Born in 1943 and raised in New Jersey, Michael Lerner earned a B.A. in English and Philosophy from Columbia University in 1964. That same year, he began his graduate studies at UC Berkeley, where he served as chair of both the Free Student Union and the Berkeley chapter of Students for a Democratic Society.
Lerner was also active in the so-called Free Speech Movement (FSM), a 1964 eruption that culminated in the occupation of UC Berkeley’s administration building and the arrest of nearly 800 student trespassers. It was the first “takeover” of a campus building in the history of American higher education and set the stage for political actions on campuses for the next generation. As Sol Stern, a former FSM radical-turned-conservative, wrote in 2014: “[T]he claim that the FSM was fighting for free speech for all (i.e., the First Amendment) was always a charade. Within weeks of FSM’s founding, it became clear … that the struggle was really about clearing barriers to using the campus as a base for radical political activity.”
After graduating from Berkeley, Lerner in 1968 was hired to teach Philosophy of Law at San Francisco State University, but a faculty strike that lasted for several months interrupted his professorial activities.
In 1969 Lerner participated in a symposium entitled “In All Their Habitations,” whose transcript was printed in Judaism Magazine that fall. At the symposium, Lerner denounced Zionists for being excessively friendly toward the United States but insufficiently friendly towards the Soviet Union. He also compared Black Panther leader Huey Newton to the ancient biblical figure Moses, explaining that they had “both justifiably killed an oppressor.”
Circa 1969 as well, Lerner was a sponsor of the GI Civil Liberties Defense Committee, a front group for the Socialist Workers Party.
In 1970 Lerner accepted a position as Visiting Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of Washington in Seattle. Soon thereafter, he co-founded an organization called the Seattle Liberation Front (SLF), which collaborated with the Black Student Union (BSU) and the violent Weatherman organization — the latter of which was led by such luminaries as Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn — to carry out a number of anti-war protests and other direct actions in public spaces. SLF’s most famous action was a February 17, 1970 demonstration at the Federal Courthouse in downtown Seattle, which escalated into a riot where SLF and BSU members — wielding pipes and clubs while shouting “Power to the people!” and “Smash the state!” — rampaged through several university buildings and physically assaulted innocent bystanders. All told, approximately 20 individuals were injured. Washington state attorney Slade Gorton, who later went on to become a U.S. Senator, described the tactics of Lerner’s SLF as “totally indistinguishable from fascism and Nazism.” Lerner himself was one of the so-called “Seattle Seven” who were subsequently charged in a federal trial with “conspiracy to incite a riot.” He spent several months in prison before the main charges against him were dropped and he was released.
In a February 22, 1970 interview with the Seattle Times, Lerner said that he expected to be fired from his academic post at the University of Washington — not because of his involvement in the aforementioned riot, but because “I dig Marx.” Indeed, Lerner saw Marxism as a political and economic system that offered the promise of a psychic liberation akin to the unfettered ecstasy made possible by the use of hallucinogenic drugs. “You have to take LSD,” he said in the early 1970s. “Until you’ve dropped acid, you don’t know what socialism is.”
During the Labor Day weekend of September 1970, Lerner spoke at “Operation RAW” (Rapid American Withdrawal), a three-day protest march — from Morristown, New Jersey to Valley Forge State Park in Pennsylvania — sponsored by Vietnam Veterans Against the War.
In the latter part of 1970 Lerner returned to UC Berkeley, where in October 1971 he wed a teenage girl named Theirrie Cook. During the marriage ceremony itself, Lerner and his bride exchanged rings fashioned out of metal that had been extracted from a downed U.S. military aircraft. At the wedding reception afterward, the cake was inscribed with the words “Smash Monogamy,” a slogan popularized by Weatherman. Shortly after the birth of the Lerners’ son, the couple separated — the mother and child going to live in Boston, and Mr. Lerner opting to reside in Berkeley. When asked why he had chosen to remain so far from his young boy, Lerner answered without hesitation: “You don’t understand. I have to be here. Berkeley is the center of the world-historical spirit.”
