Meet the Flipsters

Conversations on the Bridge

A Conversation with Rabbi Michael Lerner
(The complete Flip interview, with only minor edits, not found in the book)

The Rabbi Michael Lerner ( is a man who wears many hats in addition to his yarmulke. A scholar, Rabbi Lerner holds Ph.D. degrees in both philosophy and psychology and has taught at numerous colleges and universities. An author, he has written several books including The Politics of Meaning: Restoring Hope and Possibility in an Age of Cynicism, Spirit Matters: Global Healing and the Wisdom of the Soul, and – most recently - The Left Hand of God: Taking Back Our Country from the Religious Right. Rabbi Lerner is the spiritual leader of Beyt Tikkun, as well as founder and editor of TIKKUN Magazine: A Bimonthly Jewish Critique of Politics, Culture and Society. He has also founded the Tikkun Community and the Network of Spiritual Progressives, an international organization dedicated to inter-religious understanding and social justice.

We asked Rabbi Lerner how he became so aware of the role of spirituality in American politics. “I came to Berkley to do a graduate degree and became active in the social change movements of the Sixties,” he explained. “But I watched as the movements seemed to defeat themselves in a variety of ways. I decided to study the psychodynamics – first of the movement, and eventually of American society. In particular, I focused on why it is that so many people vote against their economic interests. Specifically, they vote for the Right, even though the Right’s economic programs undermine their own economic position to bolster the rich and powerful.

“I set up the Institute for Labor and Mental Health with many other therapists and social change activists, and we began interviewing groups of middle income working people about this strange dynamic. What we learned over the course of several decades was that there’s a deep spiritual crisis in American society. People hunger for a framework of meaning and purpose that can transcend the materialism and selfishness of the competitive marketplace and connect their lives to some higher purpose. Unfortunately, when these people come home, they treat each other in ways that reflect what they’ve learned from the world of work – namely that people are all out for themselves, that they have to protect themselves from others, and that they must view others primarily in terms of how they can be of use. Although they believe their situation to be unchangeable, they also hate it. So they are drawn to anybody who talks about love, kindness, and generosity.

“The religious Right has been very effective in articulating that there is a spiritual crisis in American society, and they’re correct about that. However, the Right blames that crisis on gays and lesbians, on liberals, on feminists… and meanwhile, it has this position of defending selfishness and materialism in the world of work and the economy, that it’s perfectly appropriate for everybody to seek their own self interest in that arena. The Right correctly notes how terrible it is for people to have that kind of value structure in their personal lives. What they fail to acknowledge is that the economic and political system that they support is the source of that value system and constantly reinforces it.

“How does the Right get away with this contradiction? They get away with it because the Liberals and Progressives don’t even know that there is a spiritual crisis in America.”

We asked Rabbi Lerner how he would characterize the problem. “I think this is primarily a problem of people not recognizing that we’re all one. There is a fundamental unity between all peoples, as illustrated by the creation story of all human beings stemming from the same original family. The ultimate unity of all beings is something that is taught not only by Judaism, but by all religious or spiritual traditions. However, in the world of actual suffering, where people are pitted against each other, religious traditions develop in which one group sees themselves as oppressed and in need of defense from hurtful or evil ‘others.’”

This also happens along nationalistic and other political lines. How do we heal this polarization? “I don’t think spirituality can do it unless spirituality becomes political,” Rabbi Lerner posited. “Spiritual politics is exactly what the Network of Spiritual Progressives is about – bringing people out of their spiritual closets. Unfortunately, people have learned how to split off their consciousness of the unity of all beings – which they articulate in church, synagogue, ashram, or mosque – as something private and confined to their weekends. They don’t take that awareness and those values to work with them. They think it would be unrealistic to try to challenge the ‘real world.’

“It’s very important for people to bring their spiritual wisdom into the public sphere. Not in the authoritarian way that the religious right has done it, trying to impose a particular form of spirituality or religion on everyone and telling people that if they’re not onboard, they’re less than or not ok. There needs to be a spiritual movement that can articulate what it would be like to have a new bottom line in every workplace and institution…not only to maximize money and power, but also to maximize loving, caring, kindness and generosity. We need to promote ethical and ecological sensitivity. We need to enhance our capacity to respond to each other as embodiments of the sacred, and to respond to the universe with awe and wonder.

“I believe that every human being on the planet aspires to what we aspire to. It seems racist to think otherwise. They aspire to love and kindness and generosity and peace, and a world in which they can raise their children with caring and security. And that is possible to achieve. The vast majority of people want that kind of world. However, they’re stuck in various ideological systems and there are very few people who speak to them with a vision of an alternative. This has been a problem with the secular in both the United States and the Middle East.

“People find themselves caught between, on the one hand, those who talk in a visionary language but are often fundamentalists and reactionaries – and, on the other hand, secular rationalists who only talk about equal opportunity in a global marketplace. Since most people don’t believe that they’re going to succeed very well in the global marketplace, that doesn’t seem like such an attractive alternative. And it certainly doesn’t provide them with the framework of meaning or purpose for their lives. That’s why we need a progressive middle path – a path that is both pro-peace and justice and is rooted in a religious or spiritual frame that can speak to people about a meaning for their life and transcendent values.”

Does Rabbi Lerner see this spiritual transformation taking place soon? “I’m very optimistic. I think that there are tremendous possibilities if people can overcome their fear of being involved with each other, entering into social and spiritual change movements with a spirit of compassion for the limitations of themselves and each other. It’s totally vital, and absolutely necessary. Yet many of us are afraid to grab onto it for fear that we will look ridiculous or be humiliated by others who point out how unrealistic it is to believe in fundamental transformation of the planet.

“If we can develop a spiritually balanced social change movement, then I really think it’s possible to heal the planet. But I do see the forces of destructiveness, the generations of accumulated pain and cruelty, and industrialization’s legacy of ecological destructiveness. We must immediately overcome nationalist and sectarian fighting. We must recognize our fundamental need for each other – our mutual interdependence. I am not a determinist on this issue. I don’t believe that it’s guaranteed that the forces of history will play out in a destructive or in a hopeful way. It really depends on the choices that each of us make.”



The Flip, by Jared Rosen and David Rippe, illuminates a clear path to a vibrant enlightened world where millions of people already live and thrive. It describes in vivid detail and real examples evidence of an upside down world in decay and a Right Side Up world of authentic beings bright with possibility.
The Flip is an owner’s manual for the twenty-first century full of insights, conversations with recognized experts, thought leaders, and visionaries, and actionable exercises and tips you can use to begin your own personal flip.

To read more about The Flip and additional interviews from other luminaries, experts and bestselling authors, please visit

The Flip is available at your local bookstore or online at, Barnes & Noble, Joseph-Beth, and Borders.


Home | Excerpts | The Authors | Meet the Flipsters | Contest | Press

Copyright © 2006 The Flip. All Rights Reserved.

Web site by Celestia International

To view corrections, click here.