Rabbi Michael Lerner – Biographical Brief
Rabbi Lerner, author of The Left Hand of God: Taking Our Country Back from the Religious Right (HarperSanFrancisco, 2006) is not only rabbi of Beyt Tikkun but is also the editor of TIKKUN magazine: A Bimonthly Jewish Critique of Politics, Culture and Society. 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, on the one hand, which locates him 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"). He is the co-author with Cornel West of a book entitled Jews and Blacks: Let the Healing Begin, and several other books.
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 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 the book 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 was simultaneously enrolled as a student at the Jewish Theological Seminary’s College, and took courses on everything from contemporary Hebrew literature to Bible and Talmud with some of the great scholars of the Seminary. 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.
Lerner was elected President of the Jewish Theological Seminary’s national college organization, ATID, and in that capacity was invited to be part of the Chancellor’s advisory group composed of the presidents of all of the Seminary’s constituent organizations. Unfortunately, in that "inner circle" Lerner began to realize that the values he was learning from Heschel had little to do with the ethos of the Seminary itself. In fact, Heschel was not respected by most of the students or faculty at JTS—who had no use either for his serious interest in Kabbalah and Hasidism or his interest in applying Jewish values when approaching American political and social institutions. The Seminary was not interested in social change, and its interest in Kabbalah and Hasidism was only as a subject for study, not as a field that might provide contemporary wisdom or guidance for life. So Heschel was disdained for taking Jewish mysticism and ethical values "too seriously.” So, although Lerner was accepted into the Rabbinical School at the Seminary, he declined and decided to try to find an arena in which the Jewish values he was learning could be applied in real life.
He found that at Berkeley. Michael Lerner began his graduate school career in philosophy in 1964 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" 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.
Lerner was always "out" as a Jew—and this caused considerable problems, particularly among his fellow Jews in the social change movements, many of whom were embarrassed at Lerner’s insistence that it was not just an accident that so many Jews were playing a leadership role in social change. Lerner argued that it was precisely the legacy of Jewish values articulated in Torah, Talmud and the Hallakhic tradition, combined with the powerful cultural and historical legacy of a people facing oppression, that had led to this heightened moral sensitivity among one section of Jews. But they responded that they had grown up in the organized Jewish community and rarely found those ethical sensitivities being expressed there. Instead, they found a certain amount of Jewish chauvinism which manifested in an unwillingness to apply ethical categories to Israel, a willingness to turn their backs on the plight of African Americans, and a materialism and selfishness that seemed antithetical to the values that these young Jews espoused. Lerner contended, then as now, that what these young Jews had encountered was not Judaism, but the accommodation of Judaism to American society and to the dominant values of this society. He pointed out that within the Jewish community was a very deep commitment to care for others, manifested in the UJA and the Federations and their ability to raise large amounts of money for caring for the poor, the aged, and others in need. Even the Jewish community’s willingness to send large amounts of money to Israel showed, in Lerner’s view, a tremendous generosity of spirit that should not be dismissed—regardless of how one evaluated Israel’s current policies.
This was an ongoing struggle for Lerner and in the years ahead he would become more involved in trying to build Jewish institutions which embodied both a commitment to social justice and a deep involvement with Jewish learning, Jewish community, and religious practice.
Michael Lerner returned to Berkeley after his conviction had been overturned, and he completed a Ph.D. at Berkeley in 1972. His son Akiba was born to him and his partner Theirrie Cook in October, 1971. 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 multi-million dollar research project funded by the National Institute of Mental Health and focused on work and family life.
Some of the attention of the ILMH focused on the question of why so many working people were attracted to the politics of Ronald Reagan and the Right, even though the Right was pursuing policies that were in such dramatic contrast with their economic interests. And what they learned over the course of many years of research with over ten thousand middle income working people was the following: that there was a spiritual crisis in American society and that the Right was speaking to that crisis, albeit with a set of distorted solutions. What they were discovering was what Lerner would later call "the hunger for meaning" or "spiritual needs" which were every bit as important as material needs.
In Lerner’s own life, and in his role as an activist in building a spiritual renewal of Judaism, he knew about spiritual needs. But in the liberal/progressive culture in which he had operated it was almost a matter of faith that "it’s the economy, stupid!" Lerner became very convinced that what his research had uncovered was of central importance. He still identified with the liberal and progressive forces, and even now agrees with their commitment to inclusion of those who have been left out of the economic/material well being and political rights of American society. But he also came to believe that the liberal and progressive forces would never be in a position to actualize their vision until they could address the spiritual crisis in most Americans’ lives.
Lerner wanted to find a way to talk about these issues. One way to do so was to teach others about what he had been discovering. So, 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). Lerner was invited by David Hartman to become part of a developing seminar of philosophers who would come to the Hartman Institute each summer and study there, and he did that for several years. But in the US Lerner watched unhappily as the organized Jewish community became increasingly conservative in its political leadership.
