R.Michael Lerner – Embracing Israel/Palestine

May 9, 2014 9:27 am 20 comments

Rabbi Michael Lerner. Photo: Facebook.

I have been reading Michael Lerner’s book Embracing Israel/Palestine: A Strategy to Heal and Transform the Middle East during the week of Israeli Independence Day. The establishment of a Jewish homeland has been the single most important positive historical fact of my lifetime as a Jew. If ever there was a latter day miracle this was it. I would do almost anything for its survival. So some of you may wonder why of all people I chose to read him this week.

Michael Lerner is the founder and rabbi of the Beyt Tikkun Synagogue in Berkeley, Calif., and a founding editor of Tikkun Magazine. He is the leading representative of liberal, universal, humanitarian Judaism and is respected on the national stage. He has traveled a long and arduous path championing a tolerant, moderate and open-minded worldview. And because he argues for compromise in pursuit of peace and reconciliation in Israel, he is dismissed by right-wing maximalist Jews. When I ran Yakar in London I invited him to come and speak. I found him engaging and sincere, and found his use of traditional sources to support his arguments impressive.

So why is it we so dislike people who have the guts to express unpopular opinions? Is it because of that old aphorism that you can’t be a prophet in your own city? Biblical prophets were lonely people. Jeremiah ended up in jail just for his views. They have always stood up for the rights of the poor and the oppressed, and condemned corruption and the hypocrisies of society; for this they were condemned.

So I was glad to have the opportunity to read a book Michael Lerner published a few years ago about the Israel/Palestine issue because I wanted to know if I would agree with him or not. I want to state unambiguously, that there is nothing in his book that I would disagree with. Yet, in the end, I found it unsatisfactory.

Lerner fairly sets out both narratives against each other. He tries and succeeds, in being fair, in recognizing pain, mistakes, cruelties, and missed opportunities on both sides. He believes both sides suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (in the Jewish case for 2,000 years) that blinds them to errors and misjudgments, some obviously much more morally questionable than others. In both camps there are balanced, reasoned opinions and there are extreme, fanatical ones. The world thinks in clichés, but the reality is full of complexities and varieties. In the end, both sides know they will have to compromise.

The blame game is pointless. Perhaps one side did refuse to negotiate. Perhaps the other did fail to nurture good relations when it could have. Perhaps one side has a Supreme Court that has failed and the other doesn’t even have any system of justice. One side might preach hate, and one side might humiliate. Calling on holy textual authority only works if both sides accept the same texts. Dredging up broken promises will achieve nothing, any more than trying to offset Deir Yassin against Gush Etzion, or Palestinian exiles against Sefardi exiles. In the end, peace will only come when both sides want it badly enough. At this moment, clearly, both sides do not.

Perhaps the Palestinians think they can get a better deal. As for Israel, it does not trust Hamas, Islamic Jihad or the fanatics of the wider Middle Eastern environment it finds itself in, who commit such terrible atrocities against each other. You might even argue that both peoples have been and are being let down by their politicians and indeed by the world.

I admire Lerner’s willingness to insist on an unpopular position because he believes it is right. We need such voices. We always need to have our positions challenged. He is driven by a vision of Judaism that I share, what he calls the restorative rather than the defensive (though he calls it “settler Judaism,” which I think is unfair and wrong). We should be trying to make the world a better place instead of only thinking in defensive terms. Sadly we live in a world of murder and prejudice, where world opinion is heavily tilted against Israel for all kinds of reasons; theological, political and psychological. A defensive person tightens inwards; he doesn’t open up.

We may often be our own worst enemies. But in the end, just as I will put my loved ones first, so too will I seek to defend my people first. We are indeed tribal, we humans. I would love to see internationalism overcome nationalism. Judaism can survive, in theory, in a common market where everyone has equal rights. We do in the USA, after all. But for as long as the world around us remains tribal, we must inevitably support our own tribe first.

If this were just an abstract conflict of policies, one could indeed hope to find reconciliation. If it were simply a European imperialist interloper, as were the whites in South Africa, then overcoming the oppressors would be the only way. But this is different because of ancient cultural bonds. If conquest was the original sin, then where does one begin or end the ancient cycle? Does one return the land to the Canaanites?

This is why I find a purely neutral position like Lerner’s right and just, but unsatisfactory. I am biased, prejudiced in favor of my own people. I have lived through the trauma of almost every door being shut in our faces. I have known the possibility of extermination of not just of some, but possibly of all my people. Whatever one my say about the Palestinians, neither they nor the Muslim religion faces extermination. So yes, I am biased. We have been so traumatized for 2,000 years that if I have a chip on my shoulder. I just do not have the confidence to let go of it. All those people across the world and from different cultures screaming for our extermination does not give me confidence.

