Robert Scheer SI Podcast

In a Time of Mortal Crisis, Rabbi Michael Lerner Prophesies a Caring Society

The lifelong progressive talks about his new book and what he found lacking in Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign.
An illustration of Rabbi Michael Lerner. [Artwork by Mr. Fish]

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There’s no denying there’s been a renewed wave of interest in socialism in the United States, thanks in large part to Bernie Sanders. While the Vermont senator gained support across the country for his rallying cry against inequality and for promoting equitable policies like Medicare for All, Rabbi Michael Lerner, a lifelong progressive and author of the new book Revolutionary Love: A Political Manifesto to Heal and Transform the World, believes there was something missing from Sanders’ socialist message. On this week’s episode of Scheer Intelligence, Lerner, who is also the editor of the interfaith magazine Tikkun, joins host Robert Scheer to talk about Sanders, socialism, the lessons of their shared Jewish tradition and the rabbi’s own ideas for a radical but caring revolution. 

“[Bernie Sanders] got the idea,” says Lerner. “He said, ‘It’s we, not me,’– but he did not embrace [the] spiritual, progressive vision that I [talk about in my book]. Because the center of a spiritual, progressive vision […] is that we call for a new bottom line. Instead of judging any institution, any social practice in our society to be efficient, rational, and productive to the extent that it maximizes money and power, we need a new bottom line that says: No. We’re going to judge institutions and social practices as efficient, rational, and productive […] to the extent that they tend to develop human beings who are more loving and caring, kind and generous, ethically and environmentally sensitive and responsive to the needs of the environment, and seeking social and economic justice.” 

Lerner says he’s not promoting religion, but rather a politics that will take into consideration both our material needs as well as what he calls “the deepest needs of our soul,” for example, love. Scheer challenges Lerner on whether it is possible to pursue seemingly idealistic goals such as those the rabbi sets forth during an increasingly desperate period of American history in which capitalism has turned both the Republican and Democratic parties into corporate tools. Lerner counters that not only is the vision he outlines achievable, but that the Democratic Party and the left can win more support so long as they stop ridiculing Americans who feel strongly about religion as “deplorables,” as Hillary Clinton infamously referred to Trump supporters, many of them devout Christians. Instead of “denouncing” and dismissing large swaths of the American population, says the progressive rabbi, the left needs to listen to their needs, including those that would be considered spiritual needs, and then put pressure on the Democrats to meet those needs.

Listen to the full discussion between Lerner and Scheer as the two discuss the parallels between the 1960s political scene and today, as well as examine radical solutions for contemporary catastrophes such as climate change.

Credits: 

Host:
Robert Scheer

Producer:
Joshua Scheer

Introduction:
Natasha Hakimi Zapata 

Transcript:
Lucy Berbeo 

RS: Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence, where the intelligence comes from my guests. In this case my guest is an old friend, although I’ve lost track of him; I’ve been familiar with his work, the now Rabbi Michael Lerner. And he’s also got a doctorate in psychology; he’s had a really interesting career. I knew him back when we were both in the antiwar movement in the New Left in Berkeley back in the sixties and early seventies. But the subject today is really kind of a recap, maybe, of where some of the idealism of that period went awry. 

And it’s interesting; we’re doing this interview at a moment, the morning after the infamous Donald Trump-Joe Biden first debate, which has been roundly denounced all over the place as a deplorable exhibition. But I want to begin with that, because the book–let me properly introduce the book–is Revolutionary Love: A Political Manifesto to Heal and Transform the World. And it’s published by the University of California Press, and it’s supported under a label of the S. Mark Taper Foundation Imprint in Jewish Studies. And it’s an interesting moment. I enjoyed the book very much, and let me assure people this is not some New Age hype thing. It’s a very serious analysis of how you present a progressive agenda, and do it in a way that is compelling on a human level to people. 

And I want to begin, since we’re right in the aftermath of this debate, so-called debate, about what Hillary Clinton called the “deplorables,” the right-wing base of Donald Trump’s support, which has alarmed a lot of people. And in your book, you address this concern throughout the society on both the left and right, that politics has failed us. And what you call for on the part of people on the progressive side is post-socialism. And let me just give one little footnote about your own career. You were an early, early promoter of a notion of democratic socialism most visibly advanced by Michael Harrington, a very famous and important writer who among other things helped to discover poverty in America, and wrote a seminal work on that. So why don’t you begin, really, with the goal of your book? And what do you mean by post-socialism, and what is its relation to this crazy political atmosphere we encountered last evening?

