Rabbi Michael Lerner

michael-lernerRabbi Lerner, author of a national bestseller, The Left Hand of God: Taking Our Country Back from the Religious Right (Harper San Francisco, 2006) is not only rabbi of Beyt Tikkun but is also the editor of Tikkun.

Tikkun is one of the most respected intellectual/cultural magazines in the Jewish world, but also one of the most controversial because of its stand in favor of the rights of Palestinians, which on the one hand locates Lerner in the minds of many as the leader and most prominent spokesperson in the U.S. of Jewish supporters of the Israeli peace movement, and on the other hand, because of his stand critiquing the anti-religious and anti-spiritual biases of the secular Left, insisting that they need to address the spiritual hunger of Americans as equally important to their material needs (he calls this a hunger for “meaning” and says that for many Americans the desire to transcend the individualism and selfishness of the competitive marketplace and connect their lives to higher meaning is as important as any interest in money or things, and that one reason why people who might on purely economic grounds be supporting the liberal and progressive social change movements actually end up supporting the Right is that the Left doesn’t have a “politics of meaning”).

Rabbi Lerner’s book Jewish Renewal: A Path to Healing and Transformation (published by Putnam in 1994 in hardback, and by HarperCollins in paperback in 1995, was described by David Biale, the chair of Jewish Studies at University of California at Davis, as “A major contribution to modern Jewish thought, a contribution that is a challenge to intellectuals even as it is accessible to a broad general audience.” David Kraemer, professor of Talmud and Rabbinics at the Jewish Theological Seminary, said that this book is “a sophisticated and intellectually challenging reinterpretation of Jewish tradition. With a rigor that has rarely been equaled, Lerner shows what a liberal Jewish theology must be in the late 20th century. No one who cares about a committed ethical Judaism can afford to ignore this book.” Michael Paley, chaplain of Columbia University (at the time, and now director of Outreach for the UJA/Federation in New York) wrote that: “Michael Lerner is America’s preeminent liberal Jewish intellectual. Jewish Renewal is potentially one of the most important Jewish books of our times, an enduring contribution that could shape the Judaism of the twenty-first century.” And Susannah Heschel, chair of Jewish studies at Dartmouth, wrote: “At last, here is a book on Judaism that places feminist concerns at the center, not the margins, and that shows us the direction Jewish life and thought will take in the twenty-first century.” In reviewing Jewish Renewal in the journal Conservative Judaism, Rabbi Brad Artson (now dean of the University of Judaism rabbinical school) said the following: “One of the most fruitful and honest presentations of the challenge of Judaism that I can remember reading. Lerner’s theology of God is inspiration (a remarkable blend of innovative, traditional and passionate). Lerner’s approach to God is stunning, miraculous, and faith-renewing … Jewish Renewal integrates insights gleaned from modern physics and literary theory for one of the most insightful and inspiring contemplations I’ve ever seen … I can’t recall a book so chock-filled with fresh new Torah as this one…. If you read no other book this year, push yourself to read this one cover-to-cover … We are all in need of some healing wisdom. There is no better place to turn than this remarkably sensitive, complex, and deeply insightful book.”

One of the most significant comments about this book came from outside of the Jewish world, from Harvey Cox, professor of divinity at Harvard University. “As a Christian theologian, I rejoice in this vibrant and intelligent new voice of prophetic Judaism. It will appeal not only to those of Lerner’s own faith community, but to all people of faith and to many who have given up on any faith at all. This splendid and readable book will take its place in the great tradition of the works of Martin Buber and Abraham Joshua Heschel.”

Rabbi Lerner was a student and disciple of Abraham Joshua Heschel as a teenager, and it was Heschel’s vision that shaped Lerner’s understanding of Jewish life. As an undergraduate at Columbia, Lerner simultaneously took courses at the Jewish Theological Seminary and private tutorials with Heschel. It was under Heschel’s guidance that Lerner developed his understanding of the deep connection between Jewish mystical thought and the commitment to heal and transform the world (tikkun).

Lerner was elected president of the Jewish Theological Seminary’s national college organization, ATID from 1961-1962. He graduated Columbia in 1964 after studying one year at Bristol University in England. Lerner began his graduate school career in philosophy in 1964 at the University of California, Berkeley, and soon found himself involved in a leadership role in the student movements of the 1960s. His first political activity was to organize a demonstration against the government of West Germany, which at the time was considering legislation to give amnesty to Nazi leaders. In the course of organizing that demonstration he became known to other campus activists, and was invited to become a member of the Coordinating Committee of the Free Speech Movement. His first activity with them was to lead a Chanukah service inside Sproul Hall during the Free Speech Movement’s sit-in in 1964. In the next five years he was deeply involved in the anti-war movement at Berkeley, chairperson of the largest student organization (Students for a Democratic Society), and a frequently quoted spokesperson in the media for the New Left. He was at the same time teaching Judaism at local Hebrew schools (Temple Beth Abraham in Oakland and Ner Tamid in San Francisco).

