Jewish Renewal: A Path to Healing and Transformation

by Michael Lerner, Grosset/Putnam, 1994

Reviewed by Paul Lowinger


Can Judaism, an ancient tribal religion be renewed into a liberation movement and spiritual force? If it can, maybe there's hope for the other religions especially those which share the Old Testament so this book is for gentiles as well as Jews. Lerner's magazine, Tikkun (to heal, transform and repair the world) and his politics of meaning made it briefly to Hillary and Bill Clinton's world so when Lerner visited the White House so here is the main act.

The book begins with 357 interviews with Jews from 20 to 50 who said that Judaism led to conformity, materialism, spiritual emptiness, joylessness, intolerance of dissent, lack of democracy, preoccupation with the Holocaust, no debate on Israel, sexism, homophobia and a sense of exclusivism about Jewish suffering.We learn little about the opinions of the satisfied Jews although Lerner says there were some.

Lerner's response is to propose a revolutionary democratic socialist utopian Jewish movement based on the Bible and sacred texts. The tension for Jews is between the revolutionary potential in the words of Moses and the Prophets and the conservative conformity inherent in the Bible's words of cruelty. Today's Jewish religious establishment rejects the God of love and justice and chooses the Biblical and Talmudic words of cruelty and fanaticism reflecting the pain of Jewish oppression in the ancient empires and later in the countries of the Jewish Diaspora. For Jews the Biblical message to "love the stranger" should predominate over Biblical cruelties like those of Prophet Samuel who beheads Agag, the Amalekite king after King Saul has saved his life. Violence in the Bible like the order of God to wipe out Israel's seven tribal rivals is tracked by Lerner to the 1994 massacre of 29 Muslims in Israel by an American Jewish settler in a mosque on Purim.

Lerner is a Zionist for religious and pragmatic reasons but he rejects Settler Judaism which stands for the demeaning and brutalizing of the Palestinians.He approves the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza but I wondered why doesn't he mention reparations for the Palestinians in Israel itself who lost their land and water? And what about a withdrawal of United States funding of Israel's armed forces that repress the Pales tinians and support the Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Jerusalem?

Jewish Renewal doesn't do much with Jewish Messianism although Hasidism is mentioned. It is said that as anti-semitism fades, Jews will feel comfortable with Jesus as an honored teacher. The afterlife is also neglected because Lerner identifies it with the death-oriented Egyptian culture. I think a spiritually revived Judaism needs the Kabalistic energy of the medieval messianic movements and the Jewish mystery cults like the Essenes with their belief in resurrection and immortality.

Jewish Renewal is a meal of several courses from politics, history, philosophy and religion that does not always blend. Even if you eat slowly and chew every bite carefully, there's going to be indigestion and you'll need an Alka Selzer but it's worth it.