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 1986, Lerner and his then-wife, Longs Drugstore heiress Nan Fink, founded Tikkun magazine, which attracted attention by harshly criticizing Israel's treatment of the Palestinians. Tikkun drew tens of thousands of liberal-minded readers, including the governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton, who periodically sought Lerner's counsel. When Hillary Clinton referred positively to Lerner's politics of meaning in a 1993 speech about universal health care, the magazine editor was attacked as a New Age "guru" by the establishment media, including the New York Times Sunday Magazine, the New Republic, and the Wall Street Journal. The First Couple quickly dropped their association with Lerner.

Lerner was ordained a rabbi in 1995 and soon thereafter wrote The Politics of Meaning, Restoring Hope and Possibility in an Age of Cynicism. In 1996, he founded the Beyt Tikkun synagogue, which now has a congregation of 120 families who have agreed that their "social and Jewish concerns will adhere to the positions articulated within [Jewish Renewal and The Politics of Meaning]."

Lerner is not an advocate of democracy in the organizations he leads. The "founding perspective" of his Beyt Tikkun ("House of Healing and Love") synagogue states: "People who have little knowledge, spiritual experience, or psychological sophistication sometimes use the democratic process to work out unresolved childhood issues. ... Some of the most talented leaders find themselves the targets of unwarranted suspicion and hostility. They often withdraw, leaving the democratic group under the control of the most psychologically needy people. ... What we intend to do is create a context in which Rabbi Lerner is given the real opportunity to lead, to teach, and to shape a spiritual reality. ... [Democracy] is not the practice or expectation of this community."

Lerner says that, in practice, he is the ultimate authority in his congregation only in spiritual matters; the members are allowed to decide nontheological questions.

"Some people thought I was authoritarian," Lerner says. "They wanted to buy pizza on Shabbat [the day of rest]. It is forbidden to use money on Shabbat. I said no. They left.

"I would be scared if Catholics, or people who are just dipping a toe into the [religious] water, could vote on what prayers to use; that would not be satisfying to me. I want a place for me to pray, where others can join."

It is a perfect-weather day on the Berkeley campus, a good place to recruit members for what Lerner calls the "vanguard." About 50 curious people -- students, housewives, nonprofit lawyers, fresh-faced peace activists, and gray-haired revolutionaries -- gather at the International House to hear Lerner lecture about politics, meaning, and Israel. Most of them say they came because they are appalled by the slaughter in the Middle East and want to "do something."

Lerner begins by voicing the meditation that he practices twice a day. Audience members close their eyes as the rabbi lets loose a stream-of-consciousness prayer that situates each person in the context of his brain, his body, the group, the neighborhood, the city, the country, the planet, the solar system, the universe, the mind of God. Then, for the next hour, the rabbi unhesitatingly renders an account of human history from the dawn of slave society to the dusk of our market-dominated world populated "by screwed-up people in pain."

Stacks of his book Spirit Matters and piles of Tikkun line the table behind Lerner, who passes around a sign-up sheet for contact information for those interested in learning more about the Spiritual Party.

"My movement is the next stage in the development of liberation consciousness; it includes and transcends the insights of Marxism, feminism, psychology, and science," says Lerner. "The left has been losing battles for the last 30 years because it does not address people's deeper level of need for liberal spiritualism. We need a whole new kind of politics, built on the recognition that we are all created in the image of God."

In January, Lerner sponsored a conference of 700 people in New York, which initiated the Tikkun Community, a kind of pre-Spiritual Party formation, with Lerner's ideology -- and Lerner himself -- in charge, according to the community's "founding principles." The organization's first national action is calling for a daylong fast on the first day of Passover, March 27, in solidarity with the 300 Israeli army reservists who are refusing to take up arms against the Palestinians.

The Spiritual Party is meant at least in part as an antidote to capitalism, which oppresses not only poor people but the middle class, Lerner says, by sucking spirituality out of work and play. His party will restore that spirituality by helping its members realize that one of the "obstacles to success is low self-esteem, the feeling that you do not deserve to win."

Make no bones about it, Lerner is attempting to create a social movement, led by his new party, that intends to impose its values on society if it achieves political power. It is not just a "spiritual" movement, it is a profoundly religious movement. For example, Lerner writes that as the movement grows, "it would use ... Jewish religious holidays as models for developing a set of secular celebrations and ritual observances that would become part of the social movement.

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