About Michael Lerner
Rabbi Lerner is not only rabbi of Beyt Tikkun but is also the editor of TIKKUN magazine: A Bimonthly Jewish Critique of Politics, Culture and Society. TIKKUN is one of the most respected intellectual/cultural magazines in the Jewish world, but also one of the most controversial because of its stand in favor of the rights of Palestinians, on the one hand, which locates him in the minds of many as the leader and most prominent spokesperson in the U.S. of Jewish supporters of the Israeli peace movement, and on the other hand, because of his stand critiquing the anti-religious and anti-spiritual biases of the secular Left... [read more]
Passover (which begins Saturday evening) is a celebration of liberation.
It is not only the liberation of the ancient Israelites. When people begin to struggle in one dimension of the society, and show that the way things are is NOT the only way things can be, an explosion of hope circles the globe, pushing the psycho-spiritual energy of the world toward greater and greater levels of freedom. So, according to the Torah, "a mixed multitude" of ethnic and religious people left Egypt with the Israelites-it was not confined to a particular group. Similarly, if we look at the explosion of hope in the 1960s and early 1970s we see a similar surge of hopeful energy. It is these surges that Passover at once celebrates and encourages.
Passover teaches important and universal lessons:
1. Liberation is both political and spiritual-the two are inseparable. Counter the tendency of some today to talk about first developing one's spiritual capacities and then later worrying about social change the Torah recounts God as telling Moses to tell Pharoah, "Let my people go so that they may serve Me." The service of God comes after the political liberation. But just as the political liberation is about to happen, God asks the Israelites to engage in a ritual of liberation, and thereafter to once a year celebrate that original liberation through a similar ritual (the Passover seder). Of course, we are not talking about electoral politics, but about liberatory politics. And yet at the same time we are told clearly that the point of the liberation is a spiritual growth, that it aims to clear the ground for a higher evolution in the consciousness of the people. That is why Jewish mystics have always insisted on the importance of the name of the land of Jewish oppression, which was called Mitzrayim, the narrow place. The mystics taught that we were being birthed from the narrow consciousness to a much broader understanding of ourselves in the universe, and that new consciousness was the way that we would be serving God.
2. The new consciousness birthed in Egypt was partly this: that the world is not fixed, that everything can be healed and transformed, that oppression is not ontological but historical, and the reason for this is that the fundamental reality of the universe, the YHVH (in English mistranslated as God but really it means the "that which transforms from the present to the future, the Force of Healing and Transformation"), is a Force that makes transformation possible.
3. There is another dimension to the liberation: that it is intrinsically connected to the physical world. The earth cannot survive in a world of oppression. That is what the plagues are telling the Egyptians: the natural order is also a moral order, and that it cannot survive in the midst of huge moral distortion. In our Seder, we focus on the blessings of the earth and recommit ourselves to the fundamental task for humanity in the 21st century: repairing the damage done to our planet by 150 years of environmentally irresponsible forms of industrialization.
4. The mystical tradition in Judaism to which I adhere teaches that there is another dimension of narrow consciousness: dualistic thinking. The task of the next stage in human evolution is to recognize the Unity of All Being and the interconnectedness of every human being. In concrete terms that means recognizing that our individual well-being is inseparable from the well-being of every other human being on the planet. On a conceptual level, it also means recognizing that we are made of the same psycho-spiritual-material integration that has been developing and manifesting in every other part of being for the past 13.5 billion years, and that we are at once a manifestation of the totality of all that was and is, and simultaneously involved in the increasingly self-conscious process by which all that is is transforming itself to higher levels of freedom and consciousness.
I hope that we can contribute to this growth in consciousness and movement toward liberation by creating a Network of Progressive Spiritual Activists for all people of faith, and for spiritually sensitive secular people as well. We desperately need coordination and ways to act together, as has become very clear with the current assault by the Right on an independent judiciary. I strongly urge you to join the Network of Progressive Spiritual Activists and by coming to our founding conferences (one July 20-23 at the University of California, Berkeley, the second Feb 10-13, 2006 at American University in DC). More information: www.tikkun.org.
