Progressive Spirit: A Conversation with Rabbi Michael Lerner

By Metta Spencer (interviewer)

METTA SPENCER: You're rabbi of congregation Beyt Tikkun in San Francisco and Berkeley, and you have a magazine. Tell us about it.

MICHAEL LERNER: Tikkun started as an alternative to the conservatism and spiritual deadness in the Jewish world, and critiquing the anti-religious bias in the Left. We have evolved to being an inter-faith voice.

Tikkun helped create the organization that I'm now involved with, called the Network of Spiritual Progressives. It seeks to replace the dominant materialistic ethos in American society. That ethos judges an institution as efficient, rational, or productive if it maximizes money or power. We're saying that institutions should be judged efficient, rational, and productive also to the extent that they maximize kindness and generosity, ethical and ecological sensitivity, responsiveness to other human beings, and awe toward the universe.

SPENCER: Wow. I don't think anybody would argue with that!

LERNER: Yes, they do. Because we're putting ethical considerations into a world that doesn't use ethics when judging efficiency or productiveness. When we challenge existing institutions, we are told, "Well, that's all very sweet, but first we have to make sure that our institutions are efficient and productive." Their definitions come from economics. They think they are being rational, but it's no more rational than our belief in building a world based on love and caring.

SPENCER: If you launched Tikkun as a response to the spiritual deadness in the Jewish community, were you already responding to this as a rabbi attending to your Jewish congregation?

LERNER: I hadn't formed my congregation yet when I started Tikkun. I did a study of American Jews, asking why so many were disaffiliating from the Jewish world. I found that many of them experienced spiritual deadness because in their community, the desire to assimilate into American values had led to honoring people on the basis of how much money they had. That's very different from the traditional history of Judaism, which honored scholars and righteous people.

SPENCER: There was a strong tradition of leftism among Jews. Is that less true now?

LERNER: Definitely. It's partly because of the failure of people around the world to support and take care of Jews when we were being assaulted - especially the failure of the Left. Tremendous anti-Semitism emerged in the Communist Party during the Holocaust. Then after the Second World War many countries purged Jews from leadership in the Communist Party. And partly it's because, when your value becomes making it in America, then you are drawn to the dominant materialism and selfishness. But though Jews are much less Left than they used to be, in the 2006 election, Jews voted 80 percent Democratic. If non-Jews voted as Jews did in the United States, we would have an overwhelmingly Democratic congress and an end to the war in Iraq. Non-Jews are still far more conservative in this country than Jews.

SPENCER: After Bush was elected you claimed that the Democrats would have won, had they not avoided religious or spiritual discourse.

LERNER: Yeah. Starting in 1979, I've been doing a huge study of the psychodynamics of American society. I interviewed over 10,000 middle-income working people, asking why people are moving to the right politically. I discovered that there's a spiritual crisis in American society based on the triumph of materialism and selfishness over loving connectedness. People work in a world that sees human beings in a materialist, utilitarian framework - as maximizing their own advantage without regard for others. This has created increasing loneliness - a doubt that they can count on anyone. They can't even be sure that their spouse is going to stick with them. If that's true in marriages, it's even more intense in friendships. People are not scared about terrorism, but about everyday insecurity. The political Right, particularly the Religious Right, has addressed that aloneness, providing people with a sense of community, especially in the churches.

Secondly, I discovered that many people who are part of that world actually hate it. They don't really want to spend their lives maximizing power and manipulating others. But they can't see how to achieve a different kind of life within capitalist society. They hunger for meaning, which largely explains the politics of Western societies - and in my experience this is just as true in Canada as in the United States. But I have only studied the United States, and what I found here is a desire to transcend the competitiveness of the marketplace.

SPENCER: Did you speak about this to people on the Left?

LERNER. Yes. I went to leaders of the labor movement, to the Democratic Party, to the women's movement, to the anti-war movement. Everywhere people were tone-deaf to what I was saying. Their worldview says that people have material interests and want individual freedom-and that their job is to protect their freedom and their economic interests, and to rectify inequality. The Left is about inclusion into the existing society of those who feel they have been excluded or left behind.

SPENCER: That sounds attractive, actually.