That doesn’t mean we should not pursue peace. The process itself might help reconciliation, and it certainly does not mean we should turn blind eyes to injustice. But it does mean that if there are billions howling against us, we need our few millions to stand by us. Too many of the Israeli and Jewish critics sound bitter and angry, rather than sad.

Lerner suggests peacekeepers to protect a deal. But where have we seen examples of peacekeepers succeeding? Rely on the USA? Having seen this administration’s well-meant but ineffectual red lines, I no longer have that confidence. I do desperately want to see peace. But more than that I want my people to survive. There are enormous challenges and dangers. But I may be forgiven my realism. In support of it, I quote the former leader of the Liberal Party of Canada and former Leader of the Official Opposition, Michael Ignatieff:

“I cannot help thinking that liberal civilization–the rule of law, not men, of argument in place of force, of compromise in place of violence–runs deeply against the human grain and is achieved and sustained only by the most unremitting struggle against human nature.”

We must undertake that struggle. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. But we should not let our guard down in the process. We have no one to rely on except ourselves, and of course Heaven. It is up to politicians to find a way of protecting the state while resolving the long-term issues. It is for people of vision to inspire them.

20 Comments

  • Your review is far too vague to be useful because you talk more about your ideas than the books supposed subject.

    I wish your review had some meat in it: what Lerner says. Instead we get some vague criticisms of him.

    You don’t like the idea of US as peacekeepers. Bad idea for all, but what else does he say?

    The most you offer is the “purely neutral position like Lerner’s”. What does that mean? That he doesn’t put Israel first? That is — if that is what he says –a fairly big deal and you should explain it.

    (And just before anyone criticizes, it is completely consistent with being “Israel first” AND recognizing the need for a Palestinian state.)

  • Jeremy Rosen

    Mika
    Learn the Gemara on Bava Metzia Nun Chet Amud Bet.

    • @Jeremy Rosen
      Mika
      Learn the Gemara on Bava Metzia Nun Chet Amud Bet.
      ==

      Why? Why should I or anyone else for that matter give the time of day to that counterfeit Roman propaganda? Nothing dating from Roman times can be trusted to have escaped the viciously ruthless Roman censorship. Therefore, everything dating to the Roman Empire can be assumed to have been approved and/or sponsored by Rome as Roman propaganda in the service of Roman interests.

      So, not only are your sources are not biblical but they are clearly Roman and interpretive. Furthermore, there is nothing in the TaNaKh that is a mitzvah. Even the so-called “ten commandments” are a deliberate mistranslation of the Hebrew. In the Hebrew these are called ‘the ten sayings’. As such, there is no obligation to follow any of them.

  • I’d like to hear Rabbi ROSENS POSITION OF THIS ”jewish” philosophy. This is not TORAH.
    This is just another destroyer of TORAH TRADITION.

    • Jeremy Rosen

      Dacon
      If you would clarify exactly what you are referring to I would be happy to explain.

      • THE GREAT RABBIS WHO WERE HOLY AND GENIUS’ WHO SPOKE TO HASHEM WOULD DISREGARD THIS NUT.

        TOLERANCE IS ANARCHY AND CHAOS.
        TORAH IS WISDOM KNOWLEDGE RULES AND REGULATIONS

        Lerner is a disrupter of thousands of years of tradition of greatness beyond his aspirations that he obviously knows nothing about. He is so shallow and lowly that he doesnt even have aspirations of wisdom and knowledge.

        The learnings I had were to repair ourselves.
        Through our own improvement the world will see and be inspired by our own elevations.

        Were you asking me to clarify to test my own level?
        I once thought I was the dumbest on the internet. I now know that lerner is dumber.I feel much relieved but I worry that because of this new revelation I may become arrogant. Which is a greater sin,herecy or arrogance or are they one the same? Now I have a new problem……

        • Jeremy Rosen

          You can say that Lerner is wrong or naive, even deluded but I do not understand why, when we have so many real enemies, you and others here use such disparaging and childish terms of abuse. Perhaps thats the modern way to be abusive, but there is such a thing as Kavod HaBriut and even when we disagree with people it is still a mitzvah to treat them with respect. Hillel is still right! “What is hateful to you do not do to others.”

          • HE IS HATEFUL TO TORAH TRADITION
            LERNER IS NOT DELUDED,WRONG OR NAIVE.
            HE IS EVIL.

