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June 20, 2016 2:56 am

A Message to Michael Lerner: Tolerance Goes Both Ways

avatar by Jeremy Rosen

Email a copy of "A Message to Michael Lerner: Tolerance Goes Both Ways" to a friend
Rabbi Michael Lerner. Photo: Facebook.

Rabbi Michael Lerner. Photo: Facebook.

Tolerance only works if it goes both ways.

At Muhammad Ali’s funeral, Rabbi Michael Lerner, founder of Tikkun Magazine and the Network of Spiritual Progressives, gave a stirring speech that was roundly applauded. I agree with almost everything he said. We must stop victimizing, generalizing and hating people who are different in color, creed and practice. We live in a world where power corrupts. Inequality and exploitation are everywhere and infiltrate every ideology, religion and creed. Racism, victimization, greed and violence pervade every society. Obviously, some more than others. Otherwise, no one would ever want to move to a different country for a better quality of life and greater freedom.

The message that Rabbi Lerner advocated was the message of every idealist. We must love our neighbors. Do unto others as we would be done by. Yet for some reason, despite technological, scientific and humanitarian progress, despite a reduction in poverty, an increase in food production, welfare systems, huge charitable enterprises and benevolence, we are still way, way off from achieving what we have been preaching. We still live in a world of either imperfect or evil regimes. But we still yearn for freedom, equality, friendship and benevolence. We like the good. But we are not all capable of pursuing it.

Muhammad Ali was a remarkable character, as well as a brilliant athlete. No one is perfect. Not even he. He picked up too many anti-white and anti-Zionist hate tropes from mentors Malcolm X and Louis Farrakhan. But he fought for his people and for freedom. How ironic that he had a Jewish grandson and went to his bar mitzvah. But still, it is so important, and after Orlando even more so, to use every opportunity to speak out against racism and prejudice, and that was what Rabbi Lerner rightly did.

I was pleased that he went to the funeral. It was, in its way, a kiddush hashem (sanctifying of the name of God), even if he had absolutely no right to say he was representing American Jewry. It seems any rabbi who gets exposure claims that nowadays. But I am sorry he so overtly politicized his message by spouting left-wing Bernie nostra as if they would solve the problems of the world, let alone America.

Governments that want to create a utopia often have to concede that they either do not have the financial means or the population to achieve it. We all want it in theory, on our terms. Since the days of Plato and his Republic, we have dreamed and planned, but we are still a long way off. With our societies we have the idealists and the pragmatists, the capitalists and the socialists, and no one system is perfect or has ever been. But still we must dream, we should dream, and we need to be reminded of our dreams.

In all my days in the rabbinate, whenever I was stuck for a sermon I knew I could always fall back on preaching ideals, excoriating those who betray our ideals and standing against hypocrisy. And after every such sermon someone would always come up to me and say, “Rabbi, great sermon, you really gave it to them today.” Or words to that effect. It was always, “You told them.” It was never, “You told me.”

On the same day as Ali’s funeral, an American Muslim wrote in the New York Times about how his young daughter was picked on in a restaurant for wearing a headscarf. He ended by wondering why we hate people for their religion or race. Yes, of course, I agreed, because I wonder why so many Muslims and Christians still hate Jews for being Jews, or hate people of different sexual orientation. We are so good at seeing the mote in the eyes of others, but not the beam in our own. Or as the Talmud says (Bava Batra 15b), “Don’t tell me to do something about my toothpick when you have a whole plank of wood to deal with.”

So I ask myself, why in his speech did Lerner have to focus on Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and not Sunni-Shia internecine conflicts (which Ali felt equally strongly about), human rights in China and Russia, occupation in Tibet, Kashmir, or West Sahara, or Turkey’s treatment of Kurds, or North Korea? Why did he not excoriate the left-wing ideology that Chavez and Maduro have destroyed Venezuela with? Or indeed Cuba? Does he think there is no need for self-examination other than for Jews? Why no reciprocity? Did Israel start the wars? Do Israelis really not want peace desperately? Is there no other side to the argument?

