LILIPOH interviews Rabbi Michael Lerner
Issue: Fall 2004: SEXUALITY: A CONTEMPORARY LOOK - Issue #37
Michael Lerner is the rabbi for Beyt Tikkun synagogue in San Francisco. He is best known as editor of Tikkun Magazine: A Bimonthly Jewish Critique of Politics, Culture and Society. Among his many books: Jews and Blacks: Let the Healing Begin (with Cornell West); The Politics of Meaning; and Spirit Matters: Global Healing and the Wisdom of the Soul.
LILIPOH: What do you see as the core issue today?
ML: The core issue today is the struggle between hope and fear. The best way to understand politics today is not to think in terms of the usual left-right polarity, but as a continuum between hope and fear. At the fear end is the worldview that the world is a fundamentally scary place where security can only be attained through domination and control over others. My teacher, Abraham Joshua Heschel*, identified its key tenet as: “Suspect your neighbor as yourself.” You have to get the jump on them before they do it to you.
At the hope end is the belief that the world has a real capacity for people to be filled with loving, caring and generosity. Security is achieved, then, through cooperation and through nurturing, caring and loving relationships between people. In more recent years, it has often been fashionable to articulate this view, but to base your actions on the other one.
LILIPOH: How do you see that in the current presidential election?
ML: In a one-sided way. Kerry and Bush will be debating over who is more efficient in taking care of fear. They affirm that we are hemmed in by enemies and to look strong they surround themselves with military people, making constant references to Iraq and 9/11. Seeing the world this way becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
LILIPOH: And clearly you think there is an alternative.
ML: Yes, there is another worldview, the Tikkun community perspective that says that the actual path to security comes through generosity and cooperation, not through toughness.
LILIPOH: Is anyone else articulating that view?
ML: Dennis Kucinich is closer to our view. He became a victim of the desperation in the liberal and progressive forces that defined electability as the central issue for this election.
Also, an important opportunity to speak out of that worldview was missed after 9/11. It would have been a great moment had there been any progressive leadership in place. Unfortunately, the progressive/liberal world went into hiding, fearful that they would be accused of supporting Al Qaeda or of being anti-American. So the left made itself largely irrelevant at that historic moment.
LILIPOH: What could it have done?
ML: You can validate justifiable fear of terrorism on the one hand while providing an alternative analysis and strategy as to how to fight it on the other.
We have proposed a three-step plan for providing security for the US. It includes our becoming the leading force fighting global poverty, homelessness, and hunger. It includes providing health care and education, and rectifying the damage caused by 150 years of industrialization. The industrialized nations need to create a Marshall plan to rebuild the infrastructure of the Third World by dedicating 10% of their GNP for the next 30 years. The details are on our website [http://www.tikkun.org/]. Also, we need to be perceived as a society that has caring and generosity as its bottom line in place of the current ethos of selfishness and materialism. So, our strategy for providing security differs radically from what is currently being articulated. But ours can work.
LILIPOH: How do you foster a different worldview?
ML: We need our institutions to produce people who are ethically, spiritually and ecologically sensitive. We need people who are capable of responding to the universe with awe, wonder and radical amazement rather than simply with a utilitarian attitude that looks at the universe and asks: is there something here that I can turn into a commodity? A spiritual worldview is one that views human beings not in terms of what they can do for you, but as an embodiment of the sacred – or in secular language – as a thou rather than an it, a subject rather than an object.
LILIPOH: You don’t hear much from the left about spirituality, do you?
ML: This spiritual consciousness is deeply lacking in the left – and as a result, the left ends up sounding very much like the technocrats of the middle. That’s why it is so easy for people to think that the left’s bottom line is the same as those who want to maximize money and power, only they just want it to be shared more equally with everyone.
I totally support equality and redistribution of wealth, but I am also for a new orientation towards other human beings and the universe – an orientation that focuses on gratitude and wonder, the miracle of existence, the sacred in every human being. These are dimensions that make most on the left choke and suspect a Trojan horse for right-wing politics.
LILIPOH: Religion has a bad name.
