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Rabbi Michael Lerner




Hanukah is NOT Hypocrisy–Despite What the NY Times Published on Sunday, Dec. 2nd

Dec3

by: on December 3rd, 2018 | 2 Comments »

Image of Beyt Tikkun's annual Chanukah celebration in 2014.

On the eve of Chanukah, Dec. 2nd, the N.Y. Times chose to publish an article entitled “The Hypocrisy of Hanukah” by Michael David Lukas. It is worth exploring not only because of the way it reveals the shallowness of those contemporary forms of Jewishness that are more about identity politics, lox and bagels, nostalgia, or fear of the non-Jew than about any substantive belief and so quickly boil down to a mild form of liberalism or a mild form of conservatism without any ethical or spiritual content, but also because of the way it reveals how ill-suited contemporary liberalism is to understand the appeal of right-wing nationalist chauvinism and hence to effectively challenge it.

Lukas portrays the problem of contemporary non-religious Jews in a Christian culture with its powerful and pervasive symbols and music of Christmas. Like most Jews, he doesn’t believe in the supposed miracle of a light that burned for eight days, so he digs deeper and what he finds outrages him. Namely, that Chanukah was, in his representation, a battle between cosmopolitan Jews who wanted to embrace the enlightened thought of Greek culture and a militaristic chauvinistic fundamentalist force, the Maccabees. Since he is sure that those Maccabees would reject him and his liberal ideas and politics, he is tempted to abandon the whole thing. But instead, he decides not to do so because he needs something at this time of year to offer his young daughter who is attracted to Santa Claus. He thinks that offering his daughter something he personally believes to be worse than nonsense is, as he puts, “all about beating Santa. “He can’t understand why anyone would identify with that chauvinist and militarist Judaism represented by Chanukah, when they could become part of the attractive universalist culture (in the Maccabees day–Greek Hellenism with all its deep philosophers, theatre, and technology). To paraphrase a response from Levinas Levinas,”Oh yes, everything we need is in Greek philosophy – everything, that is, except the idea that we should care for the widow, the stranger, and the orphan. Look as you may, you won’t find that in Plato and Aristotle or Euripides or in the later works of the Hellenism that developed in Rome.. And that’s why the Torah matters.”

I sympathize with his plight and want to offer some very different perspectives.

Lukas proclaims proudly that he is part of the contemporary assimilationists, and thus wonders why he should celebrate a victory of the fundamentalists. Yet he does so because he wants to give his daughter a way to resist the pervasive Christian culture in which he is raising her. It turns out that indeed he is living in a culture which has put down and oppressed Jews for at least the past 1700 years since the teachings of the Jewish prophet Jesus were twisted into becoming the foundation for a Christian world that used religion to advance a colonialist and then imperialist culture which sought to dominate much of the world to the benefit of a small group of white men whose agenda was explicitly to maximize their wealth at everyone else’s expense.

To refuse to bow down to the symbols of that culture is extremely difficult for people who do not have an alternative transcendent spiritual framework that challenges the values that underlie the Christian hegemony. These values are still imposed on everyone in this society, not by law but by the powerful impact of the capitalist culture with its message that if you care for your family/friends you will spend beyond your means by buying material things that enrich the owners of the corporations. Lukas has become a victim of that culture, and only slightly alters it to participate in the idolatry of the marketplace by giving his consumption a new purpose: to make Chanukah into a pseudo Christmas, unwittingly undermining the potential liberation thrust of Chanukah.

The religious fanaticism of the Maccabees was generated first and foremost by the oppressive policies of Greek imperialism (not Roman, which he mistakenly identifies as the enemy), and that like America and the West of the past several hundred years, its cultural and scientific strength were used to create a global culture which subordinated the independent farmers of Judea and most of the other countries of the Mediterranean, teaching them that material rewards and physical prowess represented by the gymnasium and “perfect bodies” (which is why they criminalized the practice of circumcision) would be the best way to enforce their political and economic domination. The reason that rural farmers joined the Maccabean revolt was because the rule imposed first by Alexander “the Great” (conqueror and oppressor), forced them to give so much of their crops to the ruling Syria-based Seleucid or Egypt-based Ptolemaic Hellenists (two of the major societies that fought over control of Judea which lay between them) that these farmers were unable to adequately feed and provide sustenance to their families.