We now live in a world of rights. Do not Jews have rights, too? Were Rabbi Lerner’s comments about Netanyahu just to pander to an audience that, at core, is now sadly so anti-Israel and antisemitic as to deny rights to Jews to defend themselves? He could have said that almost half of Israel opposes many of his policies and rhetoric. He spoke about how once Jew stood shoulder-to-shoulder with black civil rights leaders. He did not speak about why today antisemitism is so prevalent in black societies. Why Black Lives Matter has chosen to add Palestine to their agenda rather than any one of the other humanitarian causes with far greater casualties elsewhere in the world today. If Martin Luther King had been present, he would not have been so one-sided.

Of course, the Israeli Left, indeed any Left, has the right and should have the right to take whatever side it wants to. Of course, excess, corruption and inhumanity must be addressed. But one who excoriates Jews wherever they are, should have the honesty and morality to point out another point of view others political correctness and one-sidedness simply debases the debate. Why does no one mention the protests in Palestinian territory against the policies of their dogmatists and kleptocracy? When you pick on just one example, on just one argument, that is pure prejudice.

Not only, but look at how Lerner’s speech was reported — not as a critique of racism or prejudice wherever it comes from. Instead, look on the internet and see the headlines, “Rabbi Slams Israel in Muhammad Ali Funeral Speech.” Yes, just more fodder for the Jew-haters. He could have made all his major ethical points without having to pander to the tub-thumping anti-Israel, anti-Jewish amen chorus that has now taken over the Left (not to mention the Right) wherever it exists.

The same trope. Remove Israel and the Middle East will be peaceful. Sunni and Shia will love each other, as well as lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transsexuals. The Left has always had rose-colored spectacles. Remove the Kulaks, then the aristocrats, then the bourgeoisie, then the Jews and Russia will be paradise. Remove capitalists, and we will live in heaven. Remove religion, and we will get in with each other, make love, and we will all live happily ever after.

Life is not like that. I am glad Rabbi Lerner stands for what he stands for. We need contrarians and prophets. But my experience tells me that any dogma can be dangerous, and that any one sided argument is doomed.

All I seek is balance. By all means, criticize Netanyahu if you also criticize Abu Mazen. By all means, attack Israel if you also attack Hamas, Hezbollah and all the others who put war above human needs and human rights. Rabbi Lerner can and should demand rights. But I can demand mine, too.

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  • Mark Jay Mirsky

    Once again, I applaud the way you propose a balanced, thoughtful response to Michael Lerner’s presence at the funeral of one of America’s charismatic sports figures, whose bias was difficult for many of us who feel protective not only toward our fellow Jews but of the State of Israel.


  • Vicki T.

    Billy Crystal got in the act as well applauding the words of the fool Rabbi(Oy Vey) Lerner.
    Sitting next to President Clinton who convinced Israel to give the murderous Arafat land for peace and found what all of us realists knew “this is not about a peace accord but from the river to the sea the so called Palestinians will be free.
    Imagine what that world would look like? Oh yes we see it in Technicolor SYRIA, IRAN,IRAQ LIBYA, SAUDI ARABIA, but the Rabbi and his fools from Chelm would walk us all to the plank. He is shameful fool.

  • I say true Jews need to rip an article of clothing and put the black mourner’s lapel there for “Rabbi” Lerner and recite the Mourner’s Kaddish over him! I’m not advocating killing him – heck no – that’s wrong and he needs to live a natural life into a ripe old age – but as far as being Jewish goes – he’s dead in that way – similar to how some people feel over those who intermarry (remember when Laurence Olivier recited the Mourner’s Kaddish over Neil Diamond in the Jazz Singer)!
    Lerner’s preaching is more destructive to us and traitorous to us then those who marry outside the tribe! Therefore, as a community of loyal Jewish Patriots, we need to recite the Mourner’s Kaddish over Lerner and he needs to know this. If he does, he will feel like a nickel (expression from 6th grade)!