ML: Well, by post-socialism I mean not getting rid of socialism. But to really understand what I’m talking about you have to understand that there’s been a struggle, ever since class societies emerged some eight thousand years ago, between two worldviews. One worldview that says that people are fundamentally out for themselves, and will dominate and control as much as they can to protect their own interests. That worldview, that view of what human beings are, has been promoted by ruling elites ever since class and patriarchal societies emerged. The other worldview–ah, so that, and it’s widely popular, because this is what is the common sense of every class-dominated and patriarchal society. The people who have the power try to convince everybody else that this is just the natural reality, it’s just the inevitable, natural reality that happens in class societies. 

So the other worldview, that took root in religious and spiritual consciousness, has a different view. And it emerges from the experience of women raising children at the beginning, in which women are taking care of other people–their children, taking care of their children–and they’re not looking to dominate and control. They’re actually looking to give and care for. So the first worldview, the domination worldview, says the only way you’re going to be safe in this world is when you learn the skills of domination and power over others, and can use them effectively. Because if you don’t, everybody else will take advantage of you and try to get power over you. The alternative worldview that comes from the experience of birth and our first few years says no, wait a second, our first experience was of being taken care of and cared for, and that’s what brought us security. And that becomes the basis, the experiential basis, for people moving into various spiritual and religious traditions that say love not just your neighbor, but as the Torah says, love the stranger, the other, the one you don’t know–love those others. 

So this alternation between these two views has been going on in every class society. But in the past several hundred years, the dominant worldview has discarded any kind of love, care, kindness, generosity, or focus on consciousness, or what we discovered in the work that I did as a psychotherapist. Namely, that people have a need to feel that their work is connected to some higher meaning and purpose. But this is totally dismissed by the liberal and progressive world, because the liberal and progressive world has bought into the dominant religion of the capitalist world. What is that dominant religion? It’s a view that says that everything that is real must be verifiable through sense datum or observation. And if it can’t be–or measurement. So if it can’t be observed through sense datum or measurement, then it is literally nonsense. 

So this worldview creates a left that nevertheless accepts the dominant, materialist, reductionist view of human needs. Now, those human needs are really important. The need for material well-being that’s reflected, for example, in the socialist call for free health care for all, free education for all, free care for elders and for child care–all those are extremely valuable and important. That’s why I’ve been part of the left, because they actually are based on a set of values that transcend the selfishness and materialism of the capitalist marketplace. But nevertheless the left, when it puts forward its view of the world, and when it articulates what it’s for, it never talks about, for example, the hunger that people have for higher meaning and purpose. It never talks about–it rarely uses words like love, caring, kindness, and generosity. So in my book, Revolutionary Love, I’ve talked about the centrality of reformulating a progressive agenda that includes all of the best parts of the socialist agenda, but transcends it and moves beyond it, because it talks not only about satisfying those material needs, but also about satisfying the needs that we can call “meaning-needs” and a hunger for caring. For being cared for, and for caring [for] others. 

Now, these are things–by the way, these needs that I’m talking about now are actually needs that most people in the left actually have, and in fact most people in the society have. And the hunger for meaning and purpose often leads people to join the left, but they never talk about it. They never articulate it. So it needs a different formulation. That’s why I call it post-socialist, because it’s this added dimension to articulate the need for meaning and higher purpose to life than simply getting material needs met, and the need to be part of something larger that is about caring, not just for ourselves and our friends, but caring for everybody on the planet, and caring for the planet itself.  