            IF THIS IS YOUR UNDERSTANDING TO SAY THAT ‘OTHERS HERE ALSO VOICED DISAPPROVAL AND WE ARE CHILDISH DISPARAGING AND ABUSIVE…THEN MAYBE YOU NEED THE ADUSTMENT.

            You disappointed me tremendously that you would support such heresy.

            You can justify with a Hillel quote,
            can you imagine Hillel would defend one who goes against the Rabbis before Hillel.

            YES We respect other different points of view, thats what the Rabbis did. but would have no tolerance for heretics. You failed to make this distinction.I am surprised that you didnt make this distinction.

            Rabbis would never ever support such statements as this man made and this brings destruction to Judaism for going agaiinst Hillel and his teacher back and to date. Tradition does not support this
            this phisolophy.
            He is doing what he wants, he is outside these boundaries and rules and against Chazal and Hillel I dont see in any writings where he would accept herecy.

            This is pure herecy and since when is asking you an educator for clarification abusive.
            I will defend TORAH AGAINST THAT man ANY TIME…AND I WILL DEFEND HILLEL AGAINST THAT man ANYTIME.Its easy to pull out a quote thats not applicable.

            I AM FAR FROM A BLACK HAT but I AM NEAR TO HASHEM in my BELIEF AND PRACTICE and praying to be closer as our traditional rabbis taught.

            BY THE WAY the nachash (snake) was also likelable but his poison is still being paid for today.

            YOU SPEAK OF MODERN?
            asking questions is moderm?
            THATS WHAT SEPARATES US FROM GOYEEM.

            I wonder if living in california affected your balance of TORAH AND GOY MODERNITY.
            I HOPE NOT

          • @Jeremy Rosen

            Lerner is much more than wrong or naive. He consistently demonized Israel, Israelis, their democratically elected officials, in the most public and outrageous manner.

            Furthermore, I question where he gets and got his “celebrity” and financial support. Because from my vantage view, the fact that he consistently for decades and decades was given a propaganda platform on the fascist Vatican/CIA alphabet soup of media outlets, tells me that he’s nothing but a hired propaganda muppet of that fascist Vatican/CIA mafia and a tool by which they facilitate their anti-Semitic agenda under false guise and cover.

            Nothing is by accident.
            Nothing is coincidence.
            Everything is planned.

          • @Jeremy Rosen
            “..mitzvah to treat them with respect..”
            ==

            Find me that mitzvah. I’d like to find out where you get your nonsense.

    • Jeremy Rosen

      Dacon
      First of all I live in New York.
      Secondly there are far greater problems and worse enemies of the Jews but even if you disagree, that is no justificatiion for abuse. After all you have defended me here often enough against those who like to abuse me. Its simpy not how one expects a Yirei Shamayim to behave. Abuse is not an argument. It simply reflects badly on the abuser.

      • AS YOU SAID , I HAVE DEFENDED YOU MANY TIMES.
        I ADMIRED YOU AND SPOKE OF THE PICTURE HOW YOU LOOK LIKE HOW A RABBI SHOULD DRESS REPRESENTING HASHEM.
        I GAVE MY CASE
        YOU GAVE YOURS

        I STAND BY MY POSITION
        THIS MAN IS TRASH, DOES NOT REPRESENT TORAH AND ON THE VIEWS OF OTHER COMMENTS I AM ON TARGET.

        IF THIS IS CALLED ABUSE BY YOU…
        THEN I DIDNT GIVE MY FULL WRATH ENOUGH…
        I MEANT TO BE MORE HARSH THEN ABUSE….

        TO MAKE READERS AWARE THAT TRHE HEAVENS DO NOT ACCEPT THESE DISTORTIONS LIGHTLY.

        BYE.

  • E Pluribus Wombat

    Michael Lerner is a rabid antizionist who would declare a holiday if Israel were ever attacked with atomic weapons.

  • Martin Edwin Andersen

    “Common lands, common ground: The indigenous agenda, Israel, Palestine and breaking the post-Oslo Peace Accords logjam,” which can be found at @http://goo.gl/XZIKoa, offers a new path to reality-based negotiations and real peace. Reconciliation can never occur unless a first step is taken.

    • Jeremy Rosen

      Thats very interesting and theres much to commend it, thank you for posting it. But I fear like my preferred solution, simply not realistic.
      Under the Ottomans each religious community ran its own affairs ( the Millet). If you replace the Ottomans with a Middle Eastern Economic Union it might work.
      But sadly no one on either side will accept it as things stand.