But why were the rebellions primarily in Judea and not elsewhere in the Greek and subsequent Roman empires? Because the Jews had the teachings of their Torah that taught them that there was a force in the universe, Yud Hey Vav Hey, (namely, that force in the universe that makes possible the transformation of ‘that which is’ into ‘that which can and should be’, often mistranslated as Jehovah or Yahweh) and that force made it possible to get out of the slavery of Egypt and could again aid them to get out of this latest form of oppression. It was their faith in this force that led them to believe that the power of ordinary people could be “greater than the man’s technology” (to alter slightly the slogan of many liberation groups of the past and the present).

So instead of thinking that liberation lies with those Jews, past and present, who identify with the ruling powers of each historical period, whether that was the Jewish assimilationists of ancient Judaea or the Jared Kushners of our own time who cuddle up to President Trump and his bundle of liars and self-enriching imperialists, Chanukah teaches that there is another path: to utterly reject their system.

Now here comes the big problem: reject them for what alternative? The liberals and universalists of our time, like those of the Maccabean order, did not have a worldview that could include what was good and potentially soul-nourishing in the religious and spiritual cultures of the past. That culture challenged the selfishness and materialism of class societies even while sometimes trying to accommodate to it. Just as the liberals cannot see the positive values in religions when they correctly critique fundamentalism, so too fundamentalists cannot see the positive values in liberal insistence on fundamental human rights and individual liberties.

The rabbis of the Talmud understood this dilemma. They did not want to legitimate the militarism, corruption,and violence of the Hashmonaim regimes that the Maccabees installed in place of Syrian Hellenistic rule, so they created the myth of the oil that burned for eight days and made that the miracle of Chanukah. What they should have done instead is to identify the real miracle: that people can unify against oppression and win against what at first seems like overwhelming odds against the forces that have all the conventional instruments of power in their hands, if and only if they can believe that there is something about the universe that makes such struggles winnable. Don’t call it God if that term offends you, but develop some consciousness that there is something in the universe that makes liberation possible. That something is celebrated when in the darkest and (for many) scariest time of each year many of us light candles of Chanukah, or Christians light the candles celebrating their own version of that force in the birth of a baby who would become a liberator or savior.

So instead of capitulating to the logic of the capitalist marketplace and trying to out-buy and out-shine our neighbors, we can embrace the possibility of possibility that Chanukah and Christmas both celebrate. There is nothing hypocritical about that, even if we do that celebration using the melodies and concepts of our own traditions to do so.

We cannot beat the fundamentalists unless we have an alternative worldview which acknowledges what is right in their rejection of the dominant materialist cultures of supposedly enlightened societies. Providing a meaning to life that bucks up against capitalism’s celebration of material things and the money it takes to get them is an attractive element in much of the fundamentalist worlds (including the versions that flourish in sections of the Jewish, Christian, Muslim, etc). Liberal capitalists who shape much of the discourse in the Democratic Party don’t get this, and that is why they often lose. Yet the answer for us at Tikkun is not to embrace fundamentalism, but to embrace a spiritual OR religious perspective that affirms higher meaning to life but still embraces the potentially liberatory elements in Western cultures, manifested today in the struggles for human rights and support for refugees while opposing racism, sexism, homophobia, and every other form of xenophobia–yet purging out of Western societies their insane commitment to endless growth, accumulation of goods, and rejection of any higher meaning to life besides domination over others or the endless pursuit of “winning” and proving ourselves better than others while ignoring the damage we are doing to the earth.

Chanukah is not just about having a response to the consumption craze around Christmas, it is about affirming a different worldview, a hopeful worldview, about replacing cultures of domination with a culture of love and justice, and recognizing that that alternative is not yet fully articulated in the Jewish world and needs all of us to make that clearer not only to the larger world but to our own communities, synagogues and Jewish organizations, just as Christians need to do in reclaiming Christmas from the emptiness of capitalist consumption. That is why we should not fear Christianity, but support those elements in the Christian world that are similarly committed to rejecting the ethos of the competitive marketplace (and NO, you don’t have to be religious to do this, and we welcome secular humanists and atheists who share this perspective as well, but it’s nice to have all those values rooted in traditions that have been at this struggle for thousands of years, no matter how much they have been distorted at times, because so have marxist and socialist and even anti-patriarchal traditions been distorted as well). It’s in this consciousness that we join with all peoples to celebrate the holidays and recommit to helping the refugees and the asylum seekers at the borders with Mexico this holiday season.