RS: OK, but let me just interrupt for a second. I mean, let’s have a broader view of the left. You and I both came out of a left that was largely, or in significant measure, influenced by Martin Luther King, others. And Martin Luther King’s concern about poverty, right, where he was–certainly at the end of his life, it was all about caring. And maybe others in the left lost that message. But I want to ask you here, in what sense is this realistic? We’ve just been visited with a spectacle of kind of a neofascism, whatever you want to think of Trump–I mean, a really frightening spectacle. And then once again we have the lesser evil, represented by Joe Biden, and we’re going to talk about, you know, being more progressive and more enlightened. But the fact is, they’re both appealing to the same marketplace values. And it’s a question of who can deliver bigger profits, more materialism, and so forth. And voices like yours, and dare I say, I’ll compare you or put you in the camp with Martin Luther King, really sort of get drowned out. How do you put the element of realism in these objectives? 

ML: Well actually, without these objectives that I talked about, it’s very unrealistic to think that you’re going to be able to beat, for example, in the Democratic Party, the centrists in the party who themselves are loyal to the capitalist order and will never allow their party to put forward a candidate who challenges the old bottom line of money and power. So our task to make what I’m talking about realistic is not to abandon these goals, but to articulate them more clearly and put them in the center. 

Now, that was something that Bernie started to do, but only slightly, OK? He got the idea–he said “it’s we, not me,” but he did not embrace a spiritual, progressive vision that I’m talking about. Because the center of a spiritual, progressive vision–and I lay this out in detail in my book, Revolutionary Love–is that we call for a new bottom line. Instead of judging any institution, any social practice in our society to be efficient, rational, and productive to the extent that it maximizes money and power, we need a new bottom line that says, no. We’re going to judge institutions and social practices efficient, rational, and productive–and by that I mean to include the economy, our political system, our economic system, our educational system, our cultural system–to judge it efficient, rational, and productive to the extent that it tends to develop human beings who are more loving and caring, kind and generous, ethically and environmentally sensitive and responsive to the needs of the environment, and seeking social and economic justice. 

Treating other human beings as embodiments of the sacred, rather than seeing them solely in terms of their usefulness to us–will they help us in some way–but seeing them as fundamentally valuable. If saying they’re embodiments of the sacred is too religious for you, fine–then see them as fundamentally valuable for who they are. And looking at the Earth and the universe around it, not solely from a standpoint of is this going to be something I can turn into a product and sell, and make it into a commodity. But looking at the Earth and the larger universe around us with awe and wonder and radical amazement at the grandeur and mystery of this universe. A left that talked that language would be able to beat the centrists in the Democratic Party. Why? Because most of the people who are in that Democratic Party actually have those desires and needs; they’ve just never heard it articulated in the political arena. 

Now, this doesn’t mean that I want people to become religious or join some sect group or anything like that. It’s bringing the actual values that brought most people into a liberal or progressive world that they wanted, but then they got hooked into the dominant vision that, oh, that stuff is all flaky, it can’t be measured. So that goes back to the belief that everything that’s real can be measured. But the truth of human life is that love, kindness, generosity, all are ethical values, as well as consciousness itself. Consciousness itself can’t be measured. It can’t be captured; they’ve been trying for hundreds of years. You can’t measure it, and it can’t be proven, OK? It’s something that we all experience, but it doesn’t fit into that more narrow, materialistic, reductionist view of what is real. So we have to help people be able to affirm this part of their being that they all have, but instead, when we don’t do that, we are left powerless in the public arena to attract, to speak to the deepest, these deep needs. 

Now, then when you get to somebody like Hillary Clinton saying, dismissing everybody as a bundle of “deplorables,” you get the worst of what happened in the New Left of the sixties, and it’s carried on right through this moment. And that is, instead of asking what needs do people have that we’re not speaking to, and that we need to speak to–instead, we denounced them. And we began to say, oh, everybody who’s not with us has white skin privilege. And that has evolved into more general statements about people being racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, et cetera. Of course there’s lots of racism, sexism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, et cetera, that have to be combated. But in order to combat it, we need to talk to people in a humane way, not in a put-down way. 

That is not going to work for a Trump. There’s a percentage of people behind Trump, I would say close to 50 percent of those who are behind Trump are really so deeply racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, anti-Semitic, et cetera, that it’s in the short run very difficult to move them. But there’s another 50 percent of their constituency who are people who used to vote for the Democrats. Who actually were in the Democratic Party or in the left, because they shared some of the aspirations. But–and this is one of the things that I learned as the director of the Institute for Labor and Mental Health, in which I did a monumental study–thousands and thousands and thousands of middle-income working people, trying to understand, and asking them why they moved [away from] the left. 

