Revolutions belong to the young, and Michael Lerner is growing old. Tikkun, the magazine he founded and still edits, turns 25, as he turns 68. He wonders how long he can keep doing this.
Tikkun is “the largest circulation progressive Jewish magazine in the world,” he says, but the circulation is down to 18,000, and though 140,000 get Tikkun’s e-mails, the magazine announced it will become smaller in size and will publish four times a year, down from six. Writers go unpaid. Tikkun, like so many in the media, is counting on a beautiful website (www.tikkun.org) to save itself. It is Tikkun’s birthday, but the party seems elsewhere.
Lerner, for years, if not decades, advocated the creation of a leftist rival to AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (a group committed to supporting the Israeli government, right or left), but when that rival arrived in the form of J Street, Lerner was more forgotten than honored.
Lerner, for years, if not decades, has been warning in Tikkun that the pro-Israel organizations in the United States were alienating young American Jews, but it was only when Peter Beinart wrote “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment” in last June’s New York Review of Books, that the matter catapulted to the top of the communal conversation. Overnight, Beinart owned the topic, not Lerner.
Tikkun’s influence may have peaked in the early 1990s when Bill Clinton, before becoming president, sent letters to Lerner saying he regularly read and admired Tikkun. Hillary Clinton, the new first lady, began speaking of “the politics of meaning,” a Lerner catch-phrase, recognized by other journalists who started writing about him as Hillary’s “guru.” Lerner says, “Hillary told me that ‘we’re fully aligned with you on your vision for Israel and American politics.’ I believed her.”
By mid-1993 it was over. His phone calls to the White House went unanswered.
His ideas veered from the apocalyptic — fearing the imminent destruction of the environment — to the messianic: An interfaith project (with Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota, a Muslim) to have the United States undertake a “global Marshall plan” to eradicate all of human poverty, starting in the Middle East. “Yes,” says Lerner, “Tikkun is “unapologetically utopian…”
He was once excluded from an anti-war rally in San Francisco because he was thought to be too pro-Israel. After all, not only did he give his son his blessing to join the Israeli army, but he doesn’t agree with anti-Israel boycotts or sanctions, and he doesn’t think Israel is an apartheid state.
And yet, to celebrate Tikkun’s anniversary, Lerner presented an award to Judge Richard Goldstone, whose report on Israel’s alleged human rights violations during the Gaza war was damned by the Anti-Defamation League as “fundamentally biased against Israel.” Lerner says, “Goldstone loves Israel as much as I do.”
Tikkun was launched in 1986 as a leftist response to Commentary, but “we were also critical of the religiophobic left, including The Nation, Dissent and Mother Jones,” says Lerner. “There hadn’t been, and there still isn’t, a progressive voice that was also pro-Judaism and pro-spiritual consciousness.”
Lerner argued in Tikkun that “Israeli responses to the two intifadas were morally incorrect.” He now admits “the fact that we still insisted on the humanity of Palestinians, at that time, caused us to lose some of our Jewish support.” Tikkun did a readership survey and found that 40 percent of its subscribers were now non-Jews.
In 1995, ordained as a rabbi by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, Lerner opened a Jewish Renewal shul, Beyt Tikkun. Two years ago, Lerner says, several congregants asked him, “We Jews have become Pharaoh to the Palestinian people — so we would be hypocrites to sit around our Passover table celebrating our own freedom, rejoicing at the way the Egyptians were stricken with plague and their first born killed, while ignoring what Israel is doing today in the name of the Jewish people.”
Lerner’s answer? “This is precisely the kind of discussion that is appropriate for the seder table this year.”
A few weeks ago, David Suissa, a columnist for the Jewish Journal in Los Angeles and Huffington Post, wrote about a time he spoke at a Tikkun conference. He asked the audience, regarding the underlying assumption of the peace process that Israel is the major obstacle to peace, “When is the last time any of you woke up in the morning and asked yourself, ‘What if I’m wrong?’ No one raised their hand.”
What would Lerner have said? Lerner, over the phone, quickly replied, “Of course, I might be wrong. But that’s not how I wake up in the morning. I wake up saying Modeh Ani Lefanecha,” the Jewish prayer said upon awakening.
It was one thing when anti-Tikkun vandals desecrated or demonstrated outside his home. It was another thing entirely when cancer entered him two years ago.
The cancer is gone — “there’s no sign of it in my body.” But did it leave a mark on his soul? “It made me more aware of how important it is, every day, to thank God for life, and for this incredible universe. It’s not that I was out of touch with that before, but the prayers are so much deeper for me now.”
Is there anything in the davening he says differently now? “Well, it’s definitely Modeh Ani, and Asher Yotzar,” a meditation about the many intricacies of the body, a blessing for the God “who heals all flesh and acts wondrously. When I say it now I say it very slowly and visualize my inner body and God’s healing energy. I say that differently than I said it five years ago.”
At Shabbos tables, he is likely to be the first to start zemirot, the lively and the stately ones alike, singing with a passion, grinning broadly, enjoying himself immensely. “A lot of people learned how to daven from me, learned how to do Shabbos meals from me,” he says.
At a time when thousands of Jews are leaving Judaism, ostensibly because of that hostility to Israel, say this for Lerner. He stayed. He never let his decades of criticism for Israel corrode his love for davening or Shabbat.
As he says every morning from the siddur, “the soul You placed within me is pure.”
Who are we to argue with a prayer? Let’s leave him at his purest, in prayer, “Refa’ainu Adonai V’nerafay, blessed is the God who heals his people.”