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?

"It would reject all attempts to claim that material needs are more important than spiritual or ethical needs [emphasis in original]." Pooh-poohing centuries of scientific observation, Lerner says that the physical universe "is a story ... told by scientists, but increasingly, as we learn more, that story seems implausible." It turns out, says Lerner, that there really is no physical universe, there is only the universal mind of God.

Lerner has come a long way from Moses and Marx and Mao. Today, his hero is the New Age psychologist Ken Wilber, who, he says, has "proved" that secular political systems are simply a transitional stage in the development of the spiritually elevated world-state -- a "sacred political space."

Lerner eschews the word "theocracy" in describing his new social order. He says that since no one religion will run the state, it will not be a theocracy -- it will be a "love-ocracy" based on shared spiritual values.

Lerner does not go much beyond laying out the general principles that will guide the party into high office. It is not clear, for instance, if the Spiritual Party's power would be found through the ballot box or through some sort of spiritual-physical insurrection once the masses start seeing reality by Lerner's lamp. Joining the rabbi's revolution requires a leap of faith, since reason and logic and the human senses are insufficient. He gets upset at the suggestion that "loving the stranger" is in the rational self-interest of humans -- whether or not God exists. The bottom line, Lerner says, is that God exists because the universe must have a cause; rationality may be useful at problem solving, but not at explaining reality. Only a social movement powered by God's love can save us.

The first task of the Spiritual Party will be to pass a Corporate Responsibility Amendment to the U.S. Constitution requiring big businesses to file "ethical impact reports" every 20 years. In Spirit Matters, Lerner lists other activities the party will work on: taxing fossil fuel at a level reflecting the cost of pollution, encouraging socially responsible investing, certifying that products are prepared in an "ethically sensitive" way, and, most important, redistributing the world's wealth. First, of course, the party must gain political power.

"When the party runs someone for the presidency, I will study the life of Allende and buy a lot of insurance so that someone can benefit from my death," Lerner confides. "But, of course, I am not interested in running for president."

While the rabbi enjoys a high profile as a Jewish peace activist, he is not the only one. His friend Rabbi Arthur Waskow, who heads the Shalom Center in Philadelphia, began working for peace in 1969, after he witnessed the plight of Palestinian refugees penned up in concentration camps. Waskow sits on the editorial board of Tikkun. He is not interested, however, in joining his colleague's Spiritual Party.

"A Spiritual Party?" he laughs. "Taking a spiritual approach to politics and social action makes sense. But I am skeptical about crystallizing spirituality into a political party. There is a continuum from spirituality to religiosity. In Hebrew, spirituality is kavanah, which is intention, focus. Religiosity is keva, which is structure. When structure starts to dominate, spirituality begins to vanish and you lose a sense of wholeness.

"Michael is brilliant, passionate, perseverant -- a force of nature," says Waskow. "But when push comes to shove, he wants to be the touchstone of change. He is part of the symphony, but not the whole of it."

Marc D. Stern is the assistant executive director of the American Jewish Congress, an organization dedicated to protecting civil and religious rights. He is opposed to making religion, even the Jewish religion, the organizing principle for political or governmental life.

"It is not appropriate in a pluralistic democracy to contest public policy issues on spiritual or theological grounds," Stern says. "While there are moral justifications for redistributing wealth, for instance, actually doing it would undoubtedly require coercion and the restriction of some people's liberty.

"It's odd that a man of the left should want a religious political party," Stern says. "It wouldn't be any better than Pat Robertson and the Christian Coalition."

Lerner's approach to practicing tikkun olamis becoming increasingly New Agey as time goes by. The rabbi lives in a large, comfortable house in the Berkeley hills with a view of the bay. He opens it up regularly to congregants, who confer in rooms surrounded by shelves and shelves of religious and philosophical books, or hold religious services on the deck.

On a balmy Saturday morning in February, a dozen middle-aged, professional types gather on the deck of Lerner's house to study Exodus, the chapter of the Torah in which the Jews escape from Egypt and God chooses them to bear the burden of healing the world. Before getting down to the annotated texts, the members of the group close their eyes to sing Hebrew prayers. Some begin to dance with gusto in worship of God's creation. Periodically, Lerner turns toward the east, raises his arms, and exclaims, in gratitude for life itself: "The sun! The sun! The sun!" As the warm rays bathe his upraised face, he seems, for a moment, to be standing at the exact center of the universe.

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