Q&A: Rabbi Michael Lerner

Rabbi Michael Lerner is editor of Tikkun magazine, rabbi of Beyt Tikkun synagogue in San Francisco and Berkeley, Calif., and chair of the interfaith (and atheist-welcoming) Network of Spiritual Progressives (NSP). He is the author of 11 books, including two national bestsellers: Jewish Renewal and The Left Hand of God: Taking Back our Country from the Religious Right, as well as his most recent work, Embracing Israel/Palestine. You can find out more about the Network of Spiritual Progressives at Tikkun.org.

LernerYour recent book, Embracing Israel/Palestine is about helping to foster discussion and bring peace to the conflict in the Middle East. How did you decide to take on this topic, and what are some of the risks involved? Have you been surprised by the reception?

The greatest opportunity, challenge, and—as it turns out—tragedy, of contemporary Judaism arises from Jews “returning to history” with our own state. The tragedy is that this opportunity came to us only as compensation for the monumental trauma created by 1700 years of persecution, which culminated in the mass extermination of a third of the Jewish population during the Holocaust. That trauma, and the failure of most countries of the world to open their gates to Jewish refugees seeking to escape from Nazi-dominated Europe, left an indelible impression on Jewish consciousness.
Many believe that non-Jews hate us and will always hate us, that we cannot trust them and can only rely on our own strength, which will be manifested in the State of Israel.

I have great compassion for my people and its trauma, but I also believe that seeing the world through the framework of that trauma, and acting it out in particular on the Palestinian people, has created a tragic paradox. The State of Israel, insisting on its Jewishness, has embraced what I call “Settler Judaism,” rather than the message of compassion summed up by the Torah commandment, “Thou shalt love the Other (the stranger).” This is the central theme of what I call Renewal Judaism or “An Emancipatory Judaism of Love.” These two interpretations of Judaism are in struggle today, and it is Settler Judaism that is winning. In my latest book, I seek to revive the Emancipatory Judaism of Love by telling the story of Israel and the Palestinians from 1880 to the present moment in a way that highlights the legitimate narrative on both sides. I show that both sides have been cruel and insensitive to the other and have co-created the current mess. Plus I show how embracing a Judaism of Love is the best way to end that struggle.

Friends Journal recently helped sponsor the Heschel-King Festival, of which you were an instrumental part. Can you tell us a little bit about the focus of the festival and explain why you believe that celebrating the lives of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Martin Luther King Jr. helps us tackle some of the challenges of our time?

Abraham Joshua Heschel, the preeminent American Jewish theologian of the twentieth century and my mentor at the Jewish Theological Seminary, and Martin Luther King Jr. are the two major American prophets whose messages are most instructive for the twenty-first century. King’s message of nonviolence teaches us that the most effective way for an oppressed and relatively powerless group to move forward is to mix any political challenge with a message of compassion toward the oppressor. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech electrified the country precisely because it painted a hopeful picture of reconciliation rather than guilt-tripping and revenge. Heschel’s message was that social action was a form of prayer. When he was asked questions about why a Jewish theologian would march arm-and-arm with Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, or why he was organizing against the war in Vietnam, he famously answered, “I’m praying with my feet.” Heschel also reminded social change activists that human beings hunger not only for material well-being, but for a connection to the spirit, or what I call “a need for meaning and purpose that transcends the individualism and selfishness ethos of the global capitalist marketplace.” In that spirit, we at the interfaith and atheist-welcoming Network of Spiritual Progressives (NSP) have called for a new bottom line: every institution, corporation, government policy, law, and behavior should be judged rational or productive not only to the extent that it maximizes money or power (the old bottom line) but also to the extent that it maximizes love and caring for others, in addition to ethical and ecological sensitivity, and compassion and generosity. The new bottom line would enhance our capacity to see every other human being as an embodiment of the sacred, as well as enhance our capacity to respond to the world around us with awe, wonder, and radical amazement at the grandeur and mystery of the universe. The NSP is our attempt to build a transformative social change movement in the spirit of King and Heschel.

When you published your bestseller The Left Hand of God in 2006, you talked about the problem of fear that plagued American society and elevated greed, selfishness, and materialism rather than peace and generosity. You explained that it was important for
the left to encompass a spiritual vision to face some of these challenges. What, if anything, do you believe has changed with the election (and reelection) of President Obama?

Many of Obama’s actions have contributed to massive disillusionment among his supporters and the recapture of the House of Representatives by Republicans in 2010: his capitulation to the interests of Wall Street and the big banks in 2009, his failure to bail out millions of people who were losing their homes because of dishonest mortgage practices, his escalation of the war in Afghanistan, his deeply flawed healthcare plan that forces tens of millions of people to buy health insurance but puts no serious restrictions on prices the insurance companies can charge, his vigorous prosecution of marijuana possession while failing to prosecute any of the people responsible for the use of torture, his failure to articulate any unifying theme for his presidency, and his conflict-averse personality which led to frequent capitulations to the Right even though they had lost the 2008 election. His reelection in 2012 had little to do with enthusiasm for his policies, but a lot to do with the even greater fear of the Right, facilitated by Mitt Romney’s acquiescence to the extremists of his own party.