This Passover has a certain sadness for many Jews. For many there is a feeling that some of their co-religionists are a bit hypocritical to be celebrating Passover while simultaneously ruling over another people. Yet this is mixed with a sadness, and compassion for those who are violating the highest principles of justice and love commanded by our Torah,, because we allow ourselves to recognize that the distorted policies of the State of Israel are themselves the product of the distortions in our people generated by centuries of oppression and the resulting fears and paranoias that make it difficult for many of them to recognize that they are today not the oppressed but the oppressors. Still, that history of oppression provides only a basis for compassion, not an excuse or justification for policies that must be changed. And while many of us welcome the moves being made for Israel to leave Gaza, we also do not believe that they provide much of a foundation for hope, because even though they may temporarily lessen the daily suffering of some Palestinians (though not totally, given that Israel will continue to control the borders and enter with force into Gaza whenever Israel chooses to see a security threat there), we know from the words of Ariel Sharon and his supporters in the Likud that the disengagement from Gaza is only to strengthen Israel's ability to retain control over the West Bank, prevent a contiguous Palestinian state (though they may be offered a sham version, with Jerusalem's 250,000 Palestinians cut off from the rest and told that they are part of Israel), with 300,000 Israeli settlers in their midst having roads that only Jews can ride crisscrossing this land and dividing it into powerless cantons. We know all this, and we dip wine from our cup of joy in commemoration of the oppression of the Palestinian people and in mourning for the distortions that are being presented to the world as Judaism when in fact what is happening is the exact opposite of what the Jewish tradition has to teach.
And it is with heavy heart that we watch the continued genocide in Darfur and the failure of all the governments of the world to intervene and stop it. And it is with heavy hearts that we watch the growing assault on gays and lesbians by the Religious Right, and the growing assault on secular people who are now being blamed by the Religious Right for the growth of moral relativism and a decline in values. While strongly committed to my own religious tradition, I want to stand in solidarity with secular people, with gays and liberations, and anyone else who becomes the target of these assaults. But I also want to affirm my love and compassion for many people on the Right with whose politics I sharply disagree.
Yet, we've also learned another lesson that has universal significance: that even partial victories deserve to be celebrated even when so much more needs to be done. So for that reason, it's important not to demean what has been accomplished in the name of bemoaning what has not been yet won. And for that reason, I want to wholeheartedly wish those of my fellow Jews who are celebrating it a joyous Passover, and invite our many non-Jewish friends to take into their lives any parts of this message that may seem helpful.
Love and blessings for a universal liberation of all peoples.
Rabbi Michael Lerner
I want to bless the New pope and pray that he transcends his views on gays, women, secularists, the lack of validity of other religious paths, etc. I also pray that all the good people in the Church who do not share his views and want to preserve the social justice orientation of Jesus' teachings will join with us in creating an interfaith Network of Progressive Spiritual Activism--now more than ever such a context both for secular and for progressive religious and spiritual peole is badly needed.
Since the days in which he served in the Hitler Youth and Nazi army in Germany (apparently against his will, but nevertheless apparently absorbing the deep patriarchal and authoritarian character structure that the fascists did so much to foster in younth) to his role as the leader of the forces that suppressed the liberatory aspects of Vatican II and purged or silenced the Church of its most creative leadership (including German Catholic theologians Eugene Drewermann and Hans Kung, Brazilian theologian Leonardo Boff, and several prominent American Catholic thinkers), to the present moment in which he is recognized as the leader most identified with the forces of reaction and suppression of dissent within the Church, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger has distinguished himself as a man who can be counted on to side with the most anti-humane and repressive forces, in opposition to those who seek to give primacy to a world of peace and justice.
Although normally Jews would welcome any choice of leadership by our sister religion, we have particular reason to comment on this choice.
Jews have a powerful stake and commitment in ending global poverty and oppression. We fully well understand that in a world filled with pain and cruelty, the resulting anger is often channeled in racist, sexist, anti-Semitic, and homophobic directions. Both as a matter of principle, based on our commitment to a prophetic vision, and as a matter of self-interest, Jews have disproportionately supported liberal and progressive social change movements seeking to end war and poverty.
So it was with great distress that we watched as Cardinal Ratzinger led the Vatican in the past twenty-five years on a path that opposed providing birth control information to the poor of the world, thereby ensuring that AIDS would spread and kill millions in Africa.