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Rabbi Michael Lerner is editor of Tikkun, co-chair with Indian environmental activist Vandana Shiva of the Network of Spiritual Progressives, and rabbi of Beyt Tikkun Synagogue-Without-Walls in San Francisco and Berkeley, California. He is the author of eleven books, including two national bestsellers - The Left Hand of God and Jewish Renewal: A Path to Healing and Transformation. His most recent book, Embracing Israel/Palestine, is available on Kindle from Amazon.com and in hard copy from tikkun.org/eip. He welcomes your responses and invites you to join with him by joining the Network of Spiritual Progressives (membership comes with a subscription to Tikkun magazine). You can contact him at rabbilerner.tikkun@gmail.com.

How to be Effective at Your Thanksgiving Table This Year

Nov21

by: on November 21st, 2017 | 1 Comment »

Ever had a frustrating experience on Thanksgiving with friends or family? Your progressive ideas are dismissed as unrealistic or seem to offend people? Here are some tips on how to navigate that at your Thanksgiving table 2017.

First, remember that there is a lot to give thanks for in our world today.  We ought not let our celebration of all that is miraculous in the universe, our celebration of the continuing bountiful reality of planet Earth, and our appreciation of all the good people in this would be undermined or ruined by having all the conversation focusing on the Trumpists.

So step one: encourage friends and family to spend some time celebrating the good, even at the expense of not watching the t.v. or focusing on everything wrong with the world. Ask your host or your friends to give some time to expressing out loud some of what people assembled appreciate about each other, about themselves, about our mother Earth, and about the tens of millions of people (the numerical majority of voters) who did not vote for Trump and would not support those (in both major political parties) who blindly put the needs of corporate America above the needs of the rest of the population. We can also celebrate the growing outrage at the sexual abuse of women–an outrage that wasn’t there in the past and which is a further testimony to the huge impact of the women’s movement (whose struggle against patriarchy benefits men as well as women, and which is in my view the most important revolution of the past two thousand years at least, even as men must join with women in this struggle because there is so much more to accomplish!).

And challenge those liberals and progressives who are putting down everyone who voted for Trump or didn’t vote. Remind people that a section of those who did vote for Trump were NOT racist, sexist, homophobic, etc.  but people who were voting against the Democratic Party that they perceived as having abandoned them (sometimes with good reason–you can reread Tikkun’s critiques of the way the half-hearted steps taken by Presidents Clinton and Obama, supposedly pragmatic and realistic, actually raised hopes that they did not fulfill and helped create a growing discontent about paying taxes to a government that wasn’t coming through for many many people, e.g. the flawed Obamacare which did not create any serious controls on health insurers or pharmaceuticals or for-profit-hospitals’ ability to raise their charges dramatically, as people have been discovering this year and will feel even more intensely next year).

Ever since the 1960s a growing number of voters have been angry at a Left that looks down on anyone not already in their ranks, assuming that these others are all haters or racists, sexists, homophobes, etc., or that they are all stupid, or that sees them as a ” bundle of deplorables” (in Hillary Clinton’s words). Many of them have experienced liberals and progressives dismissing all people who are religious as ignorant or just plain stupid. The Left reeks of religiophobia, not just from people like Bill Maher but from a pervasive belief that religious people are reactionary or psychologically retarded. This pushes many people who would agree with everything else we stand for into the arms of the Right.

Another problem:  since the election of Trump more and more people in the liberal and progressive world, particularly on college campuses, have turned the important and legitimate struggle against patriarchy and racist practices into a discourse that suggests that ALL men are sexist and have “male privilege and all whites are racist and have “white skin privilege.”. In so doing, they are driving more and more people into the arms of right wing demagogues who use the opportunity this discourse presents to convince people that these lefties are elitists who hate them and know nothing about the real struggles that most Americans face in their lives (even whites and men).

