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Activist Sees Need for Jewish Renewal : Ideas: Jews have lost sight of their faith's central message of transformation, says controversial theologian who advocates 'taking God seriously on a daily basis.'

November 12, 1994|From Religion News Service

NEW YORK — In an office barely larger than a walk-in closet, Jewish liberation theologian and activist Michael Lerner sits behind a desk overflowing with books, newspapers and more than one cup containing coffee of indeterminate age.

On the wall behind Lerner is a photo of him with Hillary Rodham Clinton, whose adoption of his "politics of meaning" earned him the label "guru of the White House" in the Clinton Administration's early days. Above that is an Israeli flag, and the words "powerlessness corrupts."

It is a phrase that sums up Lerner's assessment of the situation confronting Jews and Judaism in contemporary America.

As he sees it, the pain of centuries of persecution has led Jews largely to abandon Judaism's "central insight"--the "revolutionary and dangerous" proclamation that "the way things are is not the way things have to be." In its place they have embraced the promise of assimilation--safety and material comfort in the American mainstream.

That strategy has assured physical survival, but it has also stripped American Judaism of much of its spiritual power by reducing it to an "ethnic particularity" that fails to inspire, says the 51-year-old Lerner. And so Jews, particularly the younger ones, drift away--from synagogue, from communal life, from concern about the religion's very survival.

In his new book, "Jewish Renewal: A Path to Healing and Transformation" (Putnam, $25.95), Lerner, founder and editor of the biweekly magazine Tikkun, argues that only a radical return to Judaism's message of transformation accompanied by a broad reinterpretation of Jewish practice can reinvigorate the faith.

Lerner, a controversial figure in Jewish circles because of his provocative style, unabashedly left-wing politics and criticism of Israel's policies toward the Palestinians, recently discussed his book with Religion News Service in his office on Manhattan's Upper West Side:

Question: The term Jewish renewal often implies Judaism with a New Age twist. What do you mean by it?

Answer: I'm talking about more than that. Renewal for me is the attempt to reclaim the revolutionary voice of God in Torah (the totality of Jewish law and tradition) and to rebuild a Judaism that is spiritually alive and that rejects the artificial separation between spirituality, ethics and political transformation.

Q: That sounds similar to what evangelical Christians also say.

A: The need for renewal is not restricted to the Jewish community. Renewal is happening everywhere in this nation because the ethos of cynicism and selfishness prevalent in American life is very unsatisfying. I have great philosophical differences with the religious right.

But I agree with them on the need for spiritual renewal and inclusion of spiritual perspective in the public arena. There is no solution to the Jewish problem that is not also a solution to the world's problems.

Q: How did you reach the conclusion that American Judaism is in need of major overhaul?

A: For years I've spoken to Jewish groups across the country. In addition, I interviewed over 350 Jews between the ages of 25 and 45. Overwhelmingly, what I heard was that they were turned off by the materialism and lack of spirituality in the Jewish world, by a joylessness that came from an excessive focus on the Holocaust and Jewish suffering, by upset with the exclusive concern for Jewish welfare without adequate regard to the welfare of others, by the sexism, the cultural conformism and repression of dissent, particularly about Israel.

Of all those things, the materialism was the most striking because I knew that Judaism itself is not materialistic. But they were not talking about what the rabbis said. They were talking about the ethos in the community. They did not feel part of a spiritual community or any sense of a spiritual reality. They left Judaism not because the Jewish world was so different from American society, but because it was so similar.

Q: You say they left. Where did they go?

A: They divided into two subgroups. One group went to find spirituality elsewhere. They experimented with Eastern religions. They checked out psychological growth communities or politics as a way to find an answer to their need for meaning not met in the Jewish world.

But the larger group concluded that since they found no spiritual life in Judaism, all talk about spirituality was just pleasant sentiment having nothing to do with daily life. Judaism and all religious attachments lost all meaning for them.

Q: What does Jewish renewal look like in practice?

A: Jewish renewal is not just an attempt to push liberation theology. It's about taking God seriously on a daily basis, whether your level of observance is Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Orthodox or something else.

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