Thursday, January 03, 2008



Good of the Order


For the last ten years, I have been greatly inspired and enriched by Rabbi Michael Lerner’s Politics of Meaning and by his insight that we humans have a profound yearning for connection in a human community, for mutual recognition, and for a higher meaning and purpose beyond selfish existence. To meet this need, Lerner urges us to commit to the building of a society that promotes caring, sharing, generosity, being cared for, awe and wonder at the grandeur of creation, sustaining the planet, examination of our inner motives, and active nonviolent resistance to injustice.

A few years ago, Lerner urged us to create Tikkun Communities named for the Hebrew word “tikkun” meaning “to heal and to transform” with a focus on promoting a two state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict. At my request, Tikkun Magazine sent a notice of our organizing meeting to all readers in the Greater Tucson area with a population of 1 million. Beginning with his Berkeley summer workshop in 2005, Lerner urged us to organize the Network of Spiritual Politics with a purpose of injecting the politics of meaning into American politics, particularly the Democratic Party. I made an exhaustive effort to organize based on these concepts in the Democratic city of Tucson from 2004 to 2006. Despite Lerner’s claim that the yearning for a caring community was profound and universal, I could not recruit a single person who wanted to join, pay dues, and actively implement his visions either for America or for Israel and Palestine. Only 6 to 10 people would cautiously attend meetings for talk only. Since I still believe that Lerner’s basic ideas are valid, badly needed, and perhaps the only humane and civilized proposal before us, I have made an extensive research into the reasons for the failure, including my own shortcomings.

My Own Shortcomings

I know that I am judgmental, impatient, and zealous. I write with passion, but I have trouble speaking passionately and appropriately in public situations where passion might be needed. I am doing inner work on these problems, and I am seeking input from others.

Who Wants to Implement The Left Hand of God in the Civic Arena?

Lerner is promoting an Old Testament version of what Christians call the “social gospel” in his book The Left Hand of God. It is no more appealing to most Jews, than the social gospel is to most Christians. Although I vigorously support the “social gospel,” most Christians have always shunned it. Christians will support charities, but only a tiny percentage of Christians wish to act on Christian ideals in the political community so as to challenge the status quo that creates the need for charity. Like Jews, their most profound wish is to maintain the cohesion of their religious communities and thus they shun anything “political.” So Christians as such, would have no more to do with either Tikkun or the Network of Spiritual Politics than Jews.
I have come to the conclusion that most Jews justifiably suffer from something like post traumatic stress syndrome from the holocaust and centuries of persecution that lead them to love and worship Israel no matter what its right wing hawkish leaders do. Most Jews could not accept Lerner’s ideas and saw him as a “self hating Jew.” They ignored Lerner’s interpretation of the Torah, the Talmud and Jewish tradition. They uncritically supported the Israel Lobby in American politics and its powerful influence in the Bush Administration, on the Democrats in Congress, and its strategical alliance with the Christian Right.

It appears that our religious institutions and we ourselves are captivated by what David Korten calls the “trance of empire” and so far no one has been able to break this trance or raise serious opposition to the Conventional Wisdom and to so called hawkish realism. What is it that impedes popular acceptance of the politics of meaning if it seeks to answer a fundamental universal yearning?

What Exactly is the “Spirituality” of the Network of Spiritual Progressives?

I reread the basic texts supporting politics of meaning. There are three. The most important is Rabbi Lerner’s The Left Hand of God. Another was written by Lerner’s “deepest friend,” Peter Gabel with his The Bank Teller and Other Essays on the Politics of Meaning. Finally there is Lerner’s Healing Israel/Palestine. Both Lerner and Gabel are Jews. Both were active participants in what they see as the “heightened sense of social connection and moral purpose of the 60s,” what the rest of us call the “hippie era.” Both are very bright, sensitive and insightful human beings. Both are Phds and both have studied Marx and Freud. Both are therapists. They co-edit Tikkun Magazine. In 1970, Gabel founded and taught at The New College of California to continue and propagate the values of the 60s and the insights and values of the politics of meaning. (It may be significant that The New College is now near bankruptcy, apparently no more successful than the Network of Spiritual Progressives.) Gabel’s book is silent about Israel, but Lerner “loves” Israel, seeks to avoid “the blame game” despite Israel’s Zionist effort to capture ever more land for Jews, and seeks a “two state” solution that would maintain Israel as a Jewish State. Lerner lived in Israel for a time and he apparently remains a Zionist although a radical Zionist to this day.