Lerner’s academic work focused on ethical theory and social philosophy. His orals committee included Richard Lichtman, Michael Scriven, and Benson Mates from philosophy and also Phillip Selznick (from Sociology and Law) and Sheldon Wolin (from Political Science). His training included work in epistemology and philosophy of mind, as well as in my primary areas of ethics, political and social philosophy, the philosophy of law, and the philosophy of social science.

In 1968 Lerner was hired by the Department of Philosophy to teach Philosophy of Law at San Francisco State, but teaching was disrupted by a faculty strike for several months. Soon thereafter he accepted a position as Visiting Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of Washington in Seattle. His commitment to ending the war led him to be involved in organizing an anti-war demonstration in Seattle which turned out to be the largest demonstration Seattle had ever seen—and when it was attacked by police, it turned into a riot. He was indicted by the Federal Government for “using the facilities of interstate commerce (the telephone) with the INTENT of inciting to riot” (he was never charged with actually inciting to riot, because he didn’t do that) and suddenly became a national leader of the anti-war movement. The trial of the Seattle Seven was a national sensation, and when the government’s case was falling apart (because it was revealed that the FBI agents who were infiltrating the anti-war organization were themselves the people who had precipitated the violence) the judge sent the defendants to prison for “contempt of court.” The contempt charge was overturned on appeal, and the main charges were eventually dropped (and the law declared unconstitutional). But in the meantime, Lerner was sent to Terminal Island Federal penitentiary where he served several months in prison, at which time J. Edgar Hoover described him as “one of the most dangerous criminals in America.”

That was quite a surprise to someone whose motivation had been to serve God and live according to the ethics of the Jewish people. In the entire period of the 60s he had never engaged in an act of violence and had been committed to a non-violent approach. Through his enduring friendship with A.J. Heschel, Lerner met and strategized with Martin Luther King, Jr.

Michael Lerner returned to Berkeley after his conviction had been overturned, and he completed a Ph.D. at Berkeley in 1972. He then accepted a position as assistant professor of philosophy at Trinity College in Hartford, where he taught ethics, political and social philosophy, philosophy of literature, philosophy of social science, Marx and Critical Theory (primarily the Frankfurt School), and a course in Jewish ethics.

Although he was voted the most popular professor at Trinity, he began to doubt that teaching philosophy was the most effective way he could be involved in healing society, so he left Trinity and returned to graduate school at the Wright Institute of Psychology (founded by Neville Sanford, a collaborator with Adorno and Horkheimer’s study of The Authoritarian Personality).

While doing work as a graduate student, he was simultaneously hired by the University of California to teach in an experimental undergraduate program. After two years doing that, he took a one-year visiting position on the Sociology faculty at Sonoma State College. Meanwhile, in 1976 he created an East Bay chavurah (small Jewish prayer group) and restarted his studies for the rabbinate, this time under the direction of a Hasidic rebbe, Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, who had been introduced to him by Heschel. For the next nineteen years he pursued a course of study that intensified his knowledge of Jewish texts and Jewish mysticism, until he received rabbinic ordination in 1995 from a Beyt Din (a religious court) of 3 rabbis (each of whom had received orthodox rabbinic ordination, called smicha).

In 1977 he received a second Ph.D. in social/clinical psychology from the Wright Institute, and for the next two years worked as a therapist serving the underprivileged minority community of Richmond and white working class families from surrounding suburbia—at the Contra Costa County Mental Health facilities. At the same time, he worked with leaders of the Alameda and Contra Costa and San Francisco labor movement to create the Institute for Labor and Mental Health, a facility dedicated to dealing with the mental health issues of working people. In 1979, he became executive director of the Institute for Labor and Mental Health (ILMH) and was awarded a grant by the National Institute of Mental Health to provide training for middle-income working people around issues connected to stress at work and family life. And in 1982 he became Principal Investigator for a multimillion-dollar research project funded by the National Institute of Mental Health and focused on work and family life.

While continuing this role as Principal Investigator on the Research and as Executive Director of the Institute for Labor and Mental Health, he also took another position as Dean of the Graduate School of Psychology at the New College of California in San Francisco. From 1980 to 1985 he served as dean of that master’s degree program. He taught courses in ethics and psychology, social theory, and social transformation.

