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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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"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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