Preaching Tikkun

Rabbi Michael Lerner still courts controversy as he celebrates his magazine's silver anniversary

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Judge Richard Goldstone (left) and Rabbi Michael Lerner at Tikkun's silver anniversary celebration
Luke Thomas/Fog City Journal

Michael Lerner recently endured death threats, attacks on his house, and a cyber attack that shut down the website of his beloved magazine Tikkun. But it's nothing new for an outspoken outsider whom infamous former FBI director J. Edgar Hoover once dubbed "one of the most dangerous criminals in America."

The 68-year-old rabbi jokes that his middle name is chutzpah (Yiddish for audacity, good or bad) and says he has been a magnet for controversy his entire life. But that doesn't make the recent threats from Zionists and other strong advocates for Israel any less scary.

The latest controversy comes on the heels of Tikkun's silver anniversary celebration, held March 14, when the progressive Jewish publication honored human rights advocate Judge Richard Goldstone, whose report condemning Israeli war crimes in Gaza was strongly criticized by Jewish leaders. The day after the Tikkun event, vandals plastered posters outside Lerner's Berkeley home depicting him as a Nazi cooperating with an Islamic extremist to destroy Israel. Previously vandals broke into his home, wreaking havoc inside and leaving graffiti to communicate their message.

After all these years, Lerner bears the threats and accusations with eternal optimism and resilience, preaching the still-radical message of "peace, justice, nonviolence, generosity, caring, love, and compassion." The message has been at center of the Berkeley-based magazine's mission for 25 years.

Aside from being a vibrant spiritual community based on traditional Jewish and other humanistic values, Tikkun has deeply influenced the discourse in the wider Jewish community. It has challenged the Jewish community's automatic support for Israel and Zionism and started a spirited debate, triggering an angry backlash in the process.

As its readership has diversified across religions, so has its mission, leading Lerner to found the Network of Spiritual Progressives in 2005. Dismayed by how conservatives use the notion of family values, Lerner has sought to create a progressive framework to address the human need for spiritual meaning.

"Tikkun is the major thing I did with my life," Lerner tells us.

The recent celebration included an award ceremony for those Lerner's team deems most "Tikkunish." The title of the magazine comes from the old Hebrew phrase tikkun olam, a principle of shared responsibility to "heal, repair, and transform the world." Previous winners include poet Allen Ginsberg and historian Howard Zinn.

Goldstone is known for helping to dismantle apartheid in South Africa and prosecuting war crimes in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. Most recently, Goldstone headed a U.N.-sponsored investigation into Israel's attack on Gaza two years ago. The investigation concluded that indiscriminate bombing in densely populated areas by Israeli forces amounts to war crimes.

Israel and many Jewish leaders have harshly criticized Goldstone's report on the Gaza attack for its purported biases, saying it unjustly jeopardizes Israel's international standing and reputation. But at Tikkun's award ceremony, Goldstone reaffirmed the findings of his investigation and said that he was compelled to act because he believes in the "right of civilians to be protected even in war."

Lerner sees Goldstone's actions as important and deeply Jewish, calling him "a person who takes seriously a central command of Torah: 'Justice, justice shalt thou pursue.'" The two men have had a relationship since Lerner reached out to Goldstone a year ago. At the time, Goldstone was facing so much backlash that some members of South Africa's Jewish community sought to bar him from attending his son's bar mitzvah. That was when the first attack to Lerner's home occurred.

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