Lerner enjoyed teaching at New College—particularly the opportunity to work with so many third-world students, gay and lesbian students, and other segments of the population who had not been heavily represented in the courses he taught in the elite colleges where he had taught in the 1970s. He also enjoyed work in building and shaping the psychology program as dean of the program. But he was feeling a deeper desire to have his Jewish interests more fully integrated into his work life. At the same time, he was feeling more and more concern about what was happening in the Jewish world. He watched as Ariel Sharon in Israel succeeded in building an array of settlements in the West Bank and many American Jews seemed to support this activity and align themselves with Israeli policy even when it seemed so obviously counter to at least one strand in Jewish ethics. He went to Israel in 1984 with his son Akiba and spent most of the year studying at the Hartman Institute in Jerusalem and at various yeshivot, and became involved in the religious peace movement (Netivot Shalom). In 1986, together with his then wife Nan Fink, Lerner decided to start Tikkun magazine. Tikkun was created as “the voice of Jewish liberals and progressives” and as “the alternative to Commentary magazine and the voices of Jewish conservatism.” From the start, Tikkun was dedicated to Jewish ethics and to healing and repair of the world. But the Tikkun editors were not just interested in Jewish issues narrowly defined. Their commitment was also to challenge the liberal and progressive secular politics and to insist on the importance of speaking to the psychological, ethical and spiritual dimension of human needs, and to challenge a narrow vision of human needs that had previously shaped the liberal and progressive social change movements in the U.S.

Since 1986, Lerner’s major work has been as the editor of Tikkun magazine. Lerner has been a prolific author. His works have shown that Judaism has much to say about the central social, political, and ethical issues of our time. In his books Surplus Powerlessness (Humanities Press, 1991) and The Politics of Meaning (Addison Wesley, 1996) Lerner developed the ideas that emerged from his training both as a rabbi and as a psychotherapist and philosopher—and applied them to the central ethical issues facing our society.

His writings were highly praised. His ideas received national attention when Hillary Clinton adopted his notion of “the politics of meaning” and called for the country to respond to these ideas. Lerner was described by the Washington Post as “the guru of the White House,” and he became the subject of intense national debate. Feature articles appeared on him in The New York Times Sunday MagazineBusiness Week, the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles TimesPeople magazine, US News and World Report, and the ups and downs of his relationship with the Clintons were reported in the Washington Post and Newsweek. The Clintons invited Lerner to the signing of the Oslo Accord in 1993, but Lerner soon found that though the Clintons were using his words, they were actually following policies that were antithetical to his core ideas. While he was being denounced daily on Rush Limbaugh’s radio shows for being the central idea person in the Clinton White House, Lerner himself felt that the Clintons’ approach had abandoned any serious ethical/spiritual focus and was being shaped by their own fears and narrow political interests, rather than by the vision of a meaning-oriented politics.

Lerner turned his attention to healing the tensions between Blacks and Jews. In 1988 he began a deep friendship with Cornel West which eventually led to the creation of their book: Jews and Blacks: Let the Healing Begin (Putnam, 1995, in hardback, and a revised version published in paperback by Penguin with the subtitle: A Dialogue on Race, Religion, and Culture in America). West and Lerner used the publication of the book as an opportunity to set up gatherings around the U.S. to bring together Jews and Blacks and talk about common concerns, the tensions that exist between these communities, and strategies for working together. Lerner and West don’t always agree. A front page New York Times photograph captures them in intense debate when Lerner picketed a meeting of the NAACP that had invited racist bigot Louis Farrakhan to speak, and West had attended the meeting. Yet Lerner and West continue to create public gatherings up to the present, and often appear together in public dialogues.

Lerner became very controversial among the denizens of the Jewish establishment and in the Jewish media because of the role he has taken in trying to build bridges of understanding between Jews and Palestinians. Much of this work began in 1988 when he created Beyt Midrash Le Shalom, the peace academy in Jerusalem that functioned to teach about the Jewish resources for peace in our Jewish tradition. Among the people on his faculty at this yearly summer gathering were Avi Ravitsky, Moshe Halbertal, Uri Simon, and Yishayahu Leibowitz. He managed to bring many East Jerusalem Palestinians to these gatherings and to begin a dialogue group between religious leaders in the Jewish and Islamic world.