And we watched with even greater distress as this Cardinal supported efforts to involve the Church in distancing itself from political candidates or leaders who did not agree with the Church's teachings on abortion and gay rights, prioritizing these issues over whether that candidate agreed with the Church on issues of peace and social justice. As a result, Cardinal Ratzinger has led the Church away from its natural alliance with Jews in fighting for peace and social justice and toward a stance which in effect allies the Church with the most reactionary politicians whose policies are militaristic and offer a preferential option for the rich.
We can't help noticing that under Cardinal Ratzinger's tutelage the Church began moves to elevate the infamous Pope Pius XII to the status of saint. Instead of repenting for the failure of the Church to give unequivocal messages telling all Catholics that they would be prevented from receiving communion for collaborating or cooperating in any way with Nazi rule, or for failing to hide and protect Jews who were marked for extermination, Ratzinger has sought to whitewash this disgraceful moment in Church history. Many Jews are outraged at a Church that denies communion to those who have remarried or those who oppose making abortion illegal but that did not similarly deny communion to those who participate in crimes against humanity.
In fact, Cardinal Ratzinger publicly praised the fascist movement in the Church known as Opus Dei and supported canonization of Josemaria Escriva, the founder of Opus Dei, an open fascist who served in the government of Spain's dictator Franco, and who publicly praised Hitler.
While many of us agree with Ratzinger's critique of moral relativism, he extends that critique in illegitimate and dangerous ways, equating secularism with moral relativism and suggesting that secularism is now repressing religion. Since many, many Jews are secular, we have much concern about the way that this assault can quickly turn in anti-Semtiic directions (some of us remember the Nazi-supporting priest Father Coughlin of the 1930s whose US radio show always insisted that he was only agaisnt the secular Jews and hence wasn't "really" anti-Semitic). But whether or not he turns against Jews, those of us who are religious Jews or people of faith in other religions should rally against the attempt to demean all secular people and blame on them the problems of selfishness actually rooted in the dynamics of the the global capitalist market.
Ratzinger also publicly critiques all those inside the Church who are tolerant enough to think that other religions may have equal validity as a path to God. This is a slippery slope toward anti-Semitism and a return to the chauvinistic and triumphalist views that led the Church, when it had the power to do so, to develop its infamous crusades and inquisitions.
In 1997 Ratzinger said that Europeans attracted to Buddhism were actually seeking an "autoerotic spirituality" that offers "transcendence without imposing concrete religious obligations." Hindusim, he said, offers "false hope," in that it guarantees "purification" based on a "morally cruel" concept of reincarnation resembling "a continuous circle of hell." At the time, Cardinal Ratzinger predicted that Buddhism would replace Marxism as the Catholic church's main enemy.
Ratzinger is being falsely described as a conservative, when in fact he, despite his publicly genteel manner, is a raging reactionary. Unlike many American conservatives who oppose gay sexual practices but not their legal rights, Ratzinger in 1992 argued against human rights for gays, stressing that their civil liberties could be "legitimately limited."
Those of us in the Jewish world who have enormous respect for Christianity and for the wisdom and beauty of the Catholic tradition are in mourning today that the Church has confirmed for itself a destructive direction that will hurt not only Catholics but all those who seek peace and justice in the world.
We remain hopeful that the new pope may return to his original more progressive positions (pre-1968) and realize that the world needs a church that can respond compassionately and wisely to what is needed rather than remain wedded to dogma that is so destructive. In a statement that Ratzinger made a few years ago, he seemed deeply aligned with TIKKUN's ciritque of the selfishness and materialism of the contemporary world. We hope that he stops blaming that on secularists and comes to understand that secularists too, as well as people from other faiths, can be allies in the struggle for a new ethos of love and generosity. We pray that he may find a way to bring a better, kinder, more loving and compassionate agenda to the Catholic Church.
It is precisely because we continue to feel allied with the Church and see it as an important ally in the struggle for social justice and peace that we are so dismayed at this misdirection. Meanwhile, we reaffirm our solidarity with the many millions of Catholics who had hoped for a very different kind of Pope who would make the Church more open to women's leadership, to prioritizing social justice, to rethinking its opposition to promoting birth control, and to returning to the hopeful spirit of Vatican II. We can say publicly what many of you can only say privately-that this new Pope does not represent what is most beautiful and sacred in the teachings of Jesus.
