Founder Retakes Reins of Liberal Mag, Plans Less Israel Coverage

By Gabriel Sanders

Published December 29, 2006, issue of December 29, 2006.
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As two of his top editors leave to work on other projects, Michael Lerner, editor of the liberal Jewish bimonthly Tikkun, has indicated that he is looking to redirect his magazine’s energies away from Israel and toward a greater focus on interfaith matters.

In a December 4 e-mail to writers for the magazine, and in an interview with the Forward, Lerner argued that since the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, Israel has pushed to the periphery concerns central to the magazine’s founding vision. Middle East strife forced Tikkun to adopt a “particularist” orientation, Lerner said, “at precisely the moment when very large numbers of Jews started feeling like they didn’t really want to hear more about Israel.”

Lerner also pointed to a shifting publishing landscape, noting that when he founded Tikkun in 1986, the magazine did not have to compete with such entities as the online English-language edition of the Israeli daily newspaper Ha’aretz. But perhaps the most immediate grounds for Lerner’s reconsideration of his magazine’s mission were the near-simultaneous resignations of managing editor Joel Schalit and senior editor Jo Ellen Green Kaiser. Though all concerned described the departures as amicable, it is nevertheless clear that the two departing editors did differ with Lerner on how they viewed the content and direction of the magazine.

Schalit, who has worked at Tikkun for two-and-a-half years and is currently its only full-time staffer, is the child of Israeli parents and has, among other duties, overseen the publication’s Israel coverage. His top priority after he leaves the magazine, which he said he will not do until a successor has been installed, is to finish a long-term book project on Israel and the Diaspora left.

In discussing Schalit and his tenure at the magazine, Lerner argued that a move away from Israel is necessary in attracting a younger audience. What’s more, he said, Tikkun has become more critical of Israel than he wants it to be.

“I don’t want to give the impression that we’re just a magazine that’s critical of Israel,” he said. “I want to be more clear that we’re coming from a place of support and love for Israel. There’s no way we can avoid Israel” — indeed, Lerner said, he is exploring working with former President Jimmy Carter to build support for a left-wing alternative to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (SEE STORY)— “but Joel’s main thing was Israel. My main thing is Judaism.”

It is on the delicate question of just what constitutes Judaism — and, for that matter, what a “Jewish magazine” is — that Lerner and his other departing editor, Green Kaiser, have differed. For Green Kaiser, who has worked for Tikkun in different capacities for almost a decade, the crux of the disagreement is on what she terms the “particularlism/univeralism problem.”

“The problem simply is that we’re supposed to understand that the Jews are a Chosen People, that we’re set apart, that we’re holy,” she said. “And at the same time, we’re called upon to act in the world. There’s a real tension there within Judaism. Michael and I both agree that Jewish particularism without any kind of universalism is the wrong way to go. The question then is how does a universalist impulse carry itself out.”

It is here that Green Kaiser and Lerner’s differences come into play. For Green Kaiser, the Jews’ mission is to engage in social justice work; upon leaving the magazine, she plans to finish compiling an anthology on the subject. Lerner, meanwhile, is, in Green Kaiser’s view, more interested in taking Jewish ethical ideals and teaching them to anyone who will listen, regardless of whether or not they are Jewish.

Lerner has been speaking in broader, more inclusive terms for a number of years. The Tikkun Community, a companion organization to the magazine, recently launched an initiative called the Network of Spiritual Progressives, an interfaith project that is looking to serve as a counterweight to the religious right in American life. Lerner’s change in focus has been made manifest in the pages of Tikkun and even in the magazine’s title. Once billed as a “Jewish critique of politics, culture and society,” the Tikkun Web site now carries the heading “A Jewish Magazine, an Interfaith Movement.”

But can a magazine be both “Jewish” and “Interfaith”? Some of Tikkun’s followers think not. Even outgoing editor Schalit intimated that Lerner is trying to strike an impossible balance. “He wants to be a little bit country, a little bit rock ’n’ roll,” he said. Some connected with Tikkun lament its changing focus. One contributor to the magazine, who asked to remain anonymous, suggested that Lerner, a famously prickly personality, has been forced into his new interfaith approach by necessity after having burned too many bridges in the Jewish world.

Lerner, however, bristles at the suggestion that he is de-Judaizing the magazine. “It would be a huge oversimplification,” he wrote in his December 4 e-mail, “to say that we are moving away from our Judaism at Tikkun.” Lerner argued that his vision for Tikkun is utterly in keeping with the spirit of his teacher and mentor, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who also took Jewish precepts to a broader, non-Jewish audience and was no less Jewish as a result.

Through it all, Lerner sounded a wistful note for the broad Jewish audience that has as yet eluded him, asserting that his magazine’s willingness to criticize Israeli policies made it nearly impossible to break through to a wider audience on other issues.

“If only the Israel-Palestine issue hadn’t been there,” he said, “Tikkun could have been much more accepted in the Jewish mainstream.”

So is the move away from Israel and toward a broader set of concerns the product of a wish to finally be embraced by the Jewish mainstream?

“I don’t think there’s anything I could do to make that happen,” he said. “The moshiach herself could show up and say, ‘We give the hechsher to Michael Lerner and Tikkun,’ and they’d still want to string me up.”

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