Both Lerner and Gabel are properly critical of our obsession with science and our ignoring the other sources of human wisdom. Both believe in a creative intelligence in the Universe, e.g. God. Both are somewhat sympathetic to “creationism.” Both correctly point out that science provides no basis for judging what is moral or what is good. Gabel seems to find his foundation for values in the 60s and seeks to bring back the community, values, feelings and insights of that era. For me the 60’s values are insufficiently rooted in long term human experience for a moral political movement in 2008. Lerner’s sets his foundation for values in the prophets of the Old Testament, the Talmud and the Torah, and the insights of other major religions. This is far more to my liking and serves us well for private inspiration for civic works. One can tell from the depth, humaneness, and progressiveness of his proposals that Lerner is really basing his politics of meaning on the Wisdom Tradition. Lerner does not acknowledge this and simply labels his foundation as “spirituality.” Lerner and NSP get into serious trouble when they try to project these insights into the civic arena as spiritual, and not as a secular Wisdom Tradition made up of the insights of very bright sensitive men and women over the centuries that continues with the insights of present day sages.
The difference is critical and calling the movement “spiritual” has alienated thousands of potential participants. Scientists, non-believers, believers in the separation of church and state, and non-Jews can use the Wisdom Tradition in the civic arena while they reject spiritualism and religion there. Moreover the word “spiritual” is very vague and embraces a wide variety of subjective beliefs and practices, some of them unacceptable. The word “spiritual” does not accurately describe what Lerner and Gabel are imparting.

The civic essence of what Lerner is proposing is caring, sharing, generosity, sustainability of creation, and active nonviolence. Many people who are neither religious nor spiritual can and do share these civic objectives. These civic values are widely accepted and much more precise of meaning than “spirituality.” These idealistic values by themselves are enough of a challenge and shock to those adhering to Conventional Wisdom and “Realism” without adding “spirituality.” These values can be wholeheartedly implemented by all, including scientists, non-believers, and those who believe in the separation of church and state. “Spirituality” is simply not necessary to the civic argument. Spirituality in the civic arena simply diverts our attention from the goal of politics of meaning. That goal is to implement caring and generous values in American politics.

Rabbi Lerner’s Insistence on Placing Spirituality in the Civic Arena Creates Three Unnecessary and Divisive Controversies

Lerner insists on making his civic movement spiritual. His is a one man movement and he invites criticism so long as one does not contest that his movement is spiritual. Bringing God into the public area is unfortunately important to Rabbi Lerner, as it is to the Christian Right. The insistence that it be spiritual aborts the Politics of Meaning at its inception.

Lerner sets up three unnecessary and divisive “cat fights” that decimate the potential ranks of those who are interested and potential participants in the politics of meaning in American politics:

1. Lerner argues in the civic area that his spirituality is better than the spirituality of the Christian Right and all others. Lerner in effect is making an argument in the civic arena that cannot be won. Religion and spirituality are private individual and subjective. The argument cannot be “won” with rational debate. Lerner’s God apparently approves of Israel’s use of military force to insure Israel’s right to exist. My own God questions that. There are as many views of God as there are human beings. History has many examples of the tragedies that resulted when one group tries to impose its religion and spirituality on to another group. The separation of church and state in our Constitution is a reflection of this human experience. If there is any place at all for spiritual debate and spiritual persuasion, it would be Synagogues and Churches, not the civic arena. One wonders if Rabbi Lerner has successfully enlisted all of those who attend his Synagogue as active civic implementers of caring sharing and generosity in the civic arena. My experience is that there is much resistance to the social gospel and The Left Hand of God even in Churches and Synagogues.

2. Lerner also insists that others with whom he participates in politics, honor and accept that spirituality is a proper subject for civic debate. He sets up an unnecessary divisive cat fight with others on this issue.

3. Lerner also sets up an unnecessary cat fight with leftists who criticize Israeli military occupation and expansion and who do not level equal “blame” on the victims of this expansion. Lerner is too ready to label such leftists as anti-Semitic. His own post traumatic stress syndrome, Zionism and love of Israel do him in on this issue, as does Lerner’s ongoing justification of military force for oppressors but not for victims. Opposing present day manifestations of Zionism is not anti-Semitism.

Gabel, Lerner and all interested in the politics of meaning could benefit from a careful reading of E.F. Schumacher’s 1977 book, A Guide for the Perplexed.
Schumacher presents a brilliant secular analysis of the Wisdom Tradition, thus making it useful in the civic world. Schumacher gives us the 4 basic questions that underlie the search for wisdom, values, and meaning of sages and prophets. These are:
1. What is going on in my own inner world?
2. What is going on in the inner world of other beings?
3. What do I look like in the eyes of other beings?
4. What do I actually observe in the world around me?
The Wisdom Tradition is a secular winnowing of the best thinking and insights of the sages over the centuries. Modern sages such as Rabbi Lerner and Walter Wink continue to augment the Tradition. Another good source is Houston Smith’s book, The World’s Religions: Our Great Wisdom Traditions.