LERNER: Sure. I'm part of the Left. I am glad that the Left is struggling for inclusion, for material well-being, for individual rights, and ending discrimination - but it's not deep enough. For most Americans the primary way they are hurting is not from material deprivation. What is hurting them is the lack of love, meaning, and purpose to their lives. The Left has consistently ignored this dimension. Even now with this Network of Spiritual Progressives, I have told people that to be spiritual you do not have to believe in God or to be religious. You only have to recognize this other dimension of human needs. Nevertheless, the Left has discounted this overwhelmingly and continues responding to anyone who is religious or spiritual by saying, "You must be of a lower level of psychological development than we are. We need your votes but we hope that by rubbing shoulders with us more rational people you will come to see the world as we do." That has pushed away from the Left millions and millions of people who agree with them on economic and political platforms but who feel disrespected by the Left community.

SPENCER: You're right. But there's an incongruity: the people promoting family values and religion are right-wingers who are supporting war and capitalism.

LERNER: Precisely. If the Left would adopt the spiritual progressive agenda they would win over millions of people to whom they could talk about how the right-wing's economic and political program is a total contradiction to their values.

SPENCER: Hmm. Okay. There's another reason for the Left's secularism - their commitment to separation of church and state. There are good historical reasons for worrying that if you mix up religious discourse with political discourse, you're liable to come up with intolerance.

LERNER: Absolutely. The Network of Spiritual Progressives very much supports separation of church and state. But that's different from separating the state from discussion of religious values. The problem is, you cannot legislate against bringing values into the political sphere. You can't tell people that it's inappropriate to express your own ethics or values there. You can't say that the only values appropriate for the political sphere are those that derive from secularism, not religion.

SPENCER: But people do say it!

LERNER: Then you'd have to eliminate "Thou Shalt Not Kill." It derived from a religious tradition.

SPENCER: Last night I heard Tariq Ramadan talking on TV about an issue that arose here in Toronto this winter when a judge required Christmas trees to be removed from city buildings. Ramadan said that is antithetical to the kind of diversity that he's trying to promote. I don't think that Christmas trees are spiritual at all, but it relates to what you're saying about keeping the public space secular.

LERNER: You can't have a democracy and tell people that they can't have their values. You can have a democracy and tell people that they can't impose a particular religion on people, using state power. Liberals mistakenly fail to understand that the public sphere is not neutral. The public sphere is already dominated by values - capitalist ones that are presented as neutral. In schools, for example, the goal is to enable students to succeed in the global capitalist marketplace. Schools foster an ethos of competition that distorts people.

Then along comes the Religious Right. They say that there are only two options; you either go with the capitalist marketplace and its phony neutrality that is generating screwed-up people, or you have to teach Jesus in the public schools because Christianity is the only alternative to the ethos of selfishness.

SPENCER: And the Left says what?

LERNER: The Left says, "No, no. We're not going to allow any values in the public sphere." To this the Right replies, "That's baloney. We have as much right to have our values there as capitalists do to have their values there."

The Religious Right will win over the long run because the pain of the capitalist marketplace will increase. Consequently there needs to be a third alternative, which cannot be liberals standing on the side proclaiming "Keep your values out of the public sphere."

The Network of Spiritual Progressives say, "We agree with the Religious Right that there's no such thing as a neutral public sphere, but we disagree with the Religious Right's effort to bring a specific religion as an alternative to the ethos of selfishness." Progressives need to be in the public sphere, showing spiritual values - love, caring, generosity, ethical and ecological sensitivity - that are acceptable in all religious traditions, including atheists. None of these values require you to believe in a God or in any particular religious tradition. They do provide an alternative to the capitalist marketplace. But the Left has tied its hands. Instead of providing a different set of values, it tries to keep all values out of the public sphere. The Right's values and the capitalists' values will continue to be there.

SPENCER: Okay, but Tariq Ramadan's point was the value of diversity - of making room for all religious traditions in the public sphere. That sounds different from what you're saying. You seem to be advising us to find the common thread among all religions and accept it within political discourse. Are these two different approaches?

LERNER: They are two different questions. You're asking about religious symbols.

SPENCER: Yes. There are issues about wearing the hijab or Sikhs wearing turbans and carrying kirpans. Right now in Turkey there's a kerfuffle about whether a prime minister's wife can wear a scarf.

LERNER: I don't want the state to regulate personal clothing. In that case, I agree with the Libertarians. When it comes to public space, such as a park, it's reasonable to say that everybody's religion should have a place there, including the religion of the atheists who say "God is Baloney!"

SPENCER: Let's turn now to the corporate realm. In Spirit Matters you propose amending the US constitution - which could be done in Canada too. And Canadian Leftists join you in worrying about the place of corporations.

LERNER: Yes, this is a plank in the Spiritual Covenant with America, which you can find on our web site, <Spiritualprogressives.org>. It's a social responsibility amendment to the constitution, requiring every corporation with an income of more than $50 million per year to get a corporate charter once every ten years. It will only be granted to corporations that can prove a satisfactory history of social responsibility to a jury of ordinary citizens. This won't satisfy those who say we need a whole new system. It's not socialism, but it creates a whole new dynamic.

