Michael Lerner (born 1943) is a political activist, the editor of Tikkun, a progressive Jewish interfaith magazine based in Berkeley, California, and the rabbi of Beyt Tikkun Synagogue in Berkeley.
Family and education
Michael Lerner was born in 1943 and grew up in the Weequahic section of Newark, New Jersey. In his youth, he attended Far Brook Country Day School, a private school which he characterized as having “a rich commitment to interdenominational Christianity”. While he has written that he appreciated “the immense beauty and wisdom of the Christianity to which [he] was being exposed”, he also felt religiously isolated, as the child of passionate Zionists who attended Hebrew school three times a week, while at the same time being heavily exposed to Christian-oriented cultural activities in school. At his own request, in the 7th grade he switched to a public school in the Weequahic neighborhood of Newark, where his peers were, in his estimation, 80% Jewish. He graduated from Weequahic High School in 1960. Lerner received a B.A. from Columbia University. In 1972 he earned a PhD in philosophy from University of California, Berkeley. In 1977 he received a PhD in Clinical/Social Psychology from the Wright Institute in Berkeley, CA. Lerner was married to Nan Fink until 1991, and married Debora Kohn in July 1998.
While at Berkeley, Lerner became a leader in the Berkeley student movement and the Free Speech Movement, chair of the Free Student Union, and chair from 1966-1968 of the Berkeley chapter of the Students for a Democratic Society. After teaching philosophy of law at San Francisco State University, he took a job as an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of Washington and taught ethics, social and political philosophy, philosophy of literature and culture, and introduction to philosophy. Angry at the violence-glorifying SDS group called Weatherman, which had introduced violence into the anti-war movement in response to police violence, Lerner created a new organization as an alternative, called the Seattle Liberation Front. After a major demonstration that his organization had called in protest turned violent, he and others were arrested for inciting a riot. The subsequent trial was the second nationally known federal trial, following that of the Chicago Seven, against anti-war activists. Lerner’s group became known as the “Seattle Seven”.
Federal agents testifying at the trial later admitted to having played a major role instigating the violence and the riot. Charges relating to the riot were eventually dropped. However, during the trial, which culminated in a courtroom riot with punches being thrown (Lerner was the only defendant to remain seated) the presiding judge sent the defendants to jail on “contempt of court” charges. Lerner was sentenced and transported to Terminal Island Federal Penitentiary in San Pedro, California, where Lerner served several months before the 9th Circuit Federal Appeals Court ordered Lerner released (despite the claim made by J. Edgar Hoover in a public statement repeated on radio and television that Lerner was “one of the most dangerous criminals in America” though he had never engaged in any act of violence). The main charges were eventually dropped by the Federal Government after the 9th Circuit overturned the conviction for contempt of court. Meanwhile, Lerner’s contract was not renewed and the State of Washington Legislature had passed “the Lerner act” requiring that the University of Washington never hire anyone “who might engage in illegal political activity,” a law later overturned by the Washington Supreme Court.
Professorship and research
After completing his Ph.D. Lerner moved to Hartford, Connecticut where he served as professor of philosophy at Trinity College until 1975, when he moved back to Berkeley, joined the faculty at the University of California in the Field Studies program and taught law and economics until 1976 when he accepted a position at Sonoma State University for one year in sociology, teaching courses in social psychology. Meanwhile, he completed a second Ph.D. in 1977, this one is social/clinical psychology at the Wright Institute in Berkeley.
In 1976 Lerner founded the Institute for Labor and Mental Health to work with the labor movement and do research on the psychodynamics of American society. In 1979 he received a grant from the National Institute of Mental Health to train union shop stewards as agents of prevention for mental health disorders, and he simultaneously extended his previous study of the psychodynamics of American society. With a subsequent grant from the NIMH he studied American politics and reported that “a spiritual crisis” was at the heart of the political transformation of American society as well as at the heart of much of the psychic pain that was being treated in individual therapy.
