Rabbi takes on Religious Right

This interview with leading American Jewish social activist and writer, Rabbi Michael Lerner, continues the series recorded for Eureka Street at the Parliament of the World's Religions in Melbourne in December 2009. It is sponsored by the Asia-Pacific Centre for Inter-Religious Dialogue at the Australian Catholic University.

He speaks about the importance of interfaith forums like the Parliament, and the Network of Spiritual Progressives which he founded in 2005. He co-chairs the Network with Benedictine Sister Joan Chittister and Professor of Religion at Princeton University, Cornel West.

Lerner is perhaps the most controversial Jewish activist in the US. (Continues below)

He's been attacked from the right — even to the extent of receiving death threats — for his outspoken advocacy for the rights of Palestinians in Israel, and from the left for his critique of the anti-religious    and anti-spiritual stance of secular progressives.

One of his central causes is to convince American progressives that they shouldn't let conservatives take the running on religion. They need to address a crisis of meaning, a national spiritual crisis, as well as the material needs of the population.

Lerner was born and brought up in New Jersey on the US east coast. After school, he studied simultaneously at New York's Columbia University and the Jewish Theological Seminary. He graduated from Columbia with an Arts degree in English Literature and Philosophy, but he left the seminary after realising it was not in tune with his attraction to social engagement and Jewish mysticism.

In the mid-1960s he went to the west coast and started post-graduate studies at the University of California, Berkeley, earning his PhD in philosophy in 1972. In 1974, he started another doctorate at the Wright Institute of Psychology, also in Berkeley, and in 1977 received a PhD in Clinical and Social Psychology.

In California, Lerner became involved in student politics and the peace movement. He gained prominence as leader and spokesman for a number of student groups, and in 1968 helped organise an anti-war demonstration that became one of the biggest ever seen in Seattle. When it turned violent, he was arrested, along with a number of other leaders, and ended up spending several months in prison.

He was described by J. Edgar Hoover at that time as 'one of the most dangerous criminals in America'.

Lerner has lectured in a philosophy and psychology at a number of universities and colleges around the US, but has become best known as editor of Tikkun magazine which he founded with his wife in 1986. It's described on its cover as 'a bi-monthly Jewish critique of Politics, Culture and Society'. The Hebrew word tikkun refers 'to healing, restoring and transforming the world'.

The magazine aims to promote discussion and debate, and Lerner has never shied away from publishing strong views and opinion.

In turn this has provoked strong reaction and criticism, for instance, from US Jewish commentator Alan Dershowitz. In one of his pieces Dershowitz argued that 'Tikkun is quickly becoming the most virulently anti-Israel screed ever published under Jewish auspices', and that 'support for Tikkun is support for the enemies of Israel'.

Over the years, the supporters of Tikkun have taken up a number of causes, and formed several groups associated with its aim and ideals. In 1995, Lerner was ordained as a rabbi, formed the Beyt Tikkun Synagogue in Berkeley, and became its spiritual leader.

Ten years later he founded the inter-religious Network of Spiritual Progressives which describes itself as 'a community of people who support each other and pursue the highest vision of a world healed and transformed'.

He is a prolific author, having written books on a range of social and spiritual issues, from how to bring about social transformation, to anti-Semitism, relations between Jews and African Americans, and reconciliation between Israel and Palestine. His latest, published in 2006, is The Left Hand of God: Taking Back Our Country from the Religious Right.

Peter KirkwoodPeter Kirkwood is a freelance writer and video consultant who worked for 23 years in the Religion and Ethics Unit of ABC TV. He has a Master's degree from the Sydney College of Divinity.

Topic tags: Michael Lerner, Network of Spiritual Progressives, jewish, advocate, Tikkun, Beyt Tikkun Synagogue



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Existing comments

Can we have Rabbi Michael Lerner's voice of reason at all the worldwide tables of decision?
Dawn Baker | 09 April 2010

One interesting Australian angle on Rabbi Lerner is that he is <a href="http://jmm.aaa.net.au/articles/4678.htm">Phillip Adams' son-in-law</a>:

<blockquote>'Not content with her father's enthusiasm for secular Jewry, Rebecca was determined to become a religious Jew. So the process of conversion that began in a liberal Synagogue in San Francisco was concluded long after she decided not to marry Lerner, in New York. When she phoned me from New York to tell me she'd signed up, she asked if her Dad, the notorious atheist, was upset. "Not as upset as if you'd become a Methodist."...'</blockquote>

Rod Blaine | 09 April 2010

Wouldn't you love to spend a long weekend with this man?

And the son in law of our very own ABC's Phillip Adams too!

All thankful praise be to whoever you care to nominate for Rabbi Michael Lerner's compassionate voice, for Phillip Adams' multi-decade long support for Occupied Palestine and, of course, for 'our very own ABC '.


My mistake - that should read "nearly became Phillip Adams' son-in-law". I knew Adams' daughter had converted to Judaism but skimmed the part where she decided not to marry Lerner.

Wikipedia's entry on Lerner says "Lerner was married to Nan Fink until 1991, and married Debora Kohn in July 1998" (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_Lerner_%28rabbi%29).
Rod Blaine | 09 April 2010

Not sure where to put this, however one of the most exciting movements occurring in the US and now around the world is NIOT (Not In Our Town) - anti-hate movements. Perhaps one of your journos would like to report on it.

Dawn Baker | 10 April 2010

I think you are a little confused, the country is Palestine with jewish squatters.
Marilyn Shepherd | 11 April 2010


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