most of them say they came because they are appalled by the slaughter in the Middle East and want to "do something."

Lerner begins by voicing the meditation that he practices twice a day. Audience members close their eyes as the rabbi lets loose a stream-of-consciousness prayer that situates each person in the context of his brain, his body, the group, the neighborhood, the city, the country, the planet, the solar system, the universe, the mind of God. Then, for the next hour, the rabbi unhesitatingly renders an account of human history from the dawn of slave society to the dusk of our market-dominated world populated "by screwed-up people in pain."

Stacks of his book Spirit Matters and piles of Tikkun line the table behind Lerner, who passes around a sign-up sheet for contact information for those interested in learning more about the Spiritual Party.

"My movement is the next stage in the development of liberation consciousness; it includes and transcends the insights of Marxism, feminism, psychology, and science," says Lerner. "The left has been losing battles for the last 30 years because it does not address people's deeper level of need for liberal spiritualism. We need a whole new kind of politics, built on the recognition that we are all created in the image of God."

In January, Lerner sponsored a conference of 700 people in New York, which initiated the Tikkun Community, a kind of pre-Spiritual Party formation, with Lerner's ideology -- and Lerner himself -- in charge, according to the community's "founding principles." The organization's first national action is calling for a daylong fast on the first day of Passover, March 27, in solidarity with the 300 Israeli army reservists who are refusing to take up arms against the Palestinians.

The Spiritual Party is meant at least in part as an antidote to capitalism, which oppresses not only poor people but the middle class, Lerner says, by sucking spirituality out of work and play. His party will restore that spirituality by helping its members realize that one of the "obstacles to success is low self-esteem, the feeling that you do not deserve to win."

Make no bones about it, Lerner is attempting to create a social movement, led by his new party, that intends to impose its values on society if it achieves political power. It is not just a "spiritual" movement, it is a profoundly religious movement. For example, Lerner writes that as the movement grows, "it would use ... Jewish religious holidays as models for developing a set of secular celebrations and ritual observances that would become part of the social movement.

"It would reject all attempts to claim that material needs are more important than spiritual or ethical needs [emphasis in original]." Pooh-poohing centuries of scientific observation, Lerner says that the physical universe "is a story ... told by scientists, but increasingly, as we learn more, that story seems implausible." It turns out, says Lerner, that there really is no physical universe, there is only the universal mind of God.

Lerner has come a long way from Moses and Marx and Mao. Today, his hero is the New Age psychologist Ken Wilber, who, he says, has "proved" that secular political systems are simply a transitional stage in the development of the spiritually elevated world-state -- a "sacred political space."

Lerner eschews the word "theocracy" in describing his new social order. He says that since no one religion will run the state, it will not be a theocracy -- it will be a "love-ocracy" based on shared spiritual values.

Lerner does not go much beyond laying out the general principles that will guide the party into high office. It is not clear, for instance, if the Spiritual Party's power would be found through the ballot box or through some sort of spiritual-physical insurrection once the masses start seeing reality by Lerner's lamp. Joining the rabbi's revolution requires a leap of faith, since reason and logic and the human senses are insufficient. He gets upset at the suggestion that "loving the stranger" is in the rational self-interest of humans -- whether or not God exists. The bottom line, Lerner says, is that God exists because the universe must have a cause; rationality may be useful at problem solving, but not at explaining reality. Only a social movement powered by God's love can save us.

The first task of the Spiritual Party will be to pass a Corporate Responsibility Amendment to the U.S. Constitution requiring big businesses to file "ethical impact reports" every 20 years. In Spirit Matters, Lerner lists other activities the party will work on: taxing fossil fuel at a level reflecting the cost of pollution, encouraging socially responsible investing, certifying that products are prepared in an "ethically sensitive" way, and, most important, redistributing the world's wealth. First, of course, the party must gain political power.

"When the party runs someone for the presidency, I will study the life of Allende and buy a lot of insurance so that someone can benefit from my death," Lerner confides. "But, of course, I am not interested in running for president."

While the rabbi enjoys a high profile as a Jewish peace activist, he is not the only one. His friend Rabbi Arthur Waskow, who heads the Shalom Center in Philadelphia, began working for peace in 1969, after he witnessed the plight of Palestinian refugees penned up in concentration camps. Waskow sits on the editorial board of Tikkun. He is not interested, however, in joining his colleague's Spiritual Party.

"A Spiritual Party?" he laughs. "Taking a spiritual approach to politics and social action makes sense. But I am skeptical about crystallizing spirituality into a political party. There is a continuum from spirituality to religiosity. In Hebrew, spirituality is kavanah, which is intention, focus. Religiosity is keva, which is structure. When structure starts to dominate, spirituality begins to vanish and you lose a sense of wholeness.

"Michael is brilliant, passionate, perseverant -- a force of nature," says Waskow. "But when push comes to shove, he wants to be the touchstone of change. He is part of the symphony, but not the whole of it."

Marc D. Stern is the assistant executive director of the American Jewish Congress, an organization dedicated to protecting civil and religious rights. He is opposed to making religion, even the Jewish religion, the organizing principle for political or governmental life.

"It is not appropriate in a pluralistic democracy to contest public policy issues on spiritual or theological grounds," Stern says. "While there are moral justifications for redistributing wealth, for instance, actually doing it would undoubtedly require coercion and the restriction of some people's liberty.

"It's odd that a man of the left should want a religious political party," Stern says. "It wouldn't be any better than Pat Robertson and the Christian Coalition."

Lerner's approach to practicing tikkun olam is becoming increasingly New Agey as time goes by. The rabbi lives in a large, comfortable house in the Berkeley hills with a view of the bay. He opens it up regularly to congregants, who confer in rooms surrounded by shelves and shelves of religious and philosophical books, or hold religious services on the deck.

On a balmy Saturday morning in February, a dozen middle-aged, professional types gather on the deck of Lerner's house to study Exodus, the chapter of the Torah in which the Jews escape from Egypt and God chooses them to bear the burden of healing the world. Before getting down to the annotated texts, the members of the group close their eyes to sing Hebrew prayers. Some begin to dance with gusto in worship of God's creation. Periodically, Lerner turns toward the east, raises his arms, and exclaims, in gratitude for life itself: "The sun! The sun! The sun!" As the warm rays bathe his upraised face, he seems, for a moment, to be standing at the exact center of the universe.

About The Author

Peter Byrne


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