Three decades later, Tikkun still swims outside mainstream

When Tikkun magazine debuted in 1986 as an alternative to the conservative Commentary, it didn’t have sexy cover art or mass-appeal articles — but it did have a revolutionary goal: to bring together the spheres of politics and spirituality, both in the Jewish world and beyond.

Thirty years later, Tikkun is still publishing and is still edited by its founder, Rabbi Michael Lerner — even the cover design looks largely the same. Aside from a brief move to New York somewhere in the middle, it has been based in Berkeley the entire time. The 30th anniversary issue, which came out this summer, featured pieces from the last three decades by writers including Joyce Carol Oates, Cornel West and Chaim Potok, just a slice of the high-profile commentators who have contributed to Tikkun over the years.

Nan Fink and Rabbi Michael Lerner put together an early issue of Tikkun in the 1980s

From the outset, Lerner’s mission was to provide a forum for liberal and progressive Jews to engage in thoughtful conversation. He wanted them to know, he said in an interview, “That there was a place for them in the Jewish world, and they didn’t have to abandon their Judaism to be committed to liberal and progressive values.”

The mid-’80s was “a time when the liberal voices were being increasingly marginalized in the Jewish world,” Lerner told J. “And there was no intellectually serious magazine at the time that could provide such a voice.”

Lerner’s other mission was to push back against the decade’s ostentatious consumerism.

Today his goals remain the same. “And that’s because both of these missions have been a lot more difficult than we might have anticipated,” he said.

On top of that, there have been other struggles. It’s not easy to make a quarterly print journal devoted to ideas, art and poetry financially sustainable.

“A rabbi friend told me, ‘If you want money from rich people, stop denouncing the system that makes them rich,’ ” Lerner said. “But that wasn’t an option for us.”

Those problems aside, Tikkun continues turning out magazines, reaching 20,000 print readers per issue and many more online.

In the early years, with its emphasis on compassion for both sides of any conflict — Israel/Palestine, for example — Tikkun was considered too radical for the Jewish establishment. Today, supporting Israel while being critical of the occupation is becoming a more acceptable mainstream position. But Lerner, 73, was once a lone voice far outside the Jewish establishment on that issue.

“That has been a problem that we continue to face, that we’re a middle path because we’re pro-Israel and pro-Palestine, we’re critical of Israel, and we’re critical of Palestine,” Lerner said. “There are people who distort us on either side.”

Rabbi David Gordis, a popular Jewish thought leader and president emeritus of Hebrew College in Boston, has written for Tikkun on several occasions, most recently this past February. Like many, he talks about Tikkun and Lerner as though they’re the same entity, so closely has the man become identified with his work.

Ari Bloomekatz, Cat Zavis and Lerner (from left) working on a recent issue of Tikkun

“I’ve always admired [Lerner],” Gordis told J. “He’s not beholden to anyone of power or influence in the Jewish community. His positions are principled.”

That hasn’t always served him well. A prickly personality, doggedly pursuing and sticking by his stated principles, Lerner often has had trouble getting his message across to the Jewish community, something he openly acknowledges.

“We’ve had a great deal of trouble communicating this compassion-for-both-sides perspective in the Jewish world,” he said. “We find ourselves often blocked from being able to speak at synagogues or Jewish institutions or ignored or dissed by many of the organizations in the Jewish world.”

If he is not always accepted at mainstream Jewish tables because of his position on Palestine, his refusal to disavow Israel has put him outside the non-Jewish left on more than one occasion. A March 2011 article in New York’s Jewish Week noted that he was “once excluded from an anti-war rally in San Francisco because he was thought to be too pro-Israel.”

Somehow, however, his central message has gotten through to political and spiritual leaders around the world. He lists Archbishop Desmond Tutu and former President Jimmy Carter as among those who will vouch for him. In the early 1990s, then First lady Hillary Clinton started speaking of “the politics of meaning,” one of the catch phrases Lerner had circulated, leading some journalists to refer to him as Clinton’s “guru.”

Lerner has continued to work beyond the Jewish community. In 2005, together with Sister Joan Chittister, a Benedictine nun, and West, the controversial Princeton University professor of religion, he founded the Network of Spiritual Progressives, a coalition of like-minded clergy and activists of many faiths who came together to infuse progressive politics with spiritual urgency. The network is a way to give the ideas of Lerner and his compatriots a presence in Washington, D.C., and to influence legislation with Tikkun’s faith-based social justice message.

 At its most grandiose, Tikkun has placed a number of full-page ads on different issues in major newspapers like the New York Times. The most recent ran in March 2015, shortly before Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech before Congress. “No, Mr. Netanyahu — you do not speak for American Jews,” read the large type at the top of the ad.

“[Tikkun] has grown in the original intention, which was to bring together what people usually keep separate: spirituality and politics,” said Rabbi Arthur Waskow, founder of the Shalom Center in Philadelphia, who published a piece about nuclear disarmament in the very first issue of Tikkun. “I don’t see those as separate universes, nor has Tikkun.”

Tikkun is holding a strategy conference and 30th anniversary celebration, “What Now for Progressives After the Election?”  this weekend, Nov. 12 and 13 in Berkeley at Northbrae Community Church.

To illustrate how Tikkun’s message has spread beyond the Berkeley-based magazine, Waskow points to the protest ongoing in North Dakota by indigenous peoples against the Dakota Access Pipeline, and to the statement signed by 300 rabbis in support of the Sioux and Lakota nations organized by Waskow’s Shalom Center.

“The gathering now of Jews, Christians, Muslim and other groups coming to support those indigenous communities have been nourished by Tikkun’s repeated enrichment of politics through spirituality,” Waskow said. “You wouldn’t have had that 30 years ago.”

David A.M. Wilensky
David A.M. Wilensky

David A.M. Wilensky is the digital editor of J. He can be reached at david@jweekly.com.