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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
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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."

About The Author

Peter Byrne

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