DISCLAIMER REGARDING THE ABOVE WRITING
Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of the world's largest circulation progressive Jewish magazine, TIKKUN, and rabbi of Beyt Tikkun Synagogue in San Francisco, took the unusual step of criticizing the choice made by the Catholic Church for its new Pope, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. Lerner was careful to make clear that he was NOT speaking as leader of The Tikkun Community, the interfaith organization whch he co-chairs, which has NOT taken a stand on these issues, but only as editor of TIKKUN magazine. The actual title of the above writing is, "The Selection of Cardinal Ratzinger Is Bad News for the World and for the Jews."
Late this evening, Rabbi Lerner was interviewed on a national call-in radio show on the issues discussed here, and he mentioned the problem that Catholics have of speaking out on these issues, given Cardinal Ratzinger's tendency to take retributive actions to purge from positions in the church those who disagreed with his views. A retired catholic priest called in, said he agreed 100% with Rabbi Lerner's position, and said that he wouldn't dare say these things under his own name for fear that his retirement pension would be cut off, so he thanked Rabbi Lerner for saying for progressive Catholics what many do not dare say for themselves.
Rabbi Michael Lerner is editor of TIKKUN and author of ten books, including Healing Israel/Palestine (North Atlantic Books, 2003) and Jewish Renewal (Harper Perennial, 1995).
Condolences to our many Catholic readers and members of The Tikkun Community on the passing of the Pope.
From the standpoint of progressive spiritual people outside the Catholic world, this pope played both a positive and negative role. On the positive side, he continued and reaffirmed the strong Catholic teachings on the importance of social justice. He advanced the connection between Catholics and Jews and took some important steps to symbolically affirm the sisterhood of Christianity and Judaism. He made symbolic gestures of recognition of Islam. He courageously stood up to communist dictators in Poland and the military junta in Brazil, pleaded for an end to the conflict between Catholics and Protestants in Ireland, went to Japan and denounced nuclear war. He took a step toward modeling forgiveness by visiting in jail the person who tried to kill him. He called for reconciliation between Israel and Palestine. And this is only the tip of the iceberg of many good deeds and positive values he espoused.
It is the Jewish tradition that in remembering the dead, we talk honestly and not just say the good things. In fact, we consider it more of a respecting of the dead to acknowledge the full picture, and not only say what we admired, but also what challenged us. And we do that starting with the first times that we talk about the dead, in the eulogy, and during the period of mourning. Our tradition teaches us that it is this honest accounting that allows us to return from sadness in a healthy way, rather than by covering up parts that disappointed us or hurt us.
So, to talk the truth, we must say that this pope played a distressing role in undermining within the Church the voices of progressives, particularly but not only those who were at the forefront of liberation theology (officially silencing one of its most creative leaders, Rev. Leonardo Boff, silencing Matthew Fox in the U.S., and elevating church leaders who sided with the status quo rather than those who sided with the poor and the oppressed), those who sought to build upon the progressive spirit intended by the Vatican Council II in the mid 1960s. Rather than widening and building on that spirit of liberalization by taking actions like including women in the priesthood, allowing priests to marry, welcoming homosexuals into the church, this pope not only reaffirmed the most sexually repressive aspects of his tradition (few of them actually based in biblical texts) but also elevated these issues into the central issues of loyalty to the church (e.g. in insisting that the docrtiine of ordaininly only men was a position that required full loyalty from the faithful), condemning moves to open the church to homosexuals, and rebuffing attempts by women to gain more influence in the church.
In 2003 his last encyclical insisted that divorced Cathlics who remarry cannot receive communion--a position that reenforces the Catholic Church's opposition to divorce in a way that is in striking contrast to the more humane attitudes of the Torah on this question and of most post-patriarchal societies and humane religious traditions.
He elevated into positions of leadership the most conservative and least socially conscious elements in the Catholic world, ensuring that the Church will continue to play a repressive and reactionary role in these matters.