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A modest measure to prevent cruelty and improve food safety

Nov21

by: on November 21st, 2017 | Comments Off

It’s not easy to think about the animals behind the eggs and meat that end up on our plates. If you’re like me, you’ve probably heard something about the troubling ways animals are raised for food. Some of the most upsetting examples are how factory farms cruelly confine mother pigs, egg-laying hens, and veal calves in cages so small they can barely move. These systems are deny farm animals virtually every instinct most natural to them. Surely, inflicting such pain on animals is a violation of the Jewish values and laws that call upon us to prevent unnecessary suffering to animals, or tzaar baalei chayim.. In addition to the blatant cruelty, numerous studies show that animals raised in extreme confinement are more likely to carry disease, requiring the worrying overuse of important antibiotics.

Fortunately, there is an important measure on the November 2018 ballot that will end this type of cruelty and alleviate threats to human safety: The Prevention of Cruelty to Farm Animals Act. This simple measure would upgrade California law by requiring not just more space, but cage-free conditions for farm animals. It would also require that all eggs, veal, and pork sold in the state be sourced from farms that comply with these modest animal welfare and food safety rules.

This groundbreaking campaign has already been endorsed by prominent faith voices throughout the state, such as Reverend Richard Mouw, former President of Fuller Theological Seminary and myself, Rabbi Michael Lerner, of Beyt Tikkun Synagogue. Other endorsers include the Center for Food Safety, Evangelicals for Social Action, San Francisco SPCA, the Humane Society of the US, Jewish Initiative for Animals as well as dozens of family farmers, veterinarians, and public health professionals who believe in safeguarding animal welfare and improving food safety.

As a conscientious consumer, I urge you to join me in supporting this important measure by getting involved here: www.preventcrueltyca.com/volunteer.

Violence Begets Violence

Jun15

by: on June 15th, 2017 | 4 Comments »

We at Tikkun were glad to hear Senator Bernie Sanders unequivocally condemn the shooting by Bernie supporter, James Hodgkinson, who injured five Republicans, one of them a Congressman, who were part of the Republican Congressional group going to play a for fun annual baseball game with Democratic Congresspeople in Washington DC this morning, June 14th. In his statement, Senator Sanders said: “I am sickened by this despicable act. Violence of any kind is unacceptable in our society, and I condemn this action in the strongest possible terms. Real change can only be obtained through nonviolent action and anything else runs counter to our most deeply held American values.”

We at Tikkun are fully aligned in our opposition to violence of any sort and condemn it in the strongest possible terms. We do so on spiritual, religious, and ethical grounds. Human life is sacred and should be protected and helped to flourish. This is a central teaching of the Bible and of Judaism through the ages. We also oppose it on strategic grounds. When anyone who could be seen as connected to liberal and progressive causes engages in violence, (against property even, but especially against human beings) he or she creates a new opportunity for the most reactionary forces in our country to pass new laws restricting free speech, to bring indictments against social change activists, to incite law enforcement to use excessive levels of violence, and to build popular support for new measures of repression.

While we agree with Sanders on most of what he said, we are also aware of statements made by others that have picked up  the notion that violence runs against American values or is in some way oppositional to what America stands for in the world. We will soon be celebrating Independence Day, July 4th, in which many Americans will celebrate the violent revolutionary uprising against the British and sing songs like the national anthem with its praise of “rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air” and set off firecrackers to relive that violence. The sad fact is that the United States of America has consistently used violence to achieve its policy aims, invading other countries with troops (Korea, Dominican Republic, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, and the list goes on), training South and Central American police and military at the “School of Americas” in Ft. Benning, Georgia, in the use of violence and torture to defeat populist movements challenging undemocratic governments, , the Obama and Trump administration’s’ bombing from drones or airplanes civilian populations (e.g. these past many months assaulting the people of Yemen as part of our growing alliance with the reactionary and repressive and human-rights-violating regime in Saudi Arabia), and the policy of the Obama presidency to select individuals to be assassinated by drones and without trial in countries around the world who are suspected of being or aiding terrorists (and in the process, murdering at least several thousand non-combatant civilians). It sickens us to listen to the hypocrisy of those in the media who talk about this latest (immoral) assault on government officials as if it is somehow outside the path of violence that has been part of American society and celebrated as such by many.

