November 20, 2019

Tikkun Alone

Tikkun and its founder-leader Rabbi Michael Lerner came to Los Angeles on Sunday, Feb. 8 to run an area-wide conference, which proved both heartening and disappointing.

It was heartening because, on one level, Lerner and his progressive San Francisco-based organization have remained consistent. Much has changed since he founded the progressive, intellectual Jewish Tikkun Magazine in 1986, but Lerner still supports both the Israelis and the Palestinians; still criticizes the Israeli government, particularly where he perceives its policies to be racist and unjust; and still champions a peace policy for the Mideast, today most clearly articulated for him by the Geneva accord.

All of this was made clear in Lerner’s opening address. His signature theme during the Clinton years, “The politics of meaning,” has given way to different language, but still drives home the essential connections between spirituality and community.

“Imagine a community of people working for social and economic justice, peace, nonviolence, and ecological sensitivity … a movement that gives equal priority to our inner lives and to social justice.”

His was a passionate exhortation to reject cynical political realism in favor of building a global community based on kindness, generosity and love.

There was also little change in his attack on the Jewish establishment, as Lerner took on, full-tilt, the America Israel Public Affairs Committee and other major Jewish American organizations. Lerner said they had hijacked American Jewry and had held themselves out to Congress and the White House as the only authentic Jewish voice, backing Sharon and Israel at all costs and in all policies; all of which helped prevent the emergence of the democratic, just Israeli society Lerner hopes to see one day.

But then came the disappointing part.

Tikkun had hoped for a turnout of 200 or more at Temple Isaiah on Pico Boulevard, but, at 1 p.m., when the conference started, workmen began moving in the chairs so the room would not appear empty. When the conference finally began a half-hour later, about 80-90 people had gathered in what had become a smaller, intimate hall.

Tikkun has, of course, changed since its early magazine years. Its statement of purpose today describes Tikkun as a center for those of all religious and spiritual traditions who seek to integrate spiritual depth with social change. It is no longer in its ambition a voice solely of and for Jews. However, while Salam al-Marayati, the Los Angeles-based executive director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, and actor Ed Asner were two of the conferences multicultural speakers, nearly everyone present was Jewish. I couldn’t help notice that it seemed strikingly different from earlier conferences I had attended, particularly one in Jerusalem in the early 1990s, and another in New York a year or so later.

In Jerusalem, I remembered, more than 500 Israelis and American Jews had gathered at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion for a series of panels and speeches that stretched over five days and, occasionally, long into the night. The Princeton University political scientist Michael Walzer, had attended as had Israeli novelist A.B. Yehoshua. In New York, a year or two later, the city’s Jewish writers, intellectuals and academics gathered at a large Manhattan hotel. Irving Howe was there along with writers Anne Roiphe and Lore Segal; it seemed electric. It looked as if the Jewish left finally had found a home again, created by of all people a former UC Berkeley doctoral-political activist and psychotherapist who was an Orthodox Jew.

Tikkun has had its share of rude bumps since that time. Lerner’s wife, who had provided much of the capital behind Tikkun, divorced him and pulled her funds from the organization. A move to New York, where it was hoped there would be an abundance of Jewish intellectuals and supporters, foundered. Tikkun moved back to the Bay Area.

In Los Angeles, a hoped-for expansion and presence seemed elusive. Substantial contributions from Hollywood never materialized, and the wealthy Jewish establishment was not supportive, in part because its members perceived Tikkun to be opposed to their power and interests. They were part of the problem, according to Lerner; at least that is the way they perceived his message.

If his philosophical stance remained consistent throughout the years, his organizational skills were more hit and miss. Tikkun was soon viewed, perhaps incorrectly, as a one-man band. And while the bandleader was deemed bright, and his views of Jewish American leaders and of Israel bold and appealing to many progressives and intellectuals, there was a certain amount of grumbling: he was disorganized; he dominated conferences and rambled on and on; and he played the performer as he aligned himself in an intellectual road show with black philosopher Cornel West.

It was natural that Jewish leaders heading the professional organizations might be opposed to Tikkun and Lerner. But it now appeared that progressive Jews in organizations such as Los Angeles’ Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA), while not opposed, were not part of the team, even though both organizations championed Muslim-Jewish dialogues in American cities. The point appeared to be that PJA was doing something concrete and sustained about it, in Los Angeles at least.

Meanwhile, Tikkun appears to have shifted some of its emphasis to college campuses, hoping to establish training programs and strong university networks of students willing to commit themselves to working for a just society and peace in the Mideast. It sounds like an appealing program, but one that may find itself marginalized on the cutting edge of ideas and idealism — and conferences.

Gene Lichtenstein is the founding editor of The Jewish Journal.