After completing his Ph.D. in Philosophy in 1972, Lerner took a job as an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, where he taught courses in ethics, political and social philosophy, philosophy of literature, philosophy of social science, and Marx & Critical Theory (focusing mainly on the teachings of the Frankfurt School). Also during this period, Lerner performed some work at the Cambridge Policy Studies Institute, an outgrowth of the Institute for Policy Studies.
Before long, Lerner left Trinity and returned to graduate school at the California-based Wright Institute of Psychology, which had been established by Neville Sanford, a collaborator on Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s study of the so-called “Authoritarian Personality,” which, according to Marxian propaganda, was associated with a conservative political orientation. While pursuing his graduate studies, Lerner was simultaneously hired by the University of California to teach in an experimental undergraduate program. Two years later, he took a position as a visiting professor of sociology at Sonoma State College in the Northern Bay Area.
In 1976 Lerner established an East Bay chavurah (Jewish prayer group) and resumed his studies for rabbinic ordination, a goal he would fulfill 19 years later. In 1977 he earned a second Ph.D. in Social & Clinical Psychology from the Wright Institute, and then spent two years working as a therapist at the Contra Costa County Mental Health facilities.
In the mid-1970s, Lerner worked with labor-movement leaders to create the Institute for Labor and Mental Health (ILMH) in Oakland, California, a facility focused on addressing the psychological needs of working people. He became executive director of ILMH and went on to practice psychotherapy for a number of years. In the course of that practice, Lerner came to the conclusion that working-class people in the U.S. were “moving [politically] to the right because the liberals didn’t seem to understand or address the alienation and meaninglessness fostered by the me-firstism of the market economy.” This conclusion formed the basis upon which Lerner gradually developed his concept of people’s “hunger for meaning” which transcended even their desire for material comfort. Lerner would elaborate extensively on this theme two decades later, in his 1996 book The Politics of Meaning.
While serving as Executive Director of ILMH, Lerner was also the Dean of the Graduate School of Psychology at the San Francisco-based New College of California from 1980-85.
Lerner met a woman named Nan Fink at ILMH and married her a short time later. Though they were both committed leftists, the two shared a distaste for the Left’s pronounced secularism, which they believed had failed to satisfy the spiritual needs of their comrades on the left. To address those needs, Lerner and Fink sought to create a forum that could provide a “voice of Jewish liberals and progressives” while also recognizing “the importance of speaking to the psychological, ethical and spiritual dimension of human needs.” Toward that end, in 1986 the couple — who would divorce five years later — created the magazine Tikkun: A Bimonthly Jewish Critique of Politics, Culture and Society. Tikkun is a Hebrew word that means “repairing the world,” and the magazine professed to blend Jewish spirituality with “the peace movement, the women’s movement, the environmental movement, the movement for economic justice, the civil rights movement, the gay rights movement, the labor movement, struggles for civil liberties, and the disability rights movement.” Its overall philosophy was — and still is — an admixture of Old Testament teachings, medieval cabala mysticism, and Sixties-style campus Marxism.
From 1992-96, Lerner resided in Manhattan where he worked as editor of Tikkun.
In 1995 Lerner was ordained as a rabbi in the progressive Jewish Renewal Movement. Such ordinations are recognized only by those within the Jewish Renewal community and Reconstructionist Judaism. Orthodox Judaism, the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis, and the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly all regard these ordinations as invalid.
In 1996 Lerner established the Beyt Tikkun synagogue in San Francisco, a Jewish Renewal house of worship.
That same year, Lerner published The Politics of Meaning, a book expounding the aforementioned political theory that the author had begun to contemplate during his tenure at ILMH two decades earlier. It was a theory to which Hillary Clinton gravitated very publicly in the Nineties. Indeed, she had helped popularize the phrase by using it in a speech on healthcare that she delivered in 1993 — and then in subsequent speeches as well. In 1995, for instance, Mrs. Clinton gave a speech whose very title was “The Politics of Meaning.”