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Seeing Double: A Middle Eastern Comedy of Errors

May22

by: Henri Picciotto on May 22nd, 2017 | 1 Comment »

In the 1980′s, few Americans knew much about life in the territories Israel had occupied in 1967. Fewer still understood the PLO’s historic offer to settle for a state in less than half what had been Palestine. Yet in 1989, the San Francisco Mime Troupe produced Seeing Double, a mistaken-identity farce that argued for a two-state solution. The seeming unfitness of the genre for the topic proved the secret of the show’s success: laughter allows room for hope.

Twenty-eight years later, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is better understood, but no closer to resolution. Indeed, decades of US military and diplomatic support for Israel’s actions and its “facts on the ground”, have made a solution increasingly unlikely. Last summer, the writers of Seeing Double decided we would update the play, to fit today’s harsher realities and to address the U.S. role.


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The Women’s Balcony — a delightful film!

May18

by: on May 18th, 2017 | 1 Comment »

The Women’s Balcony, a movie which captures a beautiful
slice of Israeli life, is a huge upper at a time when many
people are feeling depressed and saddened by the state of our world.
The movie captures the way that Jewish women have been
marginalized in parts of the Israeli Orthodox religious world,
and how they mobilize themselves to achieve power in the face
of rabbinic authority that is dismissive of their concerns. Yet this is
not another of those “religion is evil” or “men are jerks” kind of
dismissals, but rather a sensitive portrayal of how men and
women find a way, even within the boundaries of orthodoxy, to
recapture each other’s humanity, to stand up against irrational
rules, and find a path that is at once affirming of women and
affirming of parts of the Jewish tradition that these Israeli women
wish to retain in their lives. It is, in its own caring and complex way,
a celebration of the actual and potential power of Jewish women, and
it’s highly enjoyable to watch.–Rabbi Michael Lerner, Editor, Tikkun Magazine

Perspectives on Purim

Mar6

by: Rabbi Dev Noily, Rabbi Michael Lerner, Michael Kagan, and Aryeh Cohen on March 6th, 2017 | 6 Comments »

A note from Rabbi Lerner:

We at Beyt Tikkun have been struggling internally about how to deal with the Jewish violence and revenge that is part of the Purim story. We will be talking about it at our Shabbat morning service this coming Shabbat of RemembranceMarch 11 at 951 Cragmont Ave, Berkeley Ca. starting at10:30 a.m.and followed by a veggie pot-luck (and then at 7 that night we will be joining the Aquarian Minyan for reading the Book of Esther and their Purim play which undoubtedly will deal with Trump (will he be the evil Haman or the buffoon kind Ahashverus?)

The question we struggle with is: Should we boycott this holiday entirely? Is there a way to challenge its hurtful parts without discrediting the legitimate joy our people feels when it is saved from the intended violence against us?

These are some of the issues raised in the articles below. In the last chapters of the Megillah of Esther the acts of mass killings by Jews against our supposed enemies is recounted with nary a word of regret or sadness. This is so unlike the Passover seder when we dip from the cup of joy when naming the plagues visited on the Egyptians-a symbolic way of saying that we cannot be fully happy when our own liberation comes at the expense of the suffering of others (in that case, including the death of the first born children of Egypt, few of whom had anything to do with the oppression of Israelite slaves). Our community Seder this year will take place 2nd Seder night,Tuesday April 11th. Registration info will be on our Beyt Tikkun websitewww.beyttikkun.org


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Grieving the Orlando Massacre

Jun16

by: on June 16th, 2016 | 3 Comments »

We at Tikkun reaffirm our commitment to the safety of and respect for the LGBTQ community.

“They” are “us”–we are both straight and gay, bi and trans, Jewish, and Christian, Muslim, and Buddhist, Hindu and earth-based religions of every variety, young and old, religious, secular humanists and atheists.

We will not let any sector of “us” get scared that the rest of us will abandon them. Just as I said at Muhammed Ali’s funeral that Jews will stand with Muslims in the face of growing Islamophobia (all the more needed now that some politicians are trying to use the horror of the mass murder of members of the LGBTQ community in Orlando by a supposedly Muslim young man to justify repression against Muslims). We will not let any of them become an “acceptable” target for the haters. Not the LGBTQ community, not anyone.

We are one global “we,” and we must never let any part of us become the target that is somehow made a “legitimate” target.