His writing reflects a transposition of this analysis to economics too, viz. “This focus on money and power may do wonders in the marketplace, but it creates a tremendous crisis in our society. People who have spent all day learning how to sell themselves and to manipulate others are in no position to form lasting friendships or intimate relationships… Many Americans hunger for a different kind of society—one based on principles of caring, ethical and spiritual sensitivity, and communal solidarity. Their need for meaning is just as intense as their need for economic security.” :
After serving for five years as dean of the graduate school of psychology at the New College of California (now defunct) in San Francisco, Lerner and his then-wife Nan Fink created a general-interest intellectual magazine called Tikkun: A Bimonthly Jewish Critique of Politics, Culture and Society. Tikkun was started with the intention of challenging the left for its inability to understand the centrality of religious and spiritual concerns in the lives of ordinary Americans. With his associate editor Peter Gabel, Lerner developed a “politics of meaning” to speak to the hunger for meaning that was characteristic of the thousands of people that Lerner and his colleagues were studying at the Institute for Labor and Mental Health. Tikkun was formed to educate the public about the findings of the Institute and to develop some of the implications of that work. However, because it also had an interest in being an “alternative to the voices of Jewish conservatism,” Tikkun was criticized by some Jewish groups.
In 1993, First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton included the “politics of meaning” in her synthesis of political and social philosophy she was forming.
Lerner received rabbinical ordination in 1995 through a beth din (rabbinical court) composed of three rabbis, “each of whom had received orthodox rabbinic ordination”. According to j. the Jewish news weekly, “mainstream rabbinical leaders of the Reform, Conservative and Orthodox movements” have questioned private ordinations such as Lerner’s, arguing that non-seminary ordinations risk producing poorly educated or fraudulent Rabbis. Similarly, some rabbis have challenged Lerner’s decision to not be trained for the rabbinate in a classical Jewish Seminary (although Lerner did spend three years as a student at Jewish Theological Seminary). Lerner has been quoted in Jewish Weekly as saying that the nonseminary track is one that “every Chabad rabbi takes, & every ultra-Orthodox rabbi”. When Lerner attacked seminaries for being “more interested in producing organizational men for Jewish life than spiritual leaders connected to the deepest spiritual and social-justice minds”, Rabbi Alan Lew said “That is arrogant nonsense… I spent six years in extremely rigorous, round-the-clock study in the classic texts of our tradition. Authentic Jewish spirituality is in the texts, not in some fancy New Age ideas or watered-down kabbalah”. Lerner’s synagogue Beyt Tikkun became an embodiment of what he described as “neo-Hasidism,” passionately pursuing the spiritual dimension of the prayers rather than rushing through them. The goal, he insisted, is to connect to God, not simply mouthe every prayer in the prayerbook. His synagogue grew, according to members, not only because of Lerner’s willingness to take the social justice message of the prophets seriously, but also because the actual experience of being involved in prayer, meditation, singing and dancing in the synagogue became an ecstatic experience of transcendence for many of those who attended.
Lerner is the spiritual leader of Beyt Tikkun synagogue in Berkeley and a member of the Board of Rabbis of Northern California. He is also a member of Ohalah, the organization of Jewish Renewal Rabbis.
In 2005 Lerner became chair of The Network of Spiritual Progressives whose mission was to “challenge the materialism and selfishness in American society and to promote an ethos of love, generosity, and awe and wonder at the grandeur of the universe.” They have since sponsored national conferences on both the East and West Coast. In 2007 Lerner launched a campaign for a “Global Marshall Plan”.
In February 2009 Lerner publicly announced he had been diagnosed with lung cancer, and mentioned this is many promotional mailings and published pieces. He was treated with surgery in March 2009 which was apparently successful.
Lerner, a rabbi in ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal, promotes the concept of Jewish Renewal, a small Jewish movement which he describes as “positive Judaism”, rejecting what he considers to be ethnocentric interpretations of the Torah. His publications promote religious pluralism and progressive or liberal approaches to political problems. He has, for example, been outspoken against attacks on immigrant communities in the United States, and has attempted to build bridges with Christian, Buddhist and Muslim leaders around such issues.
Lerner’s call for a spiritual transformation of American society was first articulated in Tikkun and then in his book The Politics of Meaning. Lerner developed these ideas further in his books Spirit Matters (2000) and The Left Hand of God (2006).
In 2004 Lerner became chair of The Network of Spiritual Progressives whose mission was to “challenge the materialism and selfishness in American society and to promote an ethos of love, generosity, and awe and wonder at the grandeur of the universe.” In 2007 he launched a campaign for a “Global Marshall Plan”.
Lerner strongly objected to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. He supports the adoption of the Geneva Accords as a basis for an independent Palestinian state.
