Controversial editor : Tikkuns Lerner starts S.F. synagogue

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After a four-year exodus in New York, Tikkun magazine editor Michael Lerner has moved back to the Bay Area with plans to start a new Jewish Renewal synagogue in San Francisco.

Armed with a new smicha, or rabbinical ordination, from Jewish Renewal co-founder Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, the 53-year-old Lerner envisions the Beyt Tikkun synagogue as a place where spirituality will meet politics — specifically, the "politics of meaning," which is the title of his recent book and his much-publicized mandate for a synthesis of politics and compassion.

Lerner has long been a controversial figure.

An outspoken critic of Israel's possession of the territories, his 10-year-old liberal intellectual magazine called for a Palestinian state long before the concept hit the mainstream.

More recently, he has had to defend his nonseminary rabbinical ordination, a path to the pulpit some view as illegitimate.

But Lerner says his approach to Judaism, which some consider unconventional, is what makes him and his new synagogue attractive.

Beyt Tikkun (Hebrew for "house of healing") will welcome those who have become estranged from Judaism "because they felt the Jewish world they encountered was too materialistic, too lacking in spirituality, too chauvinistic, too conservative politically, too conservative culturally," he says.

Sitting in the living room of his woodsy home in the Berkeley hills, he says the inclusivity of Beyt Tikkun — whose inaugural services are scheduled for the upcoming High Holy Days at Lone Mountain College in San Francisco — embraces everyone: interfaith couples, converts, Sephardic Jews, Israelis, Russian immigrants, and gays and lesbians.

In particular, Lerner says the nascent synagogue will aggressively welcome singles, not just through a standard string of singles soirées but by publicly addressing the sense of shame some singles feel at not having found a mate.

"We're going to confront that alleged embarrassment head-on and talk about it continually," he says, "because from our standpoint there's nothing embarrassing about being single and not wanting to be."

As for who constitutes the "our," Lerner says at least 50 people have agreed to involve themselves in the budding synagogue. But at this time, he says, none of those individuals want their names released to the press.

Lerner attributes the would-be congregants' hesitancy to the synagogue's newness; the first major organizational meeting has yet to take place.

"Give us some time," Lerner says with a smile.

Some members of the local Jewish Renewal community already have reacted to the news that another synagogue will soon burst onto the scene.

"I'm jazzed," says Avram Davis, founder and co-director of Chochmat HaLev, a Berkeley-based center offering adult classes in Jewish spirituality. "I think there should be more shuls and study centers, not less. Everybody I've talked to in the community is pretty pleased by it."

Davis, currently a member of Berkeley's Aquarian Minyan, lauds Lerner's abilities as a leader and teacher. "Michael is a passionate guy. God knows that can rub some people the wrong way. But he has a good heart and a desire to help the Jewish people."

The extent to which Beyt Tikkun will draw members from other local Jewish Renewal synagogues remains to be seen. The issue of competition, however, doesn't seem to worry Marty Potrop, who serves as Aquarian Minyan's shomer, the equivalent of president.

"If you look at the Renewal organizations that exist today, each one has its different flavor, and those flavors appeal to different people," he says.

Lerner "has brought a lot of focus to Jewish Renewal. I think what he is doing is opening more gateways."

The Tikkun editor moved the offices of his magazine in 1992 from Oakland to the East Coast, where it will remain. He will continue to edit the magazine — from here.

He says one reason for his recent return, however, is that New York already has synagogues that embody the characteristics he hopes to see in Beyt Tikkun, which can be reached at (510) 526-6889.

He also wants to be near his only son, 24-year-old Akiba, who recently completed his duty as a paratrooper in the Israeli army and now lives in Berkeley.

San Francisco may be a tough market for a synagogue based on the "politics of meaning" because the Bay Area is a bastion of political correctness, Lerner says. The PC outlook, he elaborates, tends to address the economic oppression and rights deprivation of certain groups while neglecting the suffering of others.

"The politics of meaning says there is a spiritual deprivation that is equally real to the economic deprivation," he says. "Consequently, we see many middle-income people suffering from the ethos of materialism and selfishness in this society. We in the politics-of-meaning movement reject the hierarchy of oppressions."

There may be other challenges awaiting Lerner here as well.

According to an article in the national Jewish newspaper Forward, the three largest organizations of American rabbis have questioned whether Lerner and the nearly 60 others ordained by Schachter-Shalomi are the real thing.

In the May 3 article, mainstream rabbinical leaders of the Reform, Conservative and Orthodox movements expressed concern that private ordinations, or those not granted by seminaries, can produce insufficiently educated or fraudulent rabbis.

Lerner acknowledges the controversy over private ordinations but argues that his credentials speak for themselves.

After starting his formal Jewish studies at New York's Jewish Theological seminary in 1960, he was accepted into JTS' rabbinical school in 1964. He decided not to attend, however, opting instead to pursue doctoral studies in philosophy at U.C. Berkeley. During that time, he became active in the Free Speech Movement while finding time to study Jewish texts, some under the tutelage of the late philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel, whom Lerner calls a mentor.

Over the years, Lerner continued his Jewish studies, attending yeshivot and studying under several rabbis, the latest being Schachter-Shalomi.

The nonseminary path is the one "every Chabad rabbi takes, that every ultra-Orthodox rabbi takes," Lerner argues. "So it would be astounding for somebody to say that [nonseminary ordination] is illegitimate when the people who are amongst the most committed to Judaism take that path."

Lerner decided to follow the nonseminary track, he says, because "the existing rabbinical schools seem to be more interested in producing organizational men for Jewish life than spiritual leaders connected to the deepest spiritual and social-justice minds of our tradition."

Some local rabbis surely would disagree.

"That is arrogant nonsense," says JTS graduate Rabbi Alan Lew, president of the Northern California Board of Rabbis.

"I spent six years in extremely rigorous, round-the-clock study in the classic texts of our tradition. Authentic Jewish spirituality is in the texts, not in some fancy New Age ideas or watered-down kabbalah [Jewish mysticism]," he says.

But Lerner is accustomed to controversy — and criticism.

Three years ago, following Hillary Clinton's use of the phrase "politics of meaning," the press dubbed Lerner "guru of the White House" and labeled his ideas everything from "psychobabble" to "New Age gibberish" left over from the days of Esalen and hot tubs.

The White House quickly distanced itself from Lerner, downplaying a meeting between him and the first lady.

His relationship with the Clintons is a subject Lerner would clearly rather avoid on this sunny afternoon. He does, however, point to other politicians who have identified with his ideas. Among them, he says, are Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.) and outgoing Sen. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.).

Mainly, though, Lerner wants to talk about the politics-of-meaning summits taking place around the country, his move back to the Bay Area and his hopes for Beyt Tikkun.

"We want to strengthen the Jewish community, not oppose it," Lerner says. "We see ourselves as an alternative to secularism, not to the organized Jewish community."

Leslie Katz
Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is the former culture editor at CNET and a former J. staff writer. Follow her on Twitter @lesatnews.