  • Michael Lerner no one knows if he truly received ordination and by whom.He also used to write letters to his own magazine and answer them.He made Tikkun Olam which isn’t even mentioned in Tanach into something that he and other people think means siding with your enemies.

  • Michael Lerner is not quite the loving open-minded individual he portrays himself as being.

    I attended a discussion with him and 30 others about 20 years ago. It was a Shabbat afternoon gathering and we were discussing the weekly parsha.

    We were going around the room and discussing aspects of G-d’s nature reflected in the Torah.

    I disagreed with Rabbi Lerner and he basically forced me to shut up.

    Rabbi Lerner is not a victim who is not given voice. Rabbi Lerner MUZZLED ME.

  • BH in Iowa

    “So why is it we so dislike people who have the guts to express unpopular opinions?”

    Ask the enlightened, inclusive ones who threaten and shout down pro-Israel speakers.

    It takes a lot of Chutzpah for a two-stage solution peace-processor to play the “I can’t get my views aired” victim card. This proven failed paradigm is blown in our faces every day like so much cigarette smoke.

  • In my casual research I could not find any validity to any arab claims to any parcel of land in/on/about Israel.

    In my casual research I could not find any artifacs of arabs who call themselve palistinians stealing the curse the romans gave to Jews 2000 years ago.

    In my causal research I have discovered that ‘tikkun’ magazine and that movement and people involved are “WACKOS”

    In my casual research I realized through readings that anyone from berkeley cal is “WACKO”

    In my casual research I have discovered that any rabbi with a church by the name of ‘beyt tikkun’ based in berkeley cal is producing more ‘WACKOS’

    NOW I DONT KNOW IF I AM RIGHT.NO ONE CAN TELL ME EXCEPT FOR ME TO SEE WHEN MASHIACH ARRIVES SO THEREFORE……

    I OFFER UP FROM THE HOUSE DOWN THE BLOCK IN BROOKLYN NY
    A LESBIAN GUITAR PLAYER WITH HER RAINBOW COLORED TEPHILLIN WEARING THE ROBES FROM THE EVANGELICAL CHURCH OF REV WRIGHT.

    ON HOLIDAYS SHE CAN FIND A LEOTARD WEARING GAY FRUITCAKE

    AM I OFFENSIVE?
    HOW ABOUT THIS YO YO WHO IS CHANGING TRADITION BASED ON SURFACE RATHER THEN BEING A PROUD JEW WALKING TALL DRESSED LIKE A GENTLEMAN.
    There is no difference from this guy to avi weiss or schmuely boteach or shlomo riskin.

    I would think HASHEM IS OFFENDED
    and some of you will say you’re offended by the likes of me. Some of you will say becaus eof my kind you left JUDAISM.
    NO! YOU ONLY USE MY KIND AS AN EXCUSE FOR YOU TO CONDUCT YOURSELF FREELY LIKE A GOY.

    This kind of a man named lerner coupled with the above mentioned is turning Judaism into a joke.

    TIKKUN OLAM? YOU WANT TO CHANGE THE WORLD?
    Does any of you have a clue what the world should be?
    Do any of you have a clue how we are to conduct ourselves according to TORAH?
    Have any of you spent time to examine your inner self according to what HASHEM expects from his children,you and me,to repeant, to study A LITTLE tORAH, TO FIND A Orthodox Torah Rabbi, not deformed or conservative or humanitarium sanitarium?

    WE ARE BEING ATTACKED BY EVERY XTIAN GROUP AND EVERY MUSLIM AND OUR ENEMIES WITHIN….You spend more time examining the mystysism of buddisms in the Himilayas then you do of your own JUDAISM.
    G-D made us ISRAEL his representatives.
    TO BE A JEW IS HOLY AND AN HONOR.
    WE MUST DRESS LIKE HASHEMS OFFICERS OF THE COURT
    WE MUST TRY TO CONDUCT OUTSELVES THE SAME.
    WE WILL BE FEW IN NUMBERS.
    BUT THE FEW WILL BE HONORABLE CHILDREN OF HASHEM.
    NOT THE RIF RAF BUILDING A metal calf or an idol of wood
    or joining in homosexual parades…

    WE WILL BE FEW IN NUMBERS.
    BUT THE FEW WILL BE HONORABLE CHILDREN OF HASHEM.

    YOU WILL SAY YOUR OFFENDED? BY MY KIND?
    THE HEAVENS ARE OFFENDED BY YOU!

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