ML: Justifiably. History is full of religions failing to embody their own stated ideals—espousing love, caring and generosity, but embodying domination, control and manipulation of others. They hold sexist, homophobic and hierarchical elitist visions of the world—and those of us who are democrats (with a small “d”), want to resist them. On the other hand, the socialists, communists and almost all kinds of left-leaning movements have been associated with repression themselves, including authoritarianism in the labor movement, and insensitivity towards men in the women’s movement. People transform idealistic social movements into their opposite.
LILIPOH: So how do you promote a kind of spirituality that does not evoke its opposite?
ML: Spiritual consciousness is not something that has to be introduced from the outside. On the contrary, it is systematically suppressed by societies like ours. Children have a natural spirituality, but they are taught to view everyone as a potential enemy. They are trained to enter a competitive marketplace where no one will be caring for them, so they have to care for themselves. This type of socialization, of course, is essentially anti-social. To increase gratitude, love and kindness calls for an “unlearning” of all these internalized obstructions to good natural impulses.
LILIPOH: That sounds very Rousseauean.
ML: If to say that there is a part of human beings which naturally forms attachments, connections and love opens me to being called Rousseauean, I accept that. Clinical research supports the notion that these traits are instinctive, cross-cultural and not learned.
LILIPOH: Are you saying we can blame a bad society for our own darker impulses?
ML: We have to deal with our own contradictions, our own tendencies toward inequality, cruelty and domination. They arrived with the creation of class societies maybe ten thousand years ago and have been internalized.
The Jews introduced a revolutionary message—that evil is not of the structure of necessity, that it can be transformed and overcome. And the reason it can be overcome is that the fundamental reality is that the universe was shaped by a force of healing and transformation, kindness and generosity. Evil is not primary in the same sense. A social movement does have to devote time to the undoing and changing of the shadow parts of human beings. It does it, though, through acceptance and love. Acceptance and love dissolve those parts. They are part of the process that weakens their hold on me, so that I can manifest more from my most loving part.
LILIPOH: How do you see that in terms of today’s social issues?
ML: Well, it’s very different from calling people “evil.” For example, I think there’s a danger that sometimes comes from the anti-globalization movement or other parts of the left, a tendency to imply that people who work for corporations are especially evil. But actually, there is a logic to the current capitalist system and to the way the corporations are set up that pushes people in a particular direction based on the “old” bottom line. That’s why we speak of a “new” bottom line, and that’s why we are proposing a Social Responsibility Amendment to the Constitution that will bind the renewing of corporate charters to social and ecological concerns. That’s on our website, too.
But getting back to how we treat evil in the world, it is about not demeaning others, even those we disagree strongly with. I don’t feel comfortable when people on the left talk about Bush as if he were Hitler, or an embodiment of evil. I don’t like what he is doing, and I can say that, but I would not deny that there is humanity in him. It is important for those of us who are trying to build a social movement to base it on affirming the humanity of the other.
LILIPOH: No exceptions?
ML: None. I get emailed death threats regularly. I send them back with a blessing.
LILIPOH: Who sends them?
ML: We are working actively to build support for the Geneva Accord based generally on the 1967 Israeli borders. On an average day, about 80-90% of the threats come from Jews who are angry because of that and because we don’t support Ariel Sharon’s wall. Recently, some have come because of our criticism of Mel Gibson’s The Passion.
LILIPOH: What blessing do you send them?
ML: I say I want to bless you for the love that obviously motivates you for the Jewish people, and I pray that someday you will see that others who disagree with you also share that love. But in the meantime, I bless the part of you that is a really good part.
I don’t believe that our problem is that there are good guys and bad guys in the world. The mess in the Middle East is not caused by one side—it has been co-created by the moral insensitivity and political errors of both sides. We have both voices inside of us representing fear and hope in constant contention. Our task is to strengthen the part in each other that wants to go for the most hopeful vision.
LILIPOH: Thanks very much!
*Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972), Professor of Jewish Ethics and Mysticism at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America 1945-1972. He marched with Martin Luther King, Jr, in Selma, Alabama.