And that study, sponsored by the National Institute for Mental Health–officially it was about the psychodynamics of work and family life–we uncovered, my research team, that a lot of the reason people were moving away from the left was because they felt deeply disrespected by the left. They felt put down, and in particular, put down in two respects. Number one, that the left made them feel that we were the smart ones and they weren’t smart enough. And number two, that it made them feel that their religion was a bunch of baloney that we had no respect for, but we hoped they would still be on our side and support us; we hoped that they would still join our demonstrations and vote for our candidates. And that slowly they would evolve into the higher level that those of us who are secular, or those who are secular, and without any of those ridiculous religious ideas. But they picked it up. They picked it up, they felt, they knew that they were being disrespected. 

Now, why was that so important? So this is the other key of what I discovered in the research that I did. I say “I” but I mean my team of researchers; we did thousands and thousands of people. And what we discovered is this: that most people believe that they live in a meritocracy. They’ve bought the dominant worldview that is–the dominant belief system that justifies inequality in the society. And that inequality is justified by saying, if people have more money and more success in their lives than you do, it’s because they worked harder, or because they were smarter, or they were more together in some important way. Now, that view gets translated to kids very early in terms of this: if you work hard, and you work hard in school, and you do the right thing and advance yourself, you can go anyplace in this society. And the leaders of the society prove that by bringing out a Black person as president, or a person that once was poor. And there’s limited mobility–the mobility is very, very limited to about two percent of all those who are in the lower 70 percent of income earners. But most people believe that they’re in this–and hence they feel terrible about themselves. They feel like they have failed in some important way if their financial success, or even their success in the world of relationships, isn’t working out. 

But we, instead of trying to figure out how to help people understand that this meritocracy doesn’t exist here, we instead put them down. Now, what they hear from the right, however, when they go to right-wing churches, is a big welcome. You know, it’s not your fault, the right says. It really isn’t. And that you’re in pain is not your fault. You did not do something bad to be in this pain. And that gives tremendous relief to people. But the hook is, the evil flip part of this is, it says: and who is to blame for your suffering? And then this formula is a universal formula around the world: they pick whoever is the demeaned “other” in that society. So in the first 50 years of the 20th century in Europe, the demeaned other were Jews. So it’s the Jews who are to blame for your pain. In the United States, it has traditionally been Native Americans and African Americans. But in the past few years, past few decades, it has spread to being, well, it’s the people of color, it’s all people of color, it’s feminist women, it’s–well, the list goes on. It’s the immigrants, it’s the asylum-seekers, it’s the liberals, it’s the radicals, it’s the socialists. All of these are the answers given to your pain. 

But they’re recognizing–at least they’re recognizing that pain. Until we in the liberal and progressive world start to talk about the sources of that pain, rooted in the falsity of the notion of a meritocracy, and help people say no, it’s not your fault, your pain is–now, that doesn’t mean that people don’t have some contribution to some of their pain. I’m a therapist, after all; I work with people to overcome the part of their own contribution. But most therapists fail to introduce the larger picture of all the things that are difficult. It’s difficult for people to sustain loving relationships when they’ve spent all day in a world of work in which the bottom line is, maximize your own interests without regard to the consequences for others. 

RS: OK. Rabbi, Rabbi–let me interrupt you for a minute. Because–and you know, by the way, I really appreciate what you’re saying. And I enjoyed your book; I recommend it. But then I wonder, am I recommending a poem? Am I recommending a good sermon? And I get back to this question of reality check. And one thing–you talk about the religion of capitalism, the bottom line, profit, and so forth. But the appeal of traditional religion was some sort of reward of an eternal life, or being in the grace of God, some sort of notion. And you had, yes, you’re absolutely right, in the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus Christ tells us that the way to get to heaven is to care about the other, and pick up the other who has been beaten and robbed, and then to take care of them and so forth. There is a part of that–even going back to Confucius, the Golden Rule: do unto others what you [would have done] to yourself, or don’t do to others what you don’t want. A certain common human perspective. But the question is–it’s so easily abandoned. 