Inside the corporation they have to do what they are doing because they have a responsibility to their investors to produce high profits. Otherwise the investors will stop investing and the corporation will be unable to sustain itself. Individuals working in that context experience ethical conflicts, but when we introduce this legislation, we can tell the people working in corporations that we are coming to help them: Now you'll be able to tell your investors, "I have to make the corporation more socially responsible in order to protect your investment."

SPENCER: Great. I love it. But there is already a movement. Activist shareholders show up at annual general meetings and raise a ruckus about environmental and other social responsibilities.

LERNER: Occasionally they have an impact. But with this legislation, environmentalists actually will be able to testify against irresponsible corporations.

Regrettably, foreign policy is dominated by people who believe that the world is full of scary people maximizing their own self-interest. I call this threatening worldview "the Right hand of God." It is made up of people who seek domination.

But there is another account, which says that human beings are motivated by a desire for love and connection. And that people are safer if they can build loving connections with others.

There's a continuum between the voice of domination and the voice of generosity. The task of spiritual progressive politics is to help move people from this worldview of fear to a worldview of hope. Most of us have both voices in our heads. Which side is stronger is partly a product of our own childhood experiences, and of the ideologies or religions that we have accepted. And it's partly based on our assessment of where the world is headed at any given moment.

SPENCER: The Network of Spiritual Progressives criticizes the anti-war movement in the United States.

LERNER: Yes, because all it knows is what it's against - the war in Iraq - but it doesn't know what it's for. They don't answer the question: what comes next? We are proposing a global Marshall Plan. The United States would lead by example, giving between one and two percent of its gross domestic product for twenty years, toward the goal of eliminating global and domestic poverty and environmental destruction. Many people say that the world is full of people who want to dominate us. But that's only true to the extent that we want to dominate and control them.

SPENCER: How does this insight explain events in the Middle East?

LERNER: Israelis and Palestinians both have legitimate historical claims to the land of Palestine. Both are acting in a narrowly irresponsible way toward the other. Both of these peoples are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Both are distorted in their consciousness from all the suffering that they have gone through in history. It's not that one side is bad and the other is good. No, both sides are screwed up and both have legitimate claims. It's a mistake to think either in the way that the Israel lobby does in the United States - promoting support for Israeli policies, which is self-destructive to Israel, and destructive to the best interests of the United States and of world peace - or to say, "We will eliminate Israel, and the way to get there is to make it seem one-sidedly evil." It's not one-sidedly evil. Both sides are screwed up.

SPENCER: So how can you move the social dynamics in other countries toward hope and generosity?

LERNER: In this case, I believe that Israel, because it has the stronger army, has a greater responsibility than the Palestinians to take first steps toward generosity. In Tikkun Magazine and in a book that I wrote called Healing Israel-Palestine I've shown what a settlement would look like that would be fair to both sides. It resembles the Geneva Accords between Palestinians and Israelis in 2003.

We, the Network of Spiritual Progressives, are trying to build the alternative to the Israel lobby in the United States. And we have chapters in Canada as well as the United States.

We encounter people who say, "This is unrealistic!" We reply: to hell with realism! Realism is the notion that what is has to define what can be. And we're building support in a number of English-speaking countries.

SPENCER: What kind of response are you getting from US political candidates?

LERNER: I've met with a number of the political candidates and they said what I already knew, which is: "This is very good. We agree with it but we can't say it publicly because the cynics who dominate public discourse would laugh us out of the political arena. We're not going to say these ideas publicly until more of our constituents say them first to us."

That's how American politics works. It is democratic in that sense. You have to hear it from the grass roots before it will be said from the top. The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal described me as the "guru of the Clinton White House." Supposedly I was a major influence on Hillary Clinton. Yet when I speak with Hillary she says that she agrees with everything I say, but she can't put these ideas forward because she doesn't hear them coming from people when she goes out to speak. That's why I've organized the Network of Spiritual Progressives - to popularize a different way.

Realists have brought us endless wars, poverty, and environmental destruction. So we need a different kind of discourse - one with a vision that we can actually get excited about.

Rabbi Lerner is an author and leader of the Network of Spiritual Progressives. Canadians can connect through <www.tikkuntoronto.com>.

Metta Spencer is a professor emeritus of sociology, University of Toronto, and editor of Peace Magazine.

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2007

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2007, page 16. Some rights reserved.

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