A World Based on Generosity
Rabbi Michael Lerner | A world based on generosity
“If you don’t create a world based on loving your neighbor, loving the stranger, and pursuing justice and peace, the world won’t work. There will be an environmental crisis; the rain won’t fall, the sun won’t shine, the earth won’t yield produce, and humans and animals will be in great trouble. Built into the structure of the universe is the necessity of caring for each other and treating each other with kindness and generosity. In the final analysis, self-interest and serving God go hand-in-hand.”
By Mark Leviton
Leviton: What’s your assessment of the health of our country at this point in time?
Rabbi Lerner: We still see humanity caught in a struggle between two worldviews. One tells us we are thrown into this world alone and surrounded by hostile forces that seek to dominate and control us. Security comes only through dominating others first.
The other worldview is one of compassion. This view says that weren’t thrown into this life alone; we came into it through a mother who gave us our first experiences of love, and she did it without expecting anything in return. Or maybe it was another caring person—a father, uncle, or someone who adopted you. Someone provided that fundamental nurturance in the first few years of your life. This experience makes plausible to us a worldview that says security comes not through domination and control but through generosity, caring and love. The religious and spiritual traditions of the human race are extensions of this worldview.
These two perspectives both exist in the minds of everyone, and which one is dominant at any given time shapes how we see reality. The tragedy of 9/11 dramatically reinforced the idea that this is a scary world and there’s not much we can do except build up our armies and our homeland security apparatus and protect ourselves in every possible way, sometimes by going out and killing those terrorists who want to hurt us. This is roughly analogous to saying that malaria is a really terrible disease, so we’re going to kill every mosquito on the planet. It would be far wiser to ask ourselves, “How do we dry up the swamps in which malaria breeds?” How do we dry up the swamps of hatred? The answer is not by bombing other countries, but by approaching them with a spirit of generosity and caring.
I think that more and more Americans are waking up to this fact. After all, we’ve tried the domination approach and it hasn’t worked. By responding to 9/11 with war in Iraq and Afghanistan, we’ve caused the deaths of thousands of American soldiers, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and Afghanis, not to mention the millions of Iraqis expelled from their homes and the devastation of both countries’ infrastructure. We’re paying to maintain between 700 and 800 bases in some 150 countries around the world. We’re spending more than half of our annual budget on so-called defense and starving every other investment. Is this wise? Is it moral? Is it the best we can do? We know the answer is no.
We see the same struggle in the situation of Israel and Palestine. There are some who love Israel and wish to see its citizens safe and secure, and know that that can only happen when Palestinians are also safe and secure. There are others who believe that the only way to ensure the safety of Israel is by controlling and dominating Palestinians. They do not see that their hard line drives moderate Palestinians into the hands of Hamas and other extremist groups. Their response to the UN’s recognition of Palestine as a non-member, observer state—to punish Palestine by building more settlements—also punishes Israel, because it isolates Israel from the rest of the world. Nor do they see that they are cutting off the possibility of a two -state solution, should their new settlements cut the possible Palestinian state in two.
Vayikra [Leviticus], chapter 26, says clearly that if you don’t create a world based on loving your neighbor, loving the stranger, and pursuing justice and peace, the world won’t work. There will be an environmental crisis; the rain won’t fall, the sun won’t shine, the earth won’t yield produce, and humans and animals will be in great trouble. When I was a kid, this was a part of Judaism couldn’t buy. I thought this was total fantasy, because that’s not how the world works. But as I’ve grown up and learned about the environment, I’ve realized that it does work that way. Built into the structure of the universe is the necessity of caring for each other and treating each other with kindness and generosity. In the final analysis, self-interest and serving God go hand-in-hand.
Leviton: Is better education a precondition for building a more caring global society?
Rabbi Lerner: I think there’s no particular action that must be taken first. There never is. Whoever you are—whether you are a postal worker, autoworker, lawyer, doctor, high-tech expert—there are multiple ways you can advance the cause of love, kindness, and generosity. One way is to join our Network of Spiritual Progressives at www.spiritualprogressives.org, where we are working on three main projects: The first is getting money out of politics by banning all private monies from elections and requiring major media to give free and equal time to all major candidates. The second is enactment of a Global Marshall Plan to end domestic and global poverty, ensure access to adequate education and health care, and repair the global environment. (Details atwww.tikkun.org/GMP.) Our third campaign is a strategy for peace in the Middle East, which is presented in detail in my 2012 bookEmbracing Israel/Palestine (www.tikkun.org/EIP).
The new world will be created by people who know better than to be realistic. Realism is crumbling all around us. We will learn what is possible by struggling for the world we desire.
Rabbi Michael Lerner is editor of Tikkun magazine,www.tikkun.org, chair of the Network of Spiritual Progressives, and author of 11 books including The Politics of Meaning, with Cornel West: Jews and Blacks—Let the Healing Begin, Spirit Matters, Jewish Renewal, Surplus Powerlessness, and The Left Hand of God: Taking Back our Country from the Religious Right. He welcomes your feedback: RabbiLerner.firstname.lastname@example.org. This interview is excerpted from an original that appeared in The Sun magazine (September 2012), to which Rabbi Lerner has made additional comments.