Michael Lerner takes his religion very seriously. He also takes his politics very seriously. And, yes, he intends to bring the two together. But, no, Lerner is not a member of the Religious Right. Instead, he preaches a progressive spirituality, the kind of vision that just might transform our bankrupt American politics.
Lerner is the publisher and editor of Tikkun, the Jewish first cousin to Sojourners. The back cover of each issue describes their religious calling: "Tikkun (te-kun)...to heal, repair, and transform the world. All the rest is commentary." I loved that formulation the first time I read it; and I felt a kindred spirit with Lerner even before we met. Since becoming friends, we've often found ourselves on the same platforms and radio shows, or in the same book reviews.
Lerner believes that public discourse in the United States must be radically changed. The old categories of liberal and conservative, Left and Right neither speak to the heart of our social crisis nor provide the imagination to lead us forward. Ideology, says Lerner, is failing us. The way to move beyond the paralysis that now impoverishes national politics is to have a fresh conversation about values-moral and spiritual values. But that doesn't take Lerner into the psychotherapies of New Age spirituality. His quest for a new politics of meaning has led him back to his own Jewish faith.
Michael Lerner's name has, indeed, been most associated with that phrase, "the politics of meaning." Hillary Clinton's use of Lerner's language in a speech put both he and the first lady in the national spotlight for an uncomfortable period of intense media scrutiny (most of it negative). The controversy demonstrated again how difficult it is for the media to talk about politics beyond the usual categories of power. Moral language is suspect of being either flaky or a code for religious sectarianism. The hype and caricature surrounding Lerner's phrase pre-empted a substantial discussion about what the politics of meaning really means. And now both Clinton and Lerner have disavowed each other.
We shall have to wait for that substantial discussion of the politics of meaning until next year, when Lerner's book on the subject will appear. In the meantime, Lerner's current work, Jewish Renewal: A Path to Healing and Transformation, is an appropriate precursor to his more political text. It is the foundation for Michael Lerner's thinking and activism, and it roots him in deep and solid ground, providing the transcendent ethic any truly moral politics needs, and supplying the spiritual energy any movement needs in accepting the task of transformation.
WHEN Michael Lerner speaks, those who listen learn. I am learning much through this book, and commend it highly, especially to progressive Christians. Many of us have little real understanding of Judaism, and anti-Semitism is still very widespread in the churches-even in Christian peace and justice circles.
Lerner offers us a substantial work of scholarship here but always relates its practical implications. When Michael is speaking, you really have to pay attention, and you do with this book, too. This is no light treatment of religious themes for politics; it is a thorough discourse on the rich treasures of Torah, the prophets, and other Jewish traditions for spiritual and social renewal today.
Like The Catholic Worker and Sojourners, Lerner and Tikkun are devout and even conservative about their faith, which is precisely what makes them radical in their politics. That is the creative combination-faith and politics. The religious values undergird and energize, the political connection takes it to the streets.
Throughout Jewish Renewal, Lerner stresses the importance of transcendence for a truly transformational vision that is "personal, social, and communal." He stands in the tradition of his mentor, Abraham Joshua Heschel, in calling for a faith that critiques and repairs the world, instead of conforming to it. Assimilation on the one hand, and an understandable preoccupation with self-protection on the other, have compromised the prophetic content of Jewish life, says Lerner. "Cruelty is not destiny," he repeats like a mantra, and while his Jewish faith takes the real evil of the world into account, it insists upon the possibility of the world's healing and repair. That is the heart of Lerner's vision.
There is no more passionate critic of America's selfish and materialistic ethic today than Michael Lerner. It not only oppresses the poor but robs the middle class of caring, compassion, and meaning. The restoration of that meaning is at the heart of his political project. And it is through the renewal of Jewish faith that Lerner has found that restoration himself.
The editor and political activist becomes a biblical scholar with fascinating interpretations of Abraham's and Moses' callings that I am still pondering. And the therapist Lerner becomes a rabbi in devoting the whole last section of the book to a very practical and informative discussion of how Jewish traditions and rituals can be renewed in daily life.
Lerner practices what he preaches. (Don't try to phone him or get him to speak to your group on the Sabbath.) Lerner is a voice of authentic religious faith seeking to renew the political life of the nation. He refuses to let the Religious Right control the public discourse on moral values. His vision is not Democratic, Republican, or Marxist, but echoes the cries of Moses, Isaiah, and Jeremiah.
To the Left, Lerner challenges narrow ideological thinking and offers the spiritual resources to construct a more whole and humane vision. To the Right, he challenges selfish individualism and offers a vision of justice rooted in human connectedness, compassion, and community. He is deeply religious without being sectarian.
To Jews, Lerner offers a path to return home. To Christians, he offers a road to genuine partnership. And to the non-religious, he offers a warm and inclusive spirituality. To the country, Michael Lerner offers an invitation to a new political conversation.