  • Al Talena

    Leerner is thaht typical lefty Jew who preaches that every ethnic group, racial group, religious group, etc, has the right to pusg its agenda, except for the Jewish people. We must be ‘internationalists’ while we preach the doctrine of natinal self-determination.
    Whether they be called mencheviks, bolsheviks, socialists, liberals, etc, the Jewish member remains the same anti-Jew.
    Zeev Jaboinsky put it so clear in his essay “Shatnez”. The Jew who merges 2 isms, Zionism & socialism (or any other lefty ism) will in the end abandon Zionism and take on the lefty ism with full ferever even if it attacks Zionism.
    Lerner and the other lefty Jews have replaced Judaism with a religion of the left.

  • Reform School

    Did Rabbi Lerner’s botched bris leave him brain-damaged?

  • Pinchas Baram in Boston

    the author gives way too much kavod to so-called rabbi Lerner– and to Muhammed Ali, whose anti-white and anti-semitic tripe over the years all the p.c.”mourners” and eulogists played down. back to Lerner: he is a barking, defecating dog who literally loves to sh**t all over Israel and its government. His so-called idealism is mixed with so much hate that he should be seen the way we view Natura Karta nuts who praise the PLO and the Iranian mullahs, i.e, as “enemies within.”

  • Yoel Nitzarim

    Michael Kerner spewed hatred of Israel in his disgusting speech toward the Jewish state. His unabashed denigration of Israel and utter defence of Palestinian rights was beyond the pale. He spoke as if he believed that a Palestine would be a more just place than Israel. In my estimation both as an American and a Jew, his view is not American and not Jewish: it is contemptuous, spurious, and anti-Zionist, bordering on anti-Semitic. I totally disagree with Rabbi Rosen’s assessment of an even-handed approach to the predicament in the Israel-Palestinian conflict. The Palestinian leadership in both Gaza and the PA does not accept the Jewish State of Israel period. There is no compromise for them: Israel might as well be eradicated and replaced by Palestine. Putting Hamas and Israel in the same sentence as being a balanced projection of two sovereign politics on a just, righteous course as Rabbi Rosen did in this critique is beyond the pale. I am writing this from Jerusalem where I have lived for the last 2 1/2 years. I have lived through a war in which two missiles were launched at Jerusalem and many–that is right–many terrorist attacks have occurred with horrendous consequences for innocent Jewish and non-Jewish victims. The safety of my life has been in a compromised state at times living here because I believe in Israel as a free state and a democracy and I know that it is working towards a more equitable end for all of its inhabitants. Speaking from America, Jews are not putting their lives on the line for the State of Israel: their obtuse criticism based on a balance between the hateful regimes of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the PLO-Fatah are not appreciated at all and are cause for enmity from many Israelis whose lives have been and continue to be disrupted by the violence of hateful jihad indoctrinated in Palestinian schools, homes, media, and leadership.

  • Around five year ago, I was in email contact with one of Michael Lerner’s loyal disciples.

    This person was amazingly intolerant of anyone who even hinted that they might disagree with Michael Lerner’s far-far-Leftist beliefs.

  • I so agree with you, and I am also with you in sending out letters and advocating for the same things… What a shame, that an opportunity was missed to express balance, understanding for both sides (or more) of a conflict, and to promote something along the lines of “Jewish Lives Matter.”

  • You’re far too kind to this total fraud, who is a classic left-wing ideologue. His politicized rant was inappropriate for a funeral oration, as was his plugging his own website twice during his remarks. Please see my article written before he spoke:

  • Anschel

    A key weakness in Rabbi Lerner’s Tikkun Olam-first, anti-Israel approach is that it ignores the basic principle that before you can do Tikkun Olam, you have first to survive. Israel and the Jewish people cannot do Tikkun Olam, unless we first survive.

    So, Rabbi Lerner should be proactively supporting Israel taking whatever actions are needed to survive. Instead, his present stance ultimately supports the demise of Tikkun Olam.

    In any event, his words are shameful!