But true solidarity needs to go beyond standing with the victims of hate crimes, including, homophobia, Islamophobia, racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, xenophobia and all the other variants of hatred. True solidarity should guide us to the imperative to develop strategies to heal the distortions and pains that lead people into communities of hate.

Our strategies must separate the hateful behavior from the pain in people that underlies their misdirected rage, and sometimes violent actions. We must develop ways to speak to those deep psychic wounds and hurts, and show people that there are better and more effective strategies to deal with those pains than to act them out on others, whether that acting out be in the form of demeaning, raping, making war against others, or in the form of mass politics of hatred.

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Sanders is Israel’s Best Friend in 2016

May27

by: on May 27th, 2016 | 6 Comments »

NOTE: As a non-profit, Tikkun magazine does NOT endorse any candidate or political party. Nor does Rabbi Lerner. This article is a response to distorted media coverage of Sanders’ appointment of prominent progressives to the Democratic Party’s Platform Committee whom the NY Times, the Jewish Forward and other media are describing as anti-Israel. Some of our readers support Bernie Sanders, some support Hillary Clinton, some support Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein, and there may be other candidates that some of our readers support. This article is not meant to enter into that debate, but only to challenge the media coverage of Sanders on Israel.

(Source: Flickr/ Phil Roeder)

I wasn’t surprised when the NY Times on May 26th made a front page story out of the alleged damage Senator Bernie Sanders was doing to the Democratic Party by placing among his 5 representatives on the Democratic Party’s Platform committee a few people who might support Sanders’ view that the US needs to be “more even-handed” in the Israel/Palestine struggle.

The New York Times has consistently turned its news pages into the loudest cheerleader for Hillary Clinton’s bid for the nomination. If mentioned at all, they bury deep in their paper, Bernie Sanders’ primary wins and the many polls that indicate he’d be more likely to win against Trump than Hillary. So it’s no surprise that when Bernie won permission to appoint 5 of the 15 members of the Platform Committee of the Democratic Party Convention, the Times focused the story on the possibility that 2 of these appointees, James Zogby and Cornel West, would turn the convention into a debate about US policy towards Israel, and thereby weaken Hillary’s capacity to fight off Trump in the general election. There was nothing in the story to confirm that these appointees had any such intention, but that didn’t keep the N.Y. Times from making this front page story a way to once again stir worries that Bernie’s vigorous pursuit of the nomination (as Hillary Clinton herself had done in 2008 against Obama even after it was clear she would not win the nomination) was going to hurt Hillary’s chances in the Fall election–thus creating the story should Hillary lose that it was really all the fault of that socialist Jew from Vermont!

The Times ignored the important Bernie appointments of Congressman Keith Ellison, a leader of the Congress’ Progressive Caucus, a supporter of social justice for middle income people and the poor, universal healthcare and a $15 minimum wage, and an opponent of Obama’s use of drones, Rebecca Parker, vice chair of the Tulalip Tribes of Washington State, who is likely to emphasize rights for indigenous peoples and criminal justice reform, and Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org who is likely to push for a tax on carbons and other aggressive policies to save the planet’s life-support system. To turn the discussion solely to Israel, and suggest that somehow Sanders’ very mild call for an even-handed policy that took into account the needs of the Palestinian people is a threat to Israel’s existence is irresponsible and ludicrous.

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Tikkun’s Passover Liberation Seder Haggadah Supplement

Apr15

by: on April 15th, 2016 | Comments Off

"The Seder Table" by Lynne Feldman (lynnefeldman.com)

We are proud to present to you Tikkun magazine’s Passover Liberation Seder Haggadah Supplement, which you will find at the top of our home page tikkun.org or by going to tikkun.org/nextgen/passover2016.

Feel free to download and print it out and/or to use any part of it in your Passover Seder or any other liberation-oriented celebration. It’s not just for Jews, as you’ll see if you read through it. Share it with your friends, place it on your website and send it out on Facebook or other social media!! You don’t have to believe in God or be Jewish to get a lot out of just reading this supplement to the traditional Passover Haggadah. And let me know after you’ve used it what parts worked for you or your family or your friends and what parts didn’t so we can modify it for future use.

And have a joyous holiday celebration! Many blessings to our many friends and readers!
–Rabbi Michael Lerner (RabbiLerner.Tikkun@gmail.com)