In February 2007, Lerner published a column entitled “There Is No New Anti-Semitism,” in which he criticized some American Jewish organizations for labeling critics of Israel as antisemites. He was especially critical of the Anti-Defamation League and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which he characterized as “Israel-can-do-no-wrong voices in American politics.” Lerner wrote that this mentality, which frequently leads to accusations that Jews who oppose Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians are “self-hating Jews,” is alienating young Jews who “say that they can no longer identify with their Jewishness.”
Lerner describes some of his views as “very controversial,” particularly his views about building peace between Israel and Palestine. In 2003, the San Diego Jewish Journal described Lerner as “the most controversial Jew in America,” writing that “He is relentlessly critical of Israel. He eulogizes Rachel Corrie. And he’s done more for peace than any conservative we know.” That same year, the executive editor of The Jewish Exponent wrote that Lerner “supports every measure against Israel short of its immediate destruction and often makes common cause with those who do plot the eradication of Israel’s Jews.”
In 1997, former Tikkun editors accused Lerner of publishing pseudonymous letters to the editor that he himself had written. While many of the letters were laudatory (“Your editorial stand on Iraq said publicly what many of us in the Israeli peace camp are feeling privately but dare not say.”), a few were critical (“Have you gone off your rocker?”). Lerner admitted that he had fabricated the letters but said his only mistake was not informing readers that the authors’ names were pseudonyms.
Criticism of leftist antisemitism
For many years, Lerner has been an out-spoken critic of anti-Zionism and modern antisemitism that he perceives to have arisen among some leftists. In 1992, he wrote The Socialism of Fools: Anti-Semitism on the Left, in which he described the manner in which the left often denies the existence of antisemitism; defended Zionism and distinguished legitimate criticism of the State of Israel from Israel-bashing and antisemitism; and suggested ways in which progressives can fight antisemitism on the Left.
In 2003, Lerner criticized the left-wing anti-war ANSWER Coalition for the antisemitism that he and others believe is reflected in the rhetoric at ANSWER-sponsored demonstrations. He later claimed that the ANSWER coalition — of which Lerner’s Tikkun Community was a member — barred him from speaking at their rallies against the 2003 invasion of Iraq because of his criticism.
Good Friday Prayer for the Jews
Regarding the motu proprio Summorum Pontificum, which allows the re-introduction of the Tridentine Mass and the related Good Friday Prayer for the Jews, he said that the Pope took “a powerful step toward the re-introduction of the process of demeaning Jews. You cannot respect another religion if you teach that those who are part of it must convert to your own religion.”
Awards and honors
While at the Seminary, Lerner was elected national president of Atid, the college organization of the United Synagogue of America. In 2005 Lerner received the Gandhi, King, Ikeda Community Builders Prize from Morehouse College in Atlanta in recognition of his work in forging a “progressive middle path that is both pro-Israel and pro-Palestine” in his book Healing Israel/Palestine and in his writing in Tikkun magazine.
Lerner has been a guest on Larry King Live several times. On March 5, 2006, he discussed his book The Left Hand of God on C-SPAN. Lerner was part of a panel of religious leaders on Meet the Press with Tim Russert on April 16, 2006. He was interviewed on Jewish reactions to the Christian Zionist movement of Rev. Hagee on the Bill Moyers PBS show on October 7, 2007.
Goldstone report and vandalism of Lerner’s home
Lerner is one of a small group of Jewish leaders who supported Judge Richard Goldstone after Goldstone released his United Nations report that accused Israel and Hamas of war crimes and possible crimes against humanity during the winter 2009 Gaza war. After Tikkun magazine announced that it would award Goldstone with its Tikkun Award, Lerner’s home was vandalized several times, with posters caricaturing him as a Nazi.
- Surplus Powerlessness: The Psychodynamics of Everyday Life and the Psychology of Individual and Social Transformation (1986)
- The Socialism of Fools: Anti-Semitism on the Left (1992)
- Jewish Renewal: A Path to Healing and Transformation (1994)
- Jews and Blacks: Let the Healing Begin (1995) – by Michael Lerner and Cornel West
- The Politics of Meaning: Restoring Hope and Possibility in an Age of Cynicism (1996)
- Spirit Matters: Global Healing and the Wisdom of the Soul (2000)
- Healing Israel/Palestine: A Path to Peace and Reconciliation (2003)
- The Geneva Accord: And Other Strategies for Healing the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict (2004)
- The Left Hand of God: Taking Back Our Country from the Religious Right (2006)