  • Hinda39

    I’ve met with Mr. Lerner over the years. I was in my 20s when I first met with him in Bezerkley in the 1980s. He was badmouthing the great Rabbi Carlebach who has done more for uniting young and old Jews than anyone at the time. Mr. Lerner had trouble with portions of the Torah for services at the time. Then he had a brilliant idea about a magazine. I was to write a piece but he found it so pro-Israel. I had just started working with the Shoah Foundation and was writing about my findings. He trashed it. I then found out via reading his pieces on how much he really hates Israel and Jews who will not forget the past so it won’t happen again. We ARE to be victims. How can any Rabbi want to do that? Why would he claim that being 2nd class citizens is not really that bad. And then be silent when Jews at UC-Berkeley are beaten, their cars torched and local synagogues are vandalized.

    He would be better being a member of the Islamic or Presbyterian Clergy.

  • Michael lerner is, was and always will be a
    He is incapable of grasping the sovereign
    free democratic JEWISH Homeland that excels in
    technology and miracle cures for deadly diseases
    that benefit the whole of mankind-even her enemies.
    Lerner is, was, and always will be an apologist
    for muslims who murder JEWs.
    His remarks were nothing new!
    He is friends with ANTI SEMITE Cornel west.
    Need I say more?!
    BTW, is he really an ordained Rabbi?
    If so, where, and by whom?

  • Lia

    Thank you, Mr Rosen. I read the funeral oration and wondered if anybody knowledgeable would reply.

  • Richard

    Michael lives in Berkeley, the home of “The True Believer”. If g-d allows the wind to fly a kite, and as the wind subsides, it is because of the “Unrighteous Nonbeliever”.

  • Jay Lavine

    Any dogma, in particular those foreign to Judaism, can indeed be dangerous.

    People who lack the inner happiness accruing from spiritual fulfillment have a void that needs to be filled. They often adopt secular ideologies that become a religion to them, what I call ideolotry, a portmanteau of ideology, idolatry, and zeolotry. The ideological idol becomes an extension of oneself, and the goal is to satisfy it in order to achieve self-validation.

    The secular ideology adopted depends on the person’s personality characteristics. The conservative personality is often angry, intolerant of others who are different, and desirous of identifying with a group with similar beliefs. Abstaining from bigotry may be placed in the realm of politics — “political correctness” — rather than in the realm of decency. The liberal personality strives to do good and thereby validate that he or she is a good person, but the consequentialist approach taken may have very negative effects that are ignored, and traditional ethical values may be compromised.

    Judaism, on the other hand, is neither exclusively liberal nor conservative. It is very liberal when it comes to leveling the playing field and keeping the rich from trodding on the poor. It is very conservative when it comes to preservation of traditional values. But given that most people’s personalities weigh toward one end of the secular ideological spectrum or the other, it may be difficult for many people to “go both ways.” To do so requires a deep faith and the subordination of one’s own tendencies and desires to the will of Hashem, as expressed in Torah. However, many people who identify as Jews lack that kind of faith. Furthermore, good role models among religious leaders in the Jewish community are not as prevalent as they should be.

    What we can conclude, then, is that the only good ideology for Jews is Jewish ideology, which does not correspond to secular ideologies, which is never consequentialist, and which is always based on evaluating the facts in an honest and evenhanded way. It is not stiff or unyielding but rather flexible depending on the unique circumstances of each issue or situation. It is based on serving Hashem, not oneself, so self-validation is never the driving force.

  • Yale

    Lerner’s speech was another in an apparently unending series of speeches whose real purpose is to throw dust in the eyes of the public so they don’t recognize that Left-wing dogmas are based on false assumptions and contrary to how the world really works.

    In the case of Israel, the remaining alternative to admitting that the reason the conflict cannot be solved is that the Palestinian Arabs don’t want a solution — other than the destruction of Israel — is to denounce Israel for all manner of violations of laws of all kinds, violations of human rights, even violations of the laws of nature (e.g. training sharks to identify and attack non-Jews swimming in the Red Sea).

    If Israel is not guilty, then the Left would have to deal with the reality that the Palestinians are, and this would disprove their belief that white heterosexual capitalist men from First World countries are the cause of all suffering on the planet. Facing reality would cost them the power they crave and put them out of business.

  • art glenn

    i have long suspected that acid-trip “rabbi” mikey also goes both ways. stop treating him as a bona fide speaker about anything