For a period during the Bill Clinton administration, Lerner, who had a warm relationship with both Bill and Hillary, was widely regarded as the “guru” of the President and the First Lady. In Hell To Pay, her 1999 biography of Hillary Clinton, author Barbara Olson reported that Lerner, during his years of friendship with Mrs. Clinton, frequently invoked the phrase “Hillary and I believe” as a prelude to identifying points of agreement that he shared with her. But as the 1990s progressed, Lerner, a devoted far-leftist, lost interest in the Clintons when he saw that polling data and focus groups were leading the administration toward moderation on such issues as welfare reform and social-welfare spending.
In 1998 Lerner married his third wife, Rabbi Debora Kohn, a Jewish theorist of social change.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Lerner was a staunch supporter of the anti-globalization, pro-communism, anti-World Trade Organization movement. He wrote: “The contemporary form of domination does not require colonial armies or imperialist interventions. The free market allows for the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of the few, and those few are in turn are able to dominate elections and dictate government policies around the world. Their allies in government created the World Trade Organization to extend their power further in countries whose democratic processes have put environmental, labor, and human rights constraints on the reckless pursuit of profits uber alles.”
In the early 2000s, Lerner was an endorser of World Can’t Wait (WCW), a direct-action movement organized by the Revolutionary Communist Party to engage in civil disobedience aimed at removing President George W. Bush from office. Other notable endorsers of WCW include: Mumia Abu Jamal, Bill Ayers, Ward Churchill, John Conyers, Jodie Evans, Jesse Jackson, Michael Ratner, Cindy Sheehan, and Lynne Stewart.
In January 2002, Lerner founded the Tikkun Community — a network organization co-chaired by Lerner and Marxist professor Cornel West — which described itself as “an international interfaith organization dedicated to peace, justice, non-violence, generosity, caring, love and compassion.” To promote those values, the Tikkun Community urged society to adopt all manner of leftist political and social policies.
In 2002 as well, Lerner joined such notables as Tom Hayden, Al Sharpton, Amiri Baraka, Angela Davis, Carl Dix, Bernardine Dohrn, Leonard Weinglass, and Edward Said in signing the Not In Our Name “Statement of Conscience,” which condemned not only the Bush administration’s “stark new measures of repression,” but also its “unjust, immoral, illegitimate, [and] openly imperial policy towards the world.” Not In Our Name was initiated on March 23, 2002 by the longtime Maoist activist and Revolutionary Communist Party member C. Clark Kissinger.
When the U.S. invaded Saddam Hussein‘s Iraq in March 2003, Lerner, after a short period of waffling on the matter, came out solidly against both the military campaign and the economic sanctions that were imposed against Iraq. As for
Lerner was one of 100 “prominent Americans” who signed an October 26, 2004 statement circulated by the organization 911Truth.org, calling on the U.S. government to investigate the 9/11 attacks as a possible “inside job” orchestrated by — or at least facilitated by — the Bush administration.
In April 2007, Lerner, in conjunction with leftwing evangelist/sociology professor Tony Campolo, drafted and published a manifesto titled “An Ethical Way to End the War in Iraq.” This document called for the U.S. to “repent” and “apologize” for its complicity in the deaths of “hundreds of thousands of innocent people” in the Iraq War, when Americans behaved like “modern-day imitators of the Crusaders who once devastated Muslim countries.” Further, the manifesto demanded the immediate withdrawal of American troops from Iraq; the formation of a new U.S. foreign policy based on “generosity, kindness and genuine concern”; the payment of “hundreds of billions” of dollars in reparations to the Iraqi people; and an American pledge to commit one percent of its Gross Domestic Product for the next 20 years towards “eliminating global and domestic poverty, homelessness, inadequate health care, inadequate education and repairing the environment” around the world. Supporters of the manifesto’s objectives included Cornel West, Medea Benjamin, and Howard Zinn.
