God and Global Judaism: Strategies for Spiritual Transformation and Social Healing in the Age of Bush and Ariel Sharon

Story posted November 07, 2003

To believe in God is to believe that the world can be transformed: that was the message of Rabbi Michael Lerner at the recent Spindel Lecture. The lectureship supports annual events in Judaic studies or contemporary Jewish affairs, and Lerner's lecture was the first in a series of events to focus on religiosity and the resurgence of religious faith in the contemporary world.

Lerner, founder and editor of TIKKUN magazine, has been called "America's preeminent liberal Jewish intellectual." He studied at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City and was mentored by Abraham Joshua Heschel. Lerner earned a doctorate in philosophy at the University of California-Berkeley and another in clinical psychology from the Wright Institute.

Lerner spoke about Judaism's understanding of God, the struggle inherent in that understanding and how both relate to the modern world.

"Judaism emerged...into a world that was already class stratified," he said. And in such a society there are three major ways that the ruling elites maintain their hold on power:

  • By force or violence.
  • By convincing people that the way things are is the only way they can ever be.
  • By convincing people that if things aren't good, it's because of some "other, usually some demeaned other."

It was the second method that most concerned Lerner; convincing people that things can't be other than they are has been a central part of maintaining the social order throughout history. Religion has often been used to accomplish this by convincing people that the current state of things is the will of God or the gods, and that those who rule do so because it is God's will.

"Judaism entered the world with a fundamentally different world view," Lerner said. It was based instead on the idea of "a God of the universe who was a force of healing and transformation for the world."

With that as a basis of belief, it becomes possible to call into question all of the relationships and problems of society, previously thought unchangeable. A God of transformation, not subject to the theories and rules of society, is fundamentally "a force of freedom," Lerner said, and a "force that makes it possible to move from that which is to that which can be."

Even the original Hebrew words for God expressed this idea — they literally mean "the present moving into the future." (Lerner recommended reading the Torah and instead of "God" reading the word as "The transformative power of the universe that moves from that which is to that which will be" to see how that changes one's understanding of God.)

According to Lerner, many people reject religion because leaders of religious systems haven’t really understood and embraced this vision of God, or if they have they’ve abandoned it. They may have preached love and generosity, but they didn't act as though they believed it so people turned away from religion because of the hypocrisy they witnessed.

"It's easier to believe in the God of transformation and healing in a moment when that transformation seems to be happening," Lerner said.

Belief in a God of transformation in whose image humans were created, leaves us with a responsibility to work for transformation, which conflicts with our understanding of the world, Lerner said. The world in which we live is largely one of pain and cruelty, and everyone born into it absorbs some of that pain and cruelty, is shaped by it and perpetuates it; Freud called it a "repetition compulsion."

"And in that world, the task of a Jew...is to say that which is, is not all that will be," he said. "So what is it to believe in God? It's the belief that the repetition compulsion can be transcended."

Because we’re made in God's image but live in a world of cruelty and pain, two competing voices exist in each of us — one telling us that transformation and healing, is possible; the other telling us that it's not.

"This corresponds to... a central struggle that certainly transcends any Jewish frame," Lerner said, between "those who believe that the world can be okay and those who believe the world is fundamentally screwed up."

Lerner equated the "realist" world view with idolatry: "To be a realist is to let your vision of that which is shape your vision of that which can be....That voice in all of our heads is a deeply held voice, and it is very difficult to overcome. It is the voice of idolatry."

These ideas translate into modern politics because decisions based on these belief systems affect the United States and the world.

"If you want to understand politics today," he said, "the critical thing is not left/right, the critical thing is hope/fear."

This is a problem, because when acting based on fear, your fears become self-fulfilling prophesies. An ethos of do it to them before they do it to you results in exactly what we were afraid of in the first place.

Lerner contends that the United States did have an alternative in its dealings with Iraq and could make different choices moving forward. He believes security for the United States could be achieved by doing three things:

  • Allowing the United States to be and to be perceived as a force for redistribution of wealth and the elimination of poverty.
  • Allowing the United States to be and to be perceived as a leader in correcting the environmental problems of the world.
  • Allowing the United States to be and to be perceived as embodying a new way of measuring business so that productivity, efficiency and rationality are measured by maximizing human potential and creating caring people "capable of responding to the universe with both awe and wonder."
The institutions of our world, aren't set up to expand human potential for awe and wonder, he said, and most people who are loving and caring are so "despite the institutions not because of them."

The methods of the Bush administration to secure our nation haven't worked for any nation or empire in the past, and they won't work now, Lerner said. He added that the same kind of thinking perpetuates the crisis in the Middle East.

"People are stuck in a deep pessimism, a deep cynicism," he said. "The hopeful part is that no one is ultimately stuck....There is constantly the possibility of transformation and transcendence."

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