The reelection of Obama and the ability of the Democrats to increase their hold on the Senate gave momentary cheer to most liberals and progressives, and his inaugural speech—while still failing to articulate a visionary alternative to the ethos of selfishness and materialism that dominates the public sphere—did at least acknowledge the laundry list of interests that are held by the wide variety of people who vote Democratic. It remains to be seen if Obama has the backbone to stick with some larger ideals and fight for them, even be willing to lose and make them issues in 2014 election, rather than fall back into deeply flawed compromises. But one thing is clear: Obama has little desire to shake up the powerful and to champion the powerless in a way that might cut through the political rhetoric about “big government” and reach into the hearts and minds of spiritual people to urge them to bring their spiritual values into the struggle. He hasn’t articulated anything close to what we at the Network of Spiritual Progressives seek—a society
that cares for one another as well as our planet. It is his failure to articulate a vision for a society based on religious and spiritual principles—not the principles of the Constitution, but the principles of the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, the Koran, the teachings of Buddha, and the accumulated spiritual wisdom of the human race—that will limit his accomplishments.

In recent years, perhaps as a reaction to the Religious Right, there has been a lot of attention paid in the media to the rising numbers of atheists in our country. Last fall, for instance, The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life released the results of an extensive survey which found that 28 percent of adults have left the religion they grew up in, and a growing number of people now say they are not affiliated with any religion at all. As the chair of the Network of Spiritual Progressives, how do you respond to this kind of information? Do you think many people in our country are suffering a spiritual crisis or crisis of faith? 

As long as the religious communities fail to embody love, generosity, ethical and ecological sensitivity, awe and wonder at the grandeur and mystery of the universe, their teachings will feel stale (if not destructive), and they will lose more support. Our Network of Spiritual Progressives is welcoming to atheists, because we believe that it may be those who’ve rejected the “god” they were introduced to in their spiritually dead religious communities who are actually most open to serving the God of the universe, even if they don’t want to articulate their service in theological language. If more people learn of the NSP and become active with us, we will be able to provide a home for religious as well as “spiritual but not religious” people and bring them together to serve the God of the Universe, no matter what name of God or religious tradition they have previously known. We are not a new religion, but only a force to revitalize all religions and all spiritual traditions, however alienated they might be from “religion.”

Your magazine, Tikkun (which for those who don’t know, means “to mend, repair, and transform the world”), deals in an interfaith way with politics, spirituality, and culture. As editor, what have you learned in the past few years about how our spirituality informs our politics, and vice versa?

Our spirituality has been exiled from the public sphere, leaving us with a public life that conceptualizes human needs in narrow and mechanistic ways. The liberal pollsters of the Democratic Party proclaim, “It’s the economy, stupid!” as a way of explaining all voting behavior. But that leads liberals and progressives to “explain” the voting of 48 percent of the voters by dismissing them as either racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, or just plain stupid, because when they vote for Republicans, they are voting against their own economic interests. This, in turn, infuriates Republican voters, who respond to the Right’s claim that the people on the Left are elitist. Though Republicans serve the economic interests of the corporate elite and the most wealthy, the Left keeps getting stuck with this epithet of being “elitist” because they don’t understand that many who vote Republican do so because the Right seems to at least acknowledge the spiritual crisis in American society. It’s only when people on the Left can articulate a spiritually progressive alternative that we will begin to overcome some of the anger the Left has generated when they say spiritual and religious concerns “have no legitimate place in public discourse.”

What is next on the horizon for you? Are there developing concerns that you hope to begin working on in the near future?

I’m most interested in the three priorities of the Network of Spiritual Progressives.

First, we would get money out of politics and establish corporate environmental responsibility. Our vehicle is the Environmental and Social Responsibility Amendment (ESRA) to the U.S. Constitution, which would not only overturn the Citizens United Supreme Court decision, but also require full public funding of all national and statewide elections. It would ban individual, corporate, or any other source of private money in the funding of elections, mandating free and equal time for all major candidates from all major media. It would require every corporation with income over $100 million to get a new corporate charter once every five years and prove a satisfactory history of environmental and social responsibility to a jury of ordinary citizens. It would also require teaching skills at every grade level—from kindergarten through college, graduate school, and professional schools—on how to save the environment (including skills on how to care for our social environment: love, caring for others, nonviolence and nonviolent communication). Second, we would mount a public campaign to challenge the notion that homeland security can be achieved through domination of others. Instead, the best path to homeland security is through a strategy of generosity embodied in our proposed Global Marshall Plan. Third, we would campaign for a reconciliation of the heart between Israelis and Palestinians, and our call for having the Middle East be the first location for starting the Global Marshall Plan. Please read my book Embracing Israel/Palestine to get a fuller sense of a strategy that is both practical and psychologically and spiritually alive.

I’m hoping and praying that many Quakers will become dues-paying members of the Network of Spiritual Progressives, bring into our community the rich spiritual wisdom of the Quaker tradition, and help move forward on at least one of these fronts!

Jana Llewellyn and Jane Heil

Rabbi Lerner welcomes personal contact from those interested in getting involved with the Network of Spiritual Progressives at [email protected]

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