In 2008, Lerner denounced the Catholic Church for threatening to excommunicate the leftist Maryknoll priest Roy Bourgeois because the latter had participated in the unauthorized ordination of a female priest. “It’s not just Jews who demean others or see one type of human being as more valuable or closer to God or more appropriate to serve God than another,” Lerner bemoaned.
In 2015, Lerner was a staunch supporter of the so-called Iran Nuclear deal that the leaders of the United States, Great Britain, France, Russia, China, and Germany negotiated with Tehran. The key elements of the agreement were as follows:
Two days after the Iran deal was formally announced in July 2015, Lerner wrote: “We in the liberal and progressive wing of the Jewish world must loudly and publicly congratulate the negotiators who achieved a deal that will prevent Iran from developing the capacity to build nuclear weapons in the coming years, an agreement that also promises an end to economic sanctions…. While Republicans rushed to denounce the deal, their response has been predictable and hollow, given their consistent policy of opposing anything that might give President Obama the appearance of having done something valuable. Their primary claim to credibility comes from identifying with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who immediately decried the agreement as ‘a historical mistake.’”
In June 2016, Lerner delivered a eulogy at the funeral of the legendary boxer Muhammad Ali. The rabbi used that forum to promote his own leftist political and social agendas. “The way to honor Muhammad Ali is to be Muhammad Ali today,” he said, meaning, in part, that each individual within the sound of his voice should promptly “tell the one percent who own 80 percent of the wealth of this country that it’s time to share their wealth.” It also meant, said Lerner, that the U.S. should “close our military bases around the world”; “create a guaranteed income” for all people; “help create a Palestinian state”; rid society of “racist police” and “racist judges”; pass a Constitutional amendment requiring the “public funding” of all political elections; and eschew its tradition of perpetually “seek[ing] new ways of domination.” At one point, Lerner shouted:
“Tell judges to let out of prison the many African-Americans swept up by racist police and imprisoned by racist judges, many of them in prison today for offenses like possessing marijuana that white people get away with all the time. Tell our elected officials to imprison those who authorize torture and those who ran big banks and investment companies that caused the economic collapse of 2008. Tell the leaders of Turkey to stop killing the Kurds. Tell Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu that the way to get security for Israel is to stop the occupation of the West Bank and help create a Palestinian state.”
Lerner even went so far as to compare himself to Ali: “Both of us were indicted by the federal government for our various stands against the Vietnam War. At the key moment when he had that recognition he used that to stand up to an immoral war to say, ‘No, I won’t go.’”
Over the years, Lerner has been harshly critical of Israel and the Jewish people, while voicing effusive praise and support for the Palestinians. Some examples:
Just as Lerner views Palestinian terrorism as a rational response to Israeli injustice, so does he trace the roots of the 9/11 terrorist attacks to the doorstep of the United States. He writes:
“The narrow focus on the perpetrators allows us to avoid dealing with the underlying issues. When violence becomes so prevalent throughout the planet, it’s too easy to simply talk of ‘deranged minds.’ We need to ask ourselves, ‘What is it in the way that we are living, organizing our societies, and treating each other that makes violence seem plausible to so many people?’ And why is it that our immediate response to violence is to use violence ourselves — thus reinforcing the cycle of violence in the world?”
“If the U.S. turns its back on global agreements to preserve the environment, unilaterally cancels its treaties to not build a missile defense, accelerates the processes by which a global economy has made some people in the third world richer but many poorer, shows that it cares nothing for the fate of refugees who have been homeless for decades, and otherwise turns its back on ethical norms, it becomes far easier for the haters and the fundamentalists to recruit people who are willing to kill themselves in strikes against what they perceive to be an evil American empire represented by the Pentagon and the World Trade Center. Most Americans will feel puzzled by any reference to this ‘larger picture.’ It seems baffling to imagine that somehow we are part of a world system which is slowly destroying the life support system of the planet, and quickly transferring the wealth of the world into our own pockets.”
Lerner has long cultivated a close relationship with the black scholar Cornel West. Together they have co-authored several books and articles, including the 1997 book Jews and Blacks: Let the Healing Begin.