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Rabbi Michael Lerner: A Quarter Century Devoted to Repairing the World
Political activist

Rabbi Michael Lerner: A Quarter Century Devoted to Repairing the World

Political activist

Political activist, editor of Tikkun – the progressive Jewish interfaith magazine based in Berkeley, California – and rabbi of Beyt Tikkun Synagogue of San Francisco, Michael Lerner spoke with Truthout’s Leslie Thatcher in advance of Tikkun’s upcoming celebration of its 25th anniversary on March 14 in Berkeley.

Leslie Thatcher for Truthout: Rabbi Lerner, how would you say Tikkun has evolved over the last 25 years, and what do you consider its most outstanding achievements?

Rabbi Michael Lerner: First of all, I should say that Tikkun was formed as the voice of liberal and progressive Jews and as a counterbalance and alternative to the then-emerging neoconservative commentary, but over the course of the last 25 years, we have also become the primary – or a primary – voice for liberal or spiritual progressives – those whom we call spiritual, but who are not necessarily religious people and share with us the idea that we need a new bottom line, an alternative set of values to the efficient, the rational, the productive, who share the idea that instead of maximizing power and money, we as a society and as individuals need to maximize love and caring, kindness and generosity, to forge an ethical response to other human beings as embodiments of the sacred, to nurture our awe at all being. Spiritual progressives may include people who are atheists or agnostics, but who share that view with us. Tikkun has become the place for spiritual progressives to challenge the ethos of global capitalism. The Network of Spiritual Progressives endorses a covenant with America to that effect.

Tikkun has evolved from being a Jewish magazine to becoming a voice for many – including those who are spiritual, but not religious, progressives. This has been its major evolution as we’ve gotten clearer and clearer about the need for this new bottom line I’ve been talking about that will require an alliance between spiritual or religious progressives, as well as secular progressives.

Our greatest achievement has been to legitimate – in the Jewish world and increasingly in liberal and progressive circles – the idea that there should be a middle path that involves support for both Israel and Palestine and critique of both Israel and Palestine. That critique must include the way both peoples are responsible for the current mess, at the same time recognizing the vast disproportion in power and Israel’s consequent preponderant responsibility to create a politically and economically viable Palestinian state.

This position has earned Tikkun a reputation in the Jewish world establishment as self-hating, etcetera, even though we support the existence of the state of Israel and see this as the best way for Israel to embody its own values.

Some sectors of the left see us as apologists for Israel.

Increasing numbers of young Jews now accept the worldview we’ve put forth in Tikkun, although it still is rejected by the Jewish establishment.

Most of the people who have created J Street, the pro-Israel, pro-peace lobby in DC, have come to their views partly by reading Tikkun, as have many other Jews now active in challenging Israeli policy.

I may as well also tell you our biggest failure: we have been unable to break down the religiophobia that exists in much of the left culture of the USA, a culture that too often assumes that if you are religious or spiritual, you are either a New Age flake, psychologically undeveloped or intellectually unsophisticated.

Tikkun came out of a major empirical study I had done of the psychodynamics of US society, partly funded by the National Institute of Health (NIH). We had studied over 10,000 working people, trying to understand why they had moved to the right politically, even though their material interests were better served on the left. The left assumed stupidity, racism, other prejudices. Now, middle-income people may not be very intellectually sophisticated, but they are very aware of when they are being condescended to.

The left had no vocabulary, no way of understanding why people were not voting for their material self-interest. It consistently fails to recognize needs that are not material only: meaning needs, i.e. the need for a life that is embedded in meaning and purpose, a life that transcends the selfishness and material focus of the competitive marketplace.

We realized that if the left was to have any chance in the US, it would have to address these meaning needs, not just dismiss people as racist, stupid or homophobic. Yet the left, for the most part, continues to display disinterest and disdain towards people seeking higher meaning and purpose to their lives through religious or spiritual community.

We’ve been unable to penetrate the thick skulls of the left that in a country where 80 percent of the people say they believe in God, you can’t build a democratic majority when you have contempt for the views of the majority.

For example, Bill Maher is very funny, but the level of disrespect for the religious is demonstrated by taking the most extreme nutcases as exemplars of all religious people.

The left has given us no place in their circles.

That’s where we’ve failed: getting the left to understand the need for a new bottom line. Instead of being ashamed of the language of love, generosity and kindness that they feel makes them look weak or girlish, they need to adopt this language of meaning.

Many men on the left were ridiculed for caring for others in junior high school or elsewhere when they were growing up. They have to contend with this society’s dysfunctional model of masculinity, the idea that a real man is tough, powerful, dominant and controlling. If they’re for peace, social justice and equality, they feel they’re advocating for soft values and opening themselves up to the charge of being, in former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s memorable phrase, “girly men.”