And you have–so let me ask you about your role as a rabbi. And what is the particular connection of this idealism to the Jewish religion when you have–for instance Netanyahu, the leader of a proclaimed Jewish state, is one of the biggest supporters of Donald Trump in the world. And I suspect Donald Trump has quite a bit of support in Israel, and among some part of the Jewish population in this country. This is true about Christians. Many of these people on the right wing who are supporting Trump, particularly for example the woman he’s just now trying to get on the Supreme Court, they proclaim a notion of obligation to the other, and Christianity, and so forth. So really, in terms of the religious inspiration, it just all gets distorted, and people do basically what they feel and what they want to do, and what they can get away with. 

ML: Yes. So, absolutely, you’re right. And this is–you see, the ruling elites long ago figured out, hey, this religion thing is potentially subversive. And in fact one of the reasons why they’ve hated Jews throughout the past 2,200 years is because the Jewish message was that the world could be fundamentally healed and transformed, and that that was threatening to the established order. But they figured it out, and they said OK, we’ve got to get in there, and use our money and our power to influence who becomes religious leaders and who gets accepted in the religious world. And pretty soon you had the religions being transformed internally by people who wanted to be successful in the competitive marketplace. And that’s exactly what’s happened. 

So there’s a struggle in every sphere. There’s a struggle in the religious sphere. Now, there is a thing, we call it the Network of Spiritual Progressives, and people can look it up on the web at SpiritualProgressives.org. So we’re an organization there that tries to bring a spiritual consciousness into the political arena, but also challenges the capitalist mentality that has seeped into, and at times dominated, much in the religious world. It’s a struggle that goes on all the time. Israel is a sad example of where the reality police became the majority consciousness, in which Jews, after having had–one out of every three Jews alive in 1940 were murdered in the next five years. So that’s a huge trauma, and the state of Israel has been based on that trauma, in which Jews were saying, OK, screw all this religious stuff, we’re creating power for ourselves, and we need that security. And I can understand why people who have suffered as much go in that direction. But unfortunately, Israel then becomes a state that is embodying the same values as the screwed-up values that the Trump administration, and that the center of the Democratic Party, support. 

So I say Israel is no longer a Jewish state; it doesn’t embody the most frequently repeated core value of the Torah. This is repeated more times and in various ways in Torah, some 37 times, than any other commandment in Torah: love the stranger, the other, the people who are the powerless ones. Love those people and care for them, and take care of them and bring them into your society. But it’s not that; it’s just the opposite. It has become an embodiment of the same values that exist in the capitalist world in all the other places. So it’s–I say it’s not a Jewish state, it’s a state with a lot of Jews in it, OK. But it’s not a Jewish state. It doesn’t embody the heart of what Judaism is about. 

Now, this struggle, in other words, has to take place in every arena, in which we put forward a different worldview, and begin to articulate it. But in order to do that, we ourselves have to embody it. We have to build a left that is caring. Now, go to a right-wing church–I’ve gone to them; they actually are very caring of the people who come in them. But in every political meeting I’ve ever been in, from 1964 to this present, I’ve never once seen the part of the meeting dedicated to: let’s see if you can make some friends here, let’s get to know each other. We want to build more loving and caring with each other. That has to be built in to a progressive movement in order for people to feel that the movement isn’t just about recruiting people to its material ends, but is actually caring about people, in the way that we treat each other. And often people come out of those meetings feeling like they’ve been treated terribly.

RS: Well, I understand. And there’s plenty of terrible mistakes that have been made by every political movement. But let me–if I think of somebody on the left, for example, and Michael Harrington was certainly someone who really brought up the whole issue of poverty and systemic [impoverishment], and the role of racism and so forth. And more recently, Bernie Sanders. Sometimes I think of him as a rabbi also. And you know, he certainly, in his campaign certainly embodied a concern for the other, a concern for the more vulnerable, and actually managed to take that message really further than anyone has done in the electoral system. And what happened was the same thing that happened with Martin Luther King when he was very successful with the Civil Rights Movement. These people get undermined by power, by money, by the powerful, by the media they control, and so forth. And so then you have a bunch of well-intentioned people sort of pushed over to the sideline, and you get the so-called realists come in. And what I’m asking you is, what is going to give this progressive movement heft, strength, if there isn’t an almighty intervening? Now, you’re a rabbi, you know, and maybe you have a different view. But we seem to have been abandoned by an almighty. We have the floods now, we have all this punishment, we have all this despair, all this cynicism. So as a rabbi, you know, what is your answer? What is to be done? How can you do it–what, just on good example?