Many progressive Catholics see the various moves that the pope made to centralize power and silence dissent (including from among progressive Cathlics in the US) as a counter-revolution to the advances made at the Vatican II, institutionalized when one of the more reactionary voices in the Church, Cardinal Ratzinger, was brought in by the popeto head the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
Faced with the dramatic environmental challeges of population growth and the corresponding mass starvation that led to the death of tens of millions of people during his papacy, this pope stuck by teachings against birth control that have no foundation in the Bible and are destructive to the human race. The Pope mobilized the energy of the Çatholic Church to challenge the United Nations conference in Caairo in 1994 which was aimed at addressing the problem of population explosion--and to head off a reosution favoring abortion rights, contraception and other measures supported by experts in population control.
Even if one thinks, "well, he was just sticking with tradition and didn't have the courage to challenge it and was surrounding by other reactionaries in the Vatican who wouldn't allow him to think outside that box" one still can be very disturbed that he went further, allowing and at times encouraging others in the Church to make the sexual issues the litmus test of seriousness and commitment to Catholic principles, so that American Catholics could then allow some of their most reactionary leaders to state during an election that they would not offer Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry the right to take sacraments in their church because he did not support the Catholic position on making abortion illegal. Why did they not take that same position in regard to supporting capital punishment, voting for wars, voting to give more funding to military preparations than to helping the poor?
The decision to privilege the sexual issues over the social justice issues was a response to the spirit of this papacy, and it was a moral disgrace to the Catholic world on the same level as the uncritical support for Israel's treatment of the Palestinian people has been a moral disgrace for the Jewish world or the lack of criticism of anti-Semitism and terrorism has been a moral disgrace for much of the Islamic world.
In this regard, we should identify and support those elements inside the Catholic world who have spoken out with a moral clarity and challenged the Pope on these issues, rather than pretend that the Catholic world is one and united behind the thrust of the leadership and vision that this pope represented. It is not, any more than all Jews are respresented by those who speak on our behalf and support morally obnoxious positions in the Middle East or all Muslims are represnted by those who spew hatred at Jews or who remain silent in the face of the growth of a violent voice in the Islamic world.
We at Tikkun organized a demonstration against this pope when he visited San Francisco shortly after he had met with former Nazi soldier and later president of Austria Kurt Waldheim. We protested when then mayor, now senator Diane Feinstein, ignoring the moral outrage of that visit, used her personal wealth and family connections to raise money for the pope's visit--a precursor to her own opportunistic future as a moral compromiser par excellence. We add with great sorrow that this pope contributed to making Pope Pius XII a saint--the pope who made a concordat with Hitler and who did pathetically little to save the Jewish people when we were being massacred in Europe. Though merely symbolic, that action symbolizes an unwillingness of the church to really take account of its disgraceful role not only with Hitler but with many other dictators in making accommodations to the most oppressive regimes in the modern world rather than fighting those regimes with every inch of its moral authority.
I know that it is possible that in raising these issues as friends of the Catholic Church and as people who have great respect for the Catholic tradition, I could nevertheless be misperceived as lacking that respect. But I speak as a Jew who has consistently critiqued the religious leaders of my own community, consistently watched them distort the highest values of the Jewish tradition as they sided with repressive policies toward the Palestinian people, challenged them when they took repressive policies toward homosexuals, challenged them to end sexism and racism, challenged them to join with Tikkun in the fight for peace and social justice, challenged them when they were silent about the Iraq war, for example, challenged them to stop using the Holocaust as a cover for their own lack of sensitivity to the role that global capital plays in creating a global economy within which over ten million people die each year from malnutrition and preventable diseases. So it is actually only because I feel a strong solidarity, an intrinsic connection, between my own connection to God and the connection to God of the Catholic world, and a strong affirmation of all that is deeply beautiful and moving in the Cahtolic tradition, that I feel a need to speak the deepest truth that I know as we witness a global mourning that partly obscures the reality of this pope and his legacy. But let me hasten to add that I critique some of his policies, but do not pretend to have any right to judge this person as a human being beyond the political impact he had on the world. I imagine that he was faced with immense pressures and constraints, that he moved as far as he could within the worldview that he inherited, and that his fundamental reality was that of a decent and good human being trying his best to serve God and humanity. You see that in his statements against war and violence. You see that in his attempts at ecumenicism with other branches of Christianity. You see that in his statements on behalf of the downtrodden. So I pray this he will rest in eternal peace and be remembered also for all the good that he did.
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