Lerner’s concern about building peace between Israel and the Palestinians has not kept him from recognizing the persistence of anti-Semitism, both within some sections of the Palestinian world and even among some of those who have been allied with progressive social change movements in the U.S. In his book The Socialism of Fools: Anti-Semitism on the Left he described the ways that people in progressive social change movements have sometimes ignored the national liberation struggle of the Jewish people and have sometimes used criticism of Israel as a cover for anti-Semitic feelings.

In the fall of 2000, Lerner’s book Spirit Matters: Global Healing and the Wisdom of the Soul was published by Hampton Roads. Spirit Matters was described as visionary, prophetic, “a miracle,” and as the single best introduction to spiritual thinking. Ken Wilber said “Spirit Matters is a profound and compelling look at the presence, or more disturbing, the absence, of spirituality in our world, along with powerful suggestions and remedies. Fully engaging and highly readable, it is a passionate cry from the heart to a world tranquilized with trivia and adrift in drivel. Read it for your own soul, and for the soul of the world as well.” Thomas Moore, author of Care of the Soul, said “Spirit Matters offers the clearest, most helpful and most passionate statement of the new spirituality that I know. Michael Lerner’s genuine compassion and his active engagement in our communal life shine through and give this important book its power. There are hundreds of books on spirituality you can safely avoid. Don’t overlook this one.” Larry Dossey, M.D., editor of the journal Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine, said “The twenty-first century will be spiritual or it will not be at all. Spirit Matters is a blueprint for the return of spirtual meaning to contemporary life. The importance of the message of this book cannot be overestimated. In a sweeping and compelling vision, Michael Lerner shows how spirituality can be not only felt but lived, transforming us and our world in the process. In areas such as healing, law and education, Lerner takes us step by step to show how spiritual meaning can actually be woven into the fabric of our society. This book is a cure for the curse of our age—the tendency to fragment our lives by divorcing intellect and spirit, reason and intuition. We cannot long survive the destructive force of this split, and Spirit Matters shows a way out.”

In the fall of 2001 Lerner’s collection of Best Contemporary Jewish Writing was published by John Wiley and Sons. Lerner was picked by Utne Reader as “one of America’s 100 most significant visionaries” and he is a frequent lecturer and “scholar in residence” at universities and synagogues around the U.S., Canada, and England.

In 2001 Rabbi Lerner was awarded a special PEN Award for his stance in breaking the censorship that effectively exists around Israel-Palestinian matters in the U.S. media. At the same time, he was subjected to death threats from Israeli and American Jewish rightists who denounced his stand (in Tikkun magazine), which calls for Israel to respect Palestinian human rights and end the Occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.

In January of 2002 Lerner founded The Tikkun Community, an international interfaith organization dedicated to peace, justice, nonviolence, generosity, caring, love and compassion (read the Core Vision) which he chairs with Cornel West. Each year, The Tikkun Community brought hundreds of people to Washington, D.C. to a Teach-In to Congress on Middle East Peace.

In 2005 Rabbi Lerner received the Martin Luther King Jr./Mahatma Gandhi Peace Award from Morehouse College in Atlanta Georgia, largely for his role as a spokesperson for reconciliation and peace between Israel/Palestine, but also for his role as a leading opponent of the war in Iraq.

In 2004 The Tikkun Community chose another name, The Network of Spiritual Progressives (NSP), because it wanted to make clear that it was an interfaith venture not just for Jews (Tikkun magazine had also become interfaith, yet its strong history as a Jewish magazine continued). The NSP had Rabbi Michael Lerner as founding chair and founding co-chairs Benedictine Sister Joan Chittister and Princeton University Professor Cornel West.

In 2005 the NSP held a founding conference in Berkeley, California, and in 2006 another conference in Washington, D.C., each attended by over 1,200 people.

Rabbi Lerner, while still acknowledged as one of the most significant rabbis in America (so designated by Newsweek Magazine in 2007 and 2008) was also becoming known for his spiritual politics. In 2006, Rabbi Lerner published (through Harper San Francisco, an imprint of HarperCollins) The Left Hand of God: Taking Back our Country from the Religious Right. This book become a national bestseller.

His latest book, Embracing Israel/Palestine, was published by North Atlantic Books in 2012. It was endorsed by former chair of the Israeli Knesset and interim President of the State of Israel Avrum Burg, by Palestinian nonviolence activist Sami Awad from Bethlehem, by the chair of the Progressive Caucus of the House of Representatives Hon. Keith Ellison and a host of others (see below—if you are introducing Rabbi Lerner at one of his speaking engagements, quote a few of those, please).

Over the years Lerner has been a guest on many national and international television shows, including Larry King Live, CNN News, Meet the Press, Bill Moyers Journal, and more.

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