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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.

About The Author

Peter Byrne


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