So, 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. TIKKUN was a perfect place for a Jewish intellectual. Lerner had the opportunity to work with the most creative thinkers and writers in the Jewish world. Our editorial advisory board includes leaders of all branches of Judaism, from orthodox thinkers like Michael Berenbaum, Avi Ravitsky, Chaim Seidler-Feller and Tsvi Blanchard to Conservative leaders like Elliot Dorff, Reuven Kimelman and Brad Artson, to Reconstructionist leaders like Arthur Green, to Reform leaders like David Saperstein and Gerald Serotta. TIKKUN was a champion of Jewish feminism from the start, and our editorial advisory board includes thinkers like Rachel Adler, Tikva Frymer-Kensky, Ilana Pardes, Judith Plaskow and Letty Cottin Pogrebin. Others who have written for TIKKUN include Robert Pinsky, Amos Oz, Lawrence Langer, Michael Walzer, Aron Rodrigue, Victor Perera, Natalie Zemon Davis, Art Speigelman, Marla Stone, Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi, Morris Dickstein, Martin Jay, Judith Hauptman, Eva Fogelman, Ellen Willis, Alfred Kazin, Deborah Lipstadt, Laurie Zoloth Dorfman, Geoffrey Hartman, Ze’ev Sternhell, Eric Yoffie, Steven Aschheim, Jyl Lyunn Felman, Yehuda Amichai, Jonathan Kozol, Lawrence Kushner, Egon Mayer, Arnold Eisen, Tsvi Blanchard, Jessica Benjamin, Carol Gilligan, Marge Piercy, Victor Frankl, David Terutsch, David Ellenson, Adrienne Rich, US Senator Paul Wellstone, Aharon Appelfeld, A.B. Yehshua, Zygmunt Bauman, Irwin Kula, Thane Rosenbaum, Ruth Setton, Galia Golan, Nessa Rapoport, Sanford Pinsky, Rebecca Goldstein, Melvin Jules Bukiet, David Mamet, Rebecca Alpert, Phyllis Chesler, Paula Hyman, Blu Greenberg, Rachel Sabath, Marcia Prager, David Holinger, Mary Gordon, Tamar Frankiel, David Korten, Sylvia Barack Fishman, Nancy Chodorow, Ken Wilber, Rodger Kamenetz, Alicia Ostriker, Ishmael Reed, Paul Buhle, Leslie Epstein, Brenda Hillman, Michael Dyson, and Cornel West.
Lerner’s work as editor of TIKKUN has made it possible for him to connect to some of the most exciting intellectual, literary, and political figures in the Jewish world and in America’s secular culture as well, and to become one of the rare breed of "public intellectuals" who is involved and informed about the areas of intellectual life that have impact on the way we organize our society.
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 Magazine, Business Week, the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, People 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 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), which became a national bestseller. Cornel West and Lerner used the publication of the book as an opportunity to set up gatherings around the U.S. (including two in the Bay Area) 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 which 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 which 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: AntiSemitism 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 antiSemitic feelings. Lerner shows that it is possible to make legitimate criticisms of Israel, but that it is possible to make those same criticisms in a way that fosters anti-Semitism—so the same points can be made in helpful or hurtful ways. Lerner insisted that progressive people apply the same compassion and understanding to the Jewish people that they apply to other peoples who are coming from a long history of oppression. The trick, Lerner realizes, is to not allow that history of oppression to be used as an excuse to not take responsibility for the current realities of a Jewish people who are living in relative security and economic wellbeing in many parts of the world. In 2003, Lerner was barred from speaking at one of the major demonstrations opposing the invasion of Iraq because Lerner criticized the anti-Semitism that he perceived in the way that criticisms were being made of Israel. Yet Lerner has received a steady supply of death threats from others in the Jewish world who believe he is anti-Israel.It was concern about peace for Israel that led him to create a new national organization, The Tikkun Community, as an interfaith organization which had grown in 2005 to over 100,000 members and supporters. Lerner serves as national chair of The Tikkun Community. The Tikkun Community has two major foci: a “Progressive Middle Path” that is both pro-Israel and pro-Palestine (e.g. Lerner organized full page ads in the NY Times and other newspapers in support of the Geneva Accord which had been negotiated as a prototype of a peace settlement that would be fair to both sides) and b. creating a Progressive Spiritual Left.
In 1991 Lerner was divorced from Nan Fink, and from 1992-1996 he lived in Manhattan where he worked as editor of TIKKUN. In 1996 Lerner accepted a call from a small group of people who had asked him to form a progressive Jewish Renewal synagogue in California. So, in mid 1996 he joined with others to form Beyt TIKKUN synagogue in San Francisco.
In 1997 Lerner met Debora Kohn while Lerner was attending a conference convened in Buenos Aires to discuss his work as a Jewish theologian and theorist of social change. Debora Kohn moved to the Bay Area and they were married in July of 1998.
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 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, non-violence, generosity, caring, love and compassion (read the Core Vision) which he chairs with Cornel West. Each year, The Tikkun Community has brought hundreds of people to Washington, D.C. to a Teach-In to Congress on Middle East Peace. In 2003 North Atlantic Books published Lerner’s book Healing Israel/Palestine, the first serious attempt to tell the story of the Middle East in a way that would be compassionate toward both Israelis and Palestinians, and critical of both sides as well. In 2004 North Atlantic Books published Lerner’s book The Geneva Accord and Other Strategies for Middle East Peace.
Lerner resides in Berkeley, California with his wife Rabbi Debora Kohn Lerner. He frequently lectures around the world. He continues to serve as Rabbi of Beyt Tikkun synagogue and teaches Torah each Saturday morning, and continues to serve as Editor of Tikkun Magazine.