ML: You have to work in two arenas. Number one, you have to build a left that is an embodiment of the loving values and the caring society that I try to lay out in my book Revolutionary Love. But number two, you also have to be in the public arena, insisting that we have a vision of a caring and loving-oriented society, and you ordinary people in America–which is all of us–really want this; you just don’t believe it’s possible. But the reason you don’t believe it’s possible is because you’ve been fed this notion that everybody is selfish and just looking out for number one. The truth of the matter is, it’s not true about most people. The reason why people act in such a selfish way is because they’ve come to believe that that’s the only possible way. But when we interviewed people about that, they said oh, I hate it that this is the way the society is. But I have no choice, because everybody else is like that. That’s the indoctrination that can be countered by an effective left. And unfortunately, I love Bernie–I was a big supporter of Bernie–but Bernie never went to actually talking about a love-oriented society, a caring society, a new bottom line of love, caring, kindness, generosity, and ethical and environmental sensitivity, and wonder at the grandeur of the universe, and treating other human beings as embodiments of the sacred. 

RS: Well, OK, let’s get back to the sacred. Unless you can invoke a punishing or supportive almighty, or a collective of almighties and gods, religion seems to not have the power to transform society. And when they invoke an almighty and a sacred text, it just as often, or more often than not, leads to an unwelcoming, hostile society. We know, in the example of the death of so many Jews, there were plenty of religious Christians who looked the other way or even supported it in Germany. Germany was a largely Christian, Catholic, Protestant society. And we hear religion invoked all the time. Donald Trump talks about one nation under God, and so forth. But without the carrot and the stick of religion–that you’re being judged–then cynicism reigns. 

And really, when you look at a figure like Donald Trump, and you look at a number of his establishment opponents in the Democratic Party, there’s cynicism. In this debate last night, the worst thing about it was not that Trump was so crude, and Biden was, I thought, rather ineffectual in certain ways. But neither of them addressed the fact that even in this pandemic we have grown–in fact, because of this pandemic, and the way we take care of people–we gave money to the wealthy, the stock market is booming, the rich are richer than ever. You know, and the income divide in America right now, as a result of this pandemic, is greater than it’s been, OK. Because there wasn’t, it’s not a–and the same thing happened in the Great Recession with the housing meltdown. They bailed out Wall Street, they bailed out the rich, whether they were Democrats, you know, Obama or George Bush before him. And it was Bill Clinton who, after all, got rid of the sensible rules of the road for Wall Street. So when it comes to actual behavior, money talks, the rich get it, your book says it. And the only way–what Jesus tried to do, that Jewish radical–what he tried to do was say, oh, you’re not going to get to heaven. You’re not going to have this promise if you go that way, OK. What do you offer, Rabbi Lerner?

ML: [Laughs] I do not offer a heaven, and I do not offer guaranteed success. I offer a possible path, the only possible path that we have to transforming the world. And I’m not even sure at this point if it’s going to happen in time to stop the environmental destruction that may eliminate life on this planet. But what I can say is that the Jewish tradition for the two thousand, or 2,500 years, has been teaching that if you don’t create a world based on love, kindness, and generosity, the world won’t work; the physical world won’t work. And it has warned us over and over again that there’s going to be environmental crisis, and it’s right there in the Torah saying that: And if you don’t build the world based on these principles, then the world won’t work. Now, as I’ve said earlier in this interview, the religion is another institution which the ruling elites have managed to take over, appropriate, and distort for their purposes. They can do that; they did that for the Democratic Party. They did that in part for the labor movement. There’s no stopping that from happening, except to have a different, powerful worldview that’s an alternative. That alternative I’ve laid out in my book, Revolutionary Love. 