So, afraid of looking weak, they then have to formulate everything in wonkish terms, but avoid value terms which they feel will make them look soft. On the right, however – because of their open lust for dominance – they have no fear of embracing the language of love, caring, kindness and generosity.

Men on the left end up being embarrassed by identifying with the language of the heart. We at Tikkun try to make that language, those terms of the heart, the center of a public discourse. We think that if it would formulate its platform in those terms, the left would be a major winner.

The five-second sound bite version of our goal would be, we’re “for the caring society and for caring for each other and for caring for the planet.”

How are Tikkun’s annual awards determined and who are the 2011 recipients?

Tikkun’s editorial board, about 40 people, consults and then puts out questions to activists in the Network of Spiritual Progressives, who nominate folks, while the Tikkun staff makes the final determinations on the awards. In the past, we’ve honored significant cultural innovators, writers, political activists, significant theorists, [the late senator] Paul Wellstone. The idea is to recognize people who best embody what Tikkun stands for.

Tikkun’s support for the Goldstone report resulted in an attack on your home last year. Granting this year’s Tikkun award to Judge Richard Goldstone – the author of UN reports on human rights abuses in Rwanda, Bosnia and, most controversially, Gaza – delivers a powerful statement of commitment to the views previously espoused about the Gaza report.

You know, Goldstone is also a supporter of Israel and also thinks what Israel is doing to the Palestinian people is terrible – as do we. We are obviously out of the mainstream, since Congress and the Obama administration denounced his report; Congress even passed a resolution asking the UN to ignore his report. Tikkun Magazine stands with him and thinks what he’s done is a great service to humanity as a whole and to the Jewish people in particular. The attack on Gaza was a tremendous injustice in the way it was done and a real violation of international law and human rights. Of course, this perspective has not endeared us to the Jewish establishment. We asked many Bay Area synagogues whether they would allow us to perform the award ceremony at their building and none would allow it – not even on a rental basis. And Beyt Tikkun is a synagogue without walls.

Tikkun was the first major institutional Jewish voice to condemn Israeli policies in the occupied territories: how would you differentiate Tikkun’s position from those of more recently formed organizations, Jewish Voice for Peace and J Street?

I don’t want to really do that: we see them both as sister organizations.

We provide the intellectual foundation.

Tikkun is not only about Israel/Palestine, but also about overcoming the ethos of global capitalism. Neither of those organizations is focused on this larger project, on the transformation of the entire world.

We see Israel as one small part of the problems facing the world. We support a global Marshall Plan.

What differentiates Tikkun from some pro-Israel/Palestine peace organizations is that we oppose Israeli policies, not only because they are destructive to Israel, but also because they violate a fundamental principle of Judaism, the intrinsic sanctity of each and every human being. We are all created in the divine image, b’zelem elohim.

We’re for Palestinian rights because they’re human beings.

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Many organizations think that if you raise the issue that way, you will be discredited in the Jewish world. You’re only discredited in the Jewish world by those who don’t take seriously one of the most fundamental teachings of our Torah, expressed over and over again in our holy book, “Thou shalt not oppress the stranger; remember that you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

At the opening of your book, “The Left Hand of God,” you write, “The unholy alliance of the political Right and the Religious Right … threatens to destroy the America we love. It also threatens to generate a popular revulsion against God and religion by identifying them with militarism, ecological irresponsibility, fundamentalist antagonism to science and rational thought, and insensitivity to the needs of the poor and the powerless.” Could not the exact same statement be applied to the state of Israel under its current government?

Yes, absolutely, but its current government is in the hands of nationalists, extremists and religious fundamentalists. It breaks my heart completely. I love Israel. I want Israel to be a symbol of what’s best in Judaism – not of its most distorted, hurtful part.

Do you believe that a “Jewish” democratic state may have become an oxymoron, as Peter Beinart, in his essential article last summer in The New York Review of Books, “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment,” speculates?

It’s definitely moving away from that right now. Israel can be a Jewish state and not give unequal rights to Jews. It can be a Jewish state by having its predominant culture be Jewish, just as in Italy the predominant culture is Catholic and in the US we have a national holiday on December 25. It can be Jewish in the weak sense of a society that gives Jewish culture a predominant place, but not in the strong sense of giving unequal rights to Jews.

How do you personally reconcile Zionism with equal rights for all citizens and the reality of the Israeli occupation, its systematic theft of land and disregard for civil liberties? How do you personally reconcile the concept of democracy with the special privileges enjoyed by the Haredi in Israel, the absence of a civil marriage option, subsidies to the yeshivot, exemption from military service, etcetera? Or, to rephrase former Israeli supreme court president Aharon Barak, “How do you properly work out the interrelationship between the Jewishness of the state and the fact that it is a state of all its citizens?

All the offenses you mention are real and atrocious and need to be fought against. I am also someone who believes in American democracy, but I don’t believe the actual practices in the US are what a real democracy would look like.

