Rabbi Michael Lerner: The Pied Piper of Love

“The more civilization advances, the more it is compelled to cover the evils it necessarily creates with the cloak of love, to excuse them, or deny their existence.”

– Frederick Engels

Few figures on the American left have elicited more antipathy than Rabbi Michael Lerner, and, at the same time, few figures have elicited more admiration and even adoration. Over the past half-century, and ever since the protest against the Vietnam War, no one has been a more polarizing figure among radicals and progressives than he. In part, that’s because he’s defended Palestinians and Muslims and criticized Zionists and the State of Israel. He can be awfully blunt. His own personality and big ego have contributed to the syndrome that attracts people and repels them.

I saw the attraction in action at a recent dinner to honor Lerner that was sponsored by the International Association of Sufism (IAS), an organization based in Marin County, California that defines itself as “a model of engaged creativity.”

Michael Krasny, the host of KQED’s Forum, served as the MC and praised Lerner at every opportunity as “a warrior for peace” and as a “spiritual teacher.” Cornel West via video called Lerner “brother” and touted him as “a towering intellectual’ with a “universal vision grounded in Judaism.” Martha Sonnenberg, a medical doctor and an observant Jew, depicted Lerner as a mentor and a mensch with a messianic vision. Peter Gabel, once a colleague of Lerner’s at New College in San Francisco, praised him as a teacher who integrated the psychological and the spiritual. “We came to love one another,” he said. “We’re a couple.”

By the time that Lerner took the stage to accept his award, the event had turned into a kind of love-in with Jews on one side and Sufis on the other, or perhaps as a tribal gathering without any sides at all. Looking like an old hippie, or perhaps more aptly as an elderly rabbi, Lerner persuaded the audience to hold hands, and to sing, “into ploughshares beat their swords, nations shall make war no more.” He boasted of his friendship with Mohamad Ali, and while that was an exaggeration, it is true that he spoke at the memorial for Ali that was held in June 2016 in Louisville, Kentucky and where he urged the audience to “refuse to follow the path of conformity.” Over the course of the last three years, Lerner has lost much of his vigor and energy.

Listening to him speak, halting, at the event in his honor I noticed that his language and phrasing isn’t original. Much of it is borrowed from others. Much of what he says is a synthesis of cliches: the gap between the rich and the poor has increased, the earth is being raped, and we need to look at the world with a “sense of awe and wonder.” Lerner urged the members of the audience to love one another, to be generous and kind, and buy copies of his new book, Revolutionary Love, which was on sale at the back of the room. Medea Benjamin, the co-founder of Code Pink, says in a blurb, “Anyone wanting to overhaul the inequalities and mean-spiritedness of our social system should read this book—and incorporate its message into the array of social-change movements.” That’s easier said than done.

What Lerner asks for—an outpouring of love, kindness and generosity— isn’t tangible nor is it measurable. He knows that. Not surprisingly, he urges readers of his book “not to be realistic.“ Indeed, Revolutionary Love offers a fantasy of a future world that won’t and can’t be realized anytime, if ever.

Lerner explains that his manifesto “is not a detailed blueprint,” but it has dozens and dozens of details, big and small, about the world he envisions. They include: an “Environmental and Social Responsibility Amendment” to the U.S. Constitution; the phasing out of the Fourth of July as a national holiday, and the creation of a “Global Interdependence Day.” Admission to college, he says, ought to be based on “evidence of a student’s ability to care both for the planet and for other human beings.” There should be repatriations for African-Americans and Native Americans, fair wages for housework, the creation of a “Truth and Reconciliation Commission,” modeled after the commission in South Africa after the fall of apartheid, the foundation of “a national service corps” required of all graduating students, and the transformation of dating so that individuals seeking romantic relationship might meet one another without anxiety.

Lerner wants prison sentences to be abolished, whenever possible, though he also wants to “maintain a strong national defense.” Why that would be necessary he doesn’t say, though it would seem to be obsolete after the launch of his “Love and Justice Party,” the “globalization of generosity” and the creation of a post-socialist “Caring Society.”

Calling his program “post-socialist” seems to be based on tactics and philosophy more than on sound economics and savvy politics. In a long-winded sentence that goes on and on, Lerner explains why he uses the term ”post-socialist.” I quote part of the sentence here: “because societies that called themselves socialist democracies in Europe often ended up either susceptive to authoritarian leaders or to bureaucratic governments … our movement … must differentiate ourselves by calling ourselves post-socialist or love socialists.”

What about the many outstanding contributions of socialists in Europe and the United States ever since the middle of the 19th century? What about the many socialist causes and socialist parties that fought for workers’ rights and for peace and justice? What about the contributions of Eugene V. Debs and Jean Jaurès? What about socialist intellectuals and writers like Emile Zola and Victor Hugo? Lerner has thrown out the socialist baby along with its bath water. He may have linked the psychological with the spiritual, as his followers insist, but he’s also abolished history.

I can understand why he has based his appeal on love, though he does admit in his manifesto that in the 1960s he detested the appeal to love. Half a century ago, he explains, he “hated being told by rock stars at anti-war rallies, ‘I love all of you.’” The use of the word “love” to sell products and services is even more disgusting today, as in slogans like “Love—it’s what makes a Subaru a Subaru.” Frederick Engels must be turning over in his grave. In 1884 in The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, he wrote “The more civilization advances, the more it is compelled to cover the evils it necessarily creates with the cloak of love, to excuse them, or deny their existence.” So-called American civilization uses the “cloak of love” to cover its own bloody hands and deeds. These days radicals who make political appeals based on “love” seem to be missing the need for rage and for protest in the streets.

Dozens of notable religious and political figures, and artists, too, have recently signed a “Declaration of Love” that’s posted online by “The Revolutionary Love Project.” They include the usual suspects: Elizabeth Warren, Van Jones, Eve Ensler, Ani DiFranco, Jane Fonda, and half-a-dozen U.S. rabbis, both men and women. They profess their love “for all who are in harm’s way,” including “refugees, immigrants, Muslims, Sikhs, Jews, queer and trans people, Black people, Latinx people, the indigenous, the disabled, women and girls, working-class people and poor people.”

I understand that with Trump and the Trumpettes spewing hate 24/7, progressives like Michael Lerner have embraced love. But it’s going to take a lot more than love to topple Trump and undermine his followers. “Only a full-scale embrace of revolutionary love will save our world,” Lerner insists. If only that were so. If only it was that simple. The Beatles were wrong when they sang, “Love Is All You Need.” The Youngbloods offered a nice sentiment when they chimed in with ”Try to love one another right now.” Those lyrics were empty back then. They are still empty today. By embracing the gospel of love, Lerner has made himself into a kind of Pied Piper leading his followers toward a destination from which there is no return.


Jonah Raskin is the author of Beat Blues, San Francisco, 1955.