But when you say, well, what do you have to offer me? I can’t offer you heaven. I can’t offer you that God’s going to intervene, because the truth of the matter is that we don’t have a God that intervenes. We have a God that created the world in a certain way, and then let it rip. That gave human beings freedom to make their own decisions, and is not going to interfere or intervene to save us, just as that God didn’t intervene to save the Jews in the Holocaust, or the temple 2,000 years ago. We don’t have that; that is not–to be religious does not mean to hold on to the old ways of understanding who God is. God is the force of healing and transformation in the universe, that is integrated into every ounce of being, but isn’t a big man in heaven in the way that the older forms of religion believed. I’m a rabbi; I serve the Torah, I serve God. But the way to serve God is to build a world based on love, on kindness, on generosity, and to challenge all of the old bottom line of money and power, and to affirm that human beings actually have the capacity to build a world of love and kindness and generosity. 

And that is not an easy path. It’s not an easy path, even in the liberal and progressive world. But people hunger for it. And that’s part of why a significant section of people who would be with us, who once were voting liberal and progressive, are now voting conservative or simply not voting. We need a different discourse than the discourse that the left has. It can’t just be about what material things we’re delivering. It also has to be about love, kindness, generosity, and building a caring society. It’s very simple. If you want a short little sentence, it’s: We are for the caring society, caring for each other, and caring for the Earth. That’s what we’re about. And that kind of a movement is quite different. Even [with] how wonderful Bernie was, that message was a throwaway line; it wasn’t a center of his focus. It needs to be the center of our focus. And I hope that will happen.

RS: Well, OK. I’m going to wrap this up. But let me just throw in a more pragmatic possibility here in the absence of an almighty presence, to set things straight. What we’re seeing also is a growing recognition that individual solutions–and this is sort of an extension of the meritocracy illusion–don’t cut it. We’re hearing–look, for instance in California you can have a lot of money, and build your mansion somewhere, and the fire wipes it out. Or you have a lot of angry people around you, and you have homeless people that intrude on your night at the opera in downtown L.A. We saw that with the Black Lives Matter movement, that the most prosperous part of the Black community, highly paid athletes, were willing to risk their careers and their public image, and do basically what Martin Luther King had begged people to do in the last years of his life, with his war on, real war on poverty. And care about how other people, you know, people who don’t have all that prestige and power, are treated. And so I wonder if you could blend the two themes. I like your message of compassion, caring, love–yes. But it also, it seems to me, can be wedded with the notion of survival: survival of the species, and the need for common action in the common good. I don’t think you’d object to that, would you?

ML: No, not at all, on the contrary. My book is full of those kinds of steps that can be taken to build a movement that is based on caring and love and kindness and generosity, that incorporates the best parts of the left, and actually goes further. For example, in the environmental and social responsibility amendment to the U.S. Constitution that I proposed in this book, it calls for requiring that every corporation–with income above $50 million a year, the big corporations–have to get a new corporate charter once every five years. And they have to prove to a jury of ordinary people that they’ve had a satisfactory history of environmental and social responsibility, and that jury gets to hear testimony from people all over the world who have been affected by the operations of that corporation. 

So I’m very much for practical steps, but they have to be steps that go way further, because the crisis on the environment is much bigger and much faster-developing, and we don’t have time for just little changes. We need huge changes in the way that we organize our society. But I’m totally with you in saying that, yeah, this is not so easy. It’s not going to–there’s no intervention. I’m very proud that the pope, Pope Francis, has been at the forefront of challenging the values of the capitalist order. Far better than the Democratic Party, or any other political party, really, that has had any resonance with people in the United States. But we need to be right there with him, and more than him. Because of course, we’re not going to base it on believing in a particular religion or god. I’m not here to advocate, and my book doesn’t advocate for Judaism or any other religion. It advocates for us taking seriously the deepest needs of our soul. And those deepest needs are for a world, not only of justice–yes, of justice, but also of love. 

So we need a movement that I call the love and justice movement. That movement should get into the Democratic Party to try and transform it, but eventually, it may eventually need to take people out of the Democratic Party, to create a different kind of party based on this vision of love and justice together.

RS: Well, Michael, you’ve become my kind of rabbi. And the fact that you can praise the pope–not for every aspect of his leadership or of his religion, but certainly on the issues that your book raised, caring for the other, concern about people who are impoverished throughout the world, the need to control rapacious growth and greed and profit–it’s truly refreshing to have Rabbi Lerner praise Pope Francis. 

And I want to end it on that. The book that he’s referring to–and it’s really enjoyable to read. It’s very well-written, it’s not pedantic and tedious, and it doesn’t hit you over the head with the Biblical commandments. It’s called Revolutionary Love: A Political Manifesto to Heal and Transform the World. it’s published by the University of California Press. 

And so that’s it for this edition of Scheer Intelligence. Christopher Ho at KCRW does all the technical work of getting it posted. Natasha Hakimi Zapata writes the introduction. Lucy Berbeo does the transcript. And our producer–and you should have been there at his bar mitzvah, Rabbi–Joshua Scheer makes this whole thing work. So on that note, see you next week with another edition of Scheer Intelligence. 

5 comments

  1. The discussion proceeds as though there is a historical continuity, as though the earth is not in peril, expiring much faster than scientists anticipated. World’s end is here and even the humans who don’t acknowledge it sense it. The response is a kind of mania and delirium. The semi-invisible line that signified civility has been effaced. Add to this the pandemic and our enforced reliance on ubiquitous technology with its unfeeling algorithms, which are utterly incapable of addressing the ruptures, disruptions, and pain produced by the plague.

  2. Once again, Hillary Clinton, for all her warts, did not call “everyone” a basket of Deplorables. She actually said that about half of Trump supporters are, and frankly they are. Turn on the news, they’re right there “standing by”.

    But then, just seconds later, Lerner does thankfully affirm what Hillary said by saying that half of Trump supporters are not like that and the other half are. So which is it? If he believes the latter, which I suspect he does, he should have never brought up the former at least in a non-critical way. That said, as we approach Election Day with a perfect storm of pandemic, economic shitholery and blood in the streets, I get the feeling that those half of Trump supporters who are not brazen fascists are dwindling in number, perhaps getting more ratbrained and becoming Deplorable. Just an instinct.

    Yeah, try talking to these people about our side of things. Go out into the street and extend an open hand to these heavily-armed lugnuts after they’ve just been mobilized by Trump and see what kind of reaction you get. Good luck with that. These people aren’t merely difficult; they’re impossible. And that’s because they are lost and irredeemable. Go to the white rural areas of the Confederacy. Eastern Tennessee, western Virginia, northern Florida, anywhere in Georgia other than Atlanta, anywhere at all in Arkansas, Mississippi, or Alabama. Anyone of them. You’ll see.a

    The problem with the left is that they believe that the radical right is still very few in number, not a significant presence. While perhaps not the majority of people in the country (at least I hope not), right-wing zealots are not in the small numbers as traditionally believed. Oh yeah, and they’re armed and more mentally unstable than ever. I’m just waiting to see news of bodies of immigrants and generally people of color being discovered here and there, and the police happens to have no leads and the district attorneys choose not to pursue a case because evidence was never handed to them on a silver platter.

    The philosophy of hard work being the lone progenitor of success and wealth is not, nor has ever been, exclusive to the college educated. College education certainly intensified it but it was not the creator of it. This country, for centuries, has preached that “hard work“ is what’s needed, never mind that this country was built on the hard work of slaves yet they weren’t the ones who succeeded. I like many others was taught about hard work but it never was in the scope of college education. And in capitalist society, those who work the hardest are the least rewarded. That’s been alive for hundreds of years, if not thousands. I’ve seen with my own eyes that those who preach hard work the most are those who do it the least. We normally hear that hard work crap being preached by largely one class of people: the managerial/ownership class. If that was true the most successful people in our society would be those working 2-3 jobs, and of those it would be single parents. Those people would be the “elite”. But that’s not the case is it? Management nevertheless preaches it to the workers, then go back in their offices and screw around on the Internet, take long lunches with managerial colleagues and laugh at their subordinates, and sometimes bang someone they lord their power over. And get paid more money for doing it. So Lerner is correct, meritocracy doesn’t exist. I’d argue it never did.

  3. Every now and then, I find myself surprised by just how oblivious our more fortunate are, to the Democrats’ war on the poor. Either they find the consequences acceptable, or they some how don’t see them at all.

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