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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 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.

About The Author

Peter Byrne

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