Tikkun and the Spiritual Progressives support the Environmental and Social Responsibility Amendment (ESRA) to the US Constitution, public funding for all candidates, free and equal media time for national elections. The ESRA also calls for corporate social responsibility such that every major corporation with over $100 million in revenue per annum – so, absolutely not your mom and pop businesses – would be required to get a new charter every five years and to prove to an impartial jury of ordinary citizens a history of satisfactory environmental and social responsibility. This would solve the problem of regulatory agency capture.

The ESRA would require environmental education.

My point here is that we at Tikkun and the Network of Spiritual Progressives challenge Israeli claims to be democratic, and we also challenge American claims to be democratic. The ESRA is one part of our campaign; activism around Israel – which can’t be democratic as long as you’re ruling over 2.5 million Palestinians with no voting rights – is another aspect of our campaign.

You are aware of the premise of Sari Nusseibeh’s new book, “What is a Palestinian State Worth?” Do you believe a two-state solution is still possible?

For the moment, I want to be agnostic on that question. I have a book due out in the fall, “Embracing Israel/Palestine,” that will try to come to a plausible scenario for peace. I don’t want to jump the gun here.

While most Jewish organizations in the US have reacted with fear and alarm to the democratic movements sweeping the Arab world, the Tikkun community has stated its solidarity with Egyptians’ aspirations. How do you explain the difference in perspective?

I was really delighted that my article expressing many Jews’ support around the world was put at the top of Al Jazeera’s web site because I want Arabs and Muslims to understand that there really are Jews around the world who see the well being of Arabs and Muslims as a good in itself. Of course, we’re going to be on the side of the liberation of those societies from repressive regimes. The central story of Jewish tradition is our liberation from Egypt; every Sabbath, we remember our own liberation; every Passover, we reenact it; our Torah is devoted to liberation.

How could we be committed to the continuation of repression?

That’s particularly our task as Jews: to continually assert that for every human being, there is a force in the universe that makes liberation in every way – political, social, psychological – possible.

Is what’s happening in the Arab world really liberation? We don’t know yet. Will that be the outcome of this struggle? It was not the outcome of the struggle in Iran, which produced a regime terribly repressive to its citizens. In the US, when we had our own revolution, there was still slavery and oppression of women. I don’t know the outcome, but I want to be on the side of the liberatory forces.

Hopefully, that liberatory force will not be one that attacks Israel. Nobody wants that. But one way for Israel to prevent that would be to end its occupation and stop the oppression of its Arab citizens.

How would you apply the “politics of meaning” to the events now taking place in Wisconsin and Indiana?

The assault on workers’ rights is a central part of the attempt by the Republican Party and others to destroy government. The main strategy of the wealth and power elites of our society is to destroy government so that governments won’t put constraints on their pillaging of society.

Traditionally, government has corrected for the worst effects of the capitalist order. I think we should replace the capitalist order, but the main political struggle now is to preserve government.

The present attempt to crush public sector workers – who have been among the most progressive and who have given the rest of the labor movement the sense that they can organize – is an attack on all Americans. I want to support those workers to the extent possible.

The labor movement in recent decades has not put itself forward as a voice for the interests for all Americans, and that is a whole other story: the fifteen years before starting Tikkun, I was a psycholinguist for the labor movement, but the movement abandoned the ethos of solidarity we now need to restore.

In 1995, you coauthored “Jews and Blacks: Let the Healing Begin” with Cornel West. What has happened to the once unbreakable bond that Jews and African-Americans had in the struggle for civil (human) rights during the 1960’s and 70’s? And how would the restoration of such a bond affect the Jewish and African-American Diasporas, individually and collectively? Who should initiate it, and what are some ways it can be nurtured and sustained?

What I can say is this: Objectively, there is an alliance between Jews and blacks that persists to this day. Jews voted 80 percent for Obama; they voted 70 percent for Democrats in 2010. Jews are the largest force, after blacks, supporting progressive politics. We’re in the same party and support the most progressive candidates of that party. If other groups voted the way Jews vote in this country, except on Israel, we’d have a democratic Congress.

So that alliance continues to exist objectively, but subjectively, it no longer exists because of the growing penetration into Jewish consciousness of capitalist values. Simultaneously, in the black world, there has been a race consciousness, a blaming of Jews rather than of capitalism.

And, in spite of this rift on the subjective level, on the ground, Jews and blacks work together on many political and issues-based campaigns.

Rabbi Lerner, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us.

You’re welcome. Would you also let your readers know that as of the second week of March, we’re launching Tikkun online. We’ll still have a quarterly print version, but for both generational and environmental – paper and trees – reasons, the new online magazine will launch at Also, people can still register for the Tikkun anniversary celebration. All are invited to join us and to meet Justice Richard Goldstone, Congressman Raul Grijalva, Sheikh Hamza Yusuf and our other honorees.