A Successful Politics of Meaning Must Deal Much More Profoundly With Our Own Fear And With the Awesome Power of the Status Quo

First off, we must deal more adequately with our pervasive fear. When we are threatened by enemies, or when we are told that we are threatened by “enemies,” our instinctual reaction is to react with force in our self defense. In this state of fear, we are immobilized and cannot think of implementing idealistic long term solutions. Presenting frightened people with a vision or a hope of a more idealistic solution is simply not feasible. We need to confront and deal with the fear first. We need to use Quaker like wisdom in determining whether the fear has realistic causes, in examining the enemies that cause the fear, the reasons they are our enemies, what they really want. We probably should join those who question the official story about 9/11 since it is the root of our fear since that time. The training involved for active nonviolent resistance is an excellent way to learn to deal with our fear. We must be consistent in proposing and implementing active nonviolence for resisting injustice, oppressors, and “enemies.” NSP and Lerner apparently wish to maintain military force as an option. Lerner accepts Israeli propaganda that Iran and Muslims generally “want to drive Israel into the sea,” based mainly on alleged anti-Semitic speeches of the President of Iran. Lerner is thus not ready to advocate universal use of active nonviolence. Unfortunately, the fact is that 36,000 Jews live in Tehran and do not wish to emigrate to Israel. A careful reading of what the Iranian President said is that Israel’s expansion beyond its legal borders must be stopped. He did not threaten “Israel’s right to exist.” Iranians may be against present day Zionism as I am, but that does not mean that we are anti-Semitic

The politics of meaning needs a full understanding of power and the means for resisting power. Excellent sources are Walter Wink’s Engaging the Powers and The Powers that Be. Wink’s discussion of the Myth of Redemptive Violence is critical to this understanding. If we are successfully to implement the politics of meaning, sharing, caring, and generosity, we must ground ourselves in the discipline of active nonviolence. Any reliance on force as an option is counterproductive and inconsistent with the values of the politics of meaning.

Lerner and Gabel seem to have the view that the awesome aggregate of status quo power and media can be confronted with normal ballot box politics and hopeful idealistic spirituality, with continued maintenance of military might as an option. This is naive. If values of caring and sharing are to confront status quo power and injustice successfully, they must be grounded in the profound discipline and inner growth of active nonviolence following the teachings of Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. It requires training, introspection, courage, and willingness to accept punishment for civil disobedience. Lerner is willing to urge the Palestinians to use active nonviolence, but he apparently is not willing to urge Israelis to do the same. Lerner apparently accepts the use of military force by Israelis in their support of Israel’s right to exist, in whatever expanded territory Israeli hawks may capture for Jews. Lerner is properly concerned with confronting the power of the Protestant Christian Right, but his books are silent about confronting the power of the right hand of God in Judaism as a part of the status quo. It is a rare Synagogue that does not enthusiastically support Israeli military aggression in the West Bank, and the extremely hawkish Israel Lobby in the United States.


The yearning for a meaningful existence is universal. We badly need a Politics of Meaning. Rabbi Michael Lerner is a true sage and a worthy contributor to the Wisdom Tradition. He is also human, and his present one man attempt to bring the Politics of Meaning into American politics via NSP is not working and cannot work. We can push values in the civic arena. We cannot insert spirituality, which is a private and subjective matter, although it can be a source of private inspiration and motivation. To confront our fear, and to confront and resist the awesome status quo power and media, the politics of meaning should be grounded in the discipline of active nonviolence. Our need, and the needs of all humans are at such immense risk that we cannot afford to exclude the leftists, the scientists, the nonbelievers, and those who correctly insist on a separation of church and state. We badly need a Network of Wise Progressives.

January 1, 2008

Douglas R. Page, Tucson, AZ

This is Rabbi Lerner’s response to my proposal for a Network of Wise Progressives.

Dear Doug,
Many of your points make sense and your proposal for a secular Network of Wise Progressives sounds exciting. While it's not my path, it could be a very valuable path. I hope you will organize it in Tuscon, a city of 1 million, and when you get the first thousand people in that city joining and being actively involved, I'll be happy to come down and learn from you more about how you did it. I'm not being sarcastic at all--I genuinely think that there are multiple paths to organizing around the politics of meaning, and while yours doesn't fit in the NSP, it does sound like it could have good and useful impact, so I look forward to hearing your reports on how it is growing!
Best wishes,
Rabbi Michael Lerner
On Jan 2, 2008, at 2:39 PM, Doug Page wrote: