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?

In answer to a question from the audience, which had responded with lukewarm applause to his foreign policy suggestions, Lerner said that, ultimately, he does not believe the state of Israel should exist. "I want to eliminate all armies and all national borders; although, of course, Israel cannot be the first country to do this. It should be in the first 20 percent, though, after the United States, Japan, Russia, France, Britain, and Brazil."

He answered a question about the realistic possibility of creating the utopian world he envisions: "Being called a utopian is not a put-down, it's a compliment. Realism is idolatry; utopians believe in the possibility of the possibility of God, in the possibility of a society based on love."

Lerner said he believes in the eventual coming of a messiah ("Though she may tarry"), but, until then, he will settle for creating a political Spiritual Party. That task is made more difficult because he and other idealists are seen by the "cynical" media as "kooks," due to the fact, he said, that most reporters are fallen idealists themselves.

"I am here tonight to find the few people who want to do this thing," he concluded, trading his yarmulke for a cowboy hat and signing copies of his book for purchasers.

Lerner has been successful in finding converts to tikkun olam-- provided they do it on his terms, which means agreeing with his ideas. He typically sets up organizations that are, by their very nature, dependent on him for leadership.

The tiny offices of Tikkun magazine on Van Ness Avenue in San Francisco are crammed with copies of his books and back issues of the national magazine, now in its 16th year. Tikkun has about 10,000 subscribers and twice as many readers. It is influential beyond its relatively small size because its readers tend to be influential people inside academia, the media, and the federal government. During the last 15 years, Tikkun has printed hundreds of provocative articles on culture, politics, and society written by well-known intellectuals, ranging from feminist novelist-poet Marge Piercy to sociologist Jonathan Kozol and from playwright David Mamet to Harvard professor Cornel West. The March/April issue contains a feature on "Prayer as a Rebellion," an article on the roots of feminism as seen in ancient scrolls, a long poem on bullets and God, film reviews, and an editorial by Lerner calling for a new political movement based on a "New Bottom Line of love and caring."

Lerner oversees the acquisition of the magazine's content, though a senior editor edits the articles. Dissenting views are allowed in the pages of Tikkun, but its tone -- and its overall operation -- is controlled by the rabbi. Tikkun contributors do not necessarily share Lerner's approach to tikkun olam. Piercy, who was poetry editor of Tikkun for many years, tactfully distances herself from Lerner's social movement. "In a larger sense, everyone involved in ecological activities is engaged in tikkun olam," says Piercy.

There are, however, hard-core Lernerites. "This is a religious movement encompassing very religious people," says Deborah Kory, the managing editor of Tikkun.The Harvard-educated, 28-year-old Kory was drawn into Lerner's orbit by his scholasticism, his stance on the Middle East, and his synthesis of psychology, politics, and theology.

"The movement is entirely dependent on Michael because, right now, nobody else is speaking as articulately," Kory observes. "Michael is absolutely brilliant." She does not attend his religious services ("I see God in my personal relationships," she comments), but she is very committed to Tikkun's work to "get Israel the hell out of the occupied territories."

Like other young people who have passed through the Tikkun office over the years, Kory has had her struggles with Lerner's authoritarianism. "I am tough and scrappy. I demand respect from Michael. He knows he needs whole people," she explains. On the other hand, Megan McCarthy, who worked for nearly a year as an editorial assistant at Tikkun in 1998 and is now a doctoral student in clinical psychology at UCB, does not mince words. Lerner does not live up to the spiritual principles he preaches, she says, and is not interested in the free exchange of ideas. "He is the opposite of the benign, absent-minded intellectual. He is paranoid and a hypocrite," McCarthy says, still furious at being treated as "dispensable" by the editor.

Lerner admits that, like most humans, he is afflicted with character flaws. "Sometimes I say or do things in anger that I regret." He wrote in his 1994 book Jewish Renewal: A Path to Healing and Transformation that followers should recognize that leaders may "have selfish motives, ego needs, and at times are petty, self-aggrandizing, insensitive to others." He speaks of himself as a "wounded healer." He declined to psychoanalyze himself for this story, but it is clear that the institutions he controls act as a sort of buffer, keeping away those who would challenge his authority. This is a reaction to bitter experience.

While getting his doctorate in philosophy at Berkeley during the politically roiling 1960s, Lerner was a leader of Students for a Democratic Society, an anti-Vietnam War organization that fractured into warring splinter groups. In 1968, Lerner was indicted for "intending to incite a riot" in Seattle; he did time in Terminal Island Penitentiary for contempt of court. (The original riot charges were eventually dropped.) As the revolutionary fervor of the '60s abated, Lerner and a friend founded the Graduate School of Psychology at New College in San Francisco. Working as psychotherapists, they determined that the main mental stressor in the lives of middle-class people is not lack of money but lack of spiritual meaning and purpose. Appalled by the growing influence of right-wing Christian fundamentalist groups, such as the Moral Majority, Lerner coined the slogan "politics of meaning" to inject a dose of spirituality into the secular arena of leftist politics.

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