When Michael Lerner, founder of Tikkun magazine, was recently diagnosed with lung cancer, he alerted his supporters in an e-mail message that went beyond delivering bad news. The message folded Lerner’s diagnosis in with a plea for supporters to devote more money and time to his cause, the Network of Spiritual Progressives.
With a subject heading that read “Bad news: I have cancer. Yes, there’s something you can do to help me deal with it,” the Berkeley, Calif.-based editor, rabbi and political activist asked that his supporters redouble their efforts to spread the message of the NSP, which advocates for aligning political activism with deeper spiritual meaning.
“My doctors believe that the stress levels in my life are too high,” Lerner wrote in the e-mail, sent in mid-February and posted online. “So, I think I need to ask your help in reducing the amount of work and worry I have in keeping the network alive… I’d be delighted if you decided to help me renew and rebuild the NSP with your ideas and energy…. It’s also appreciated if you are making donations at the highest level you possibly can afford.”
Lerner, a 66-year-old nonsmoker, is battling what he described as a “relatively rare form of lung cancer” that his doctors believe is in an early stage. According to an NSP blog, a recent surgery was deemed successful, and a biopsy found no evidence that the cancer has spread.
The public plea was classic Michael Lerner, who has mixed personal drama with political ends for much of his long, creative and sometimes controversial career. But it also raises an interesting question: When is it appropriate to use a disease to promote a cause other than a cure for that disease?
Well-known Americans battling cancer or other life-threatening illnesses often use their condition as a means of raising awareness or funds to help fight the disease. Think of Lance Armstrong and prostate cancer, Michael J. Fox and Parkinson’s disease, and the late Christopher Reeve and his quest to find a cure for spinal cord injuries. Far less common is what Lerner did — connect the illness with raising commitments of time and money for his personal cause.
Some observers have criticized such an approach. “I think that mentioning the cancer is questionable,” said David Twersky, a senior adviser for international affairs at the American Jewish Congress. “It’s appropriate to say Rabbi Lerner is very sick, but tying it to ‘This is a chance to whip up enthusiasm for our movement’ I found unpleasant.”
But in the context of traditional Judaism, there is a strong precedent for Lerner’s action, according to Yitzchok Adlerstein, professor of Jewish law and ethics at Loyola Law School. “People have always tried to multiply merit for a person who needs divine compassion,” he said.
Adlerstein explained that in the traditional Jewish community — which Lerner, an adherent of the Jewish Renewal movement, is not part of — a person will ask community members to do extra mitzvoth, or good deeds, with the hope that such acts will aid that person’s recovery. “If people whose lives you’ve touched will multiply their mitzvah performance, and you’re the cause of it, then some of that credit goes to you as the one who inspired it. The hope is that it will arouse divine compassion,” he said.
Adlerstein also said that traditional Jews frequently ask that community members perform specific tasks such as studying Jewish texts for five extra minutes a day, or refraining from gossip for an hour a day, on behalf of an ill person in need of divine intervention.
Lerner’s e-mail also suggested specific tasks that his supporters could undertake, though the suggestions were tied to the NSP’s campaigns. For instance, Lerner asked people to lobby Congress for the Global Marshall Plan, a cornerstone of the NSP’s agenda, which proposes that the world’s advanced industrialized nations dedicate a small percentage of their Gross Domestic Product to helping eradicate global poverty and hunger.
Lerner founded the NSP in 2005, with Cornel West and Joan Chittister, a Benedictine nun, serving as co-chairs of the organization. The group counts 31 local chapters across the country; Lerner appears to be the NSP’s sole employee.
Both his belief that the personal is political and his penchant for self-promotion have drawn criticism and praise, helping him build a name for himself and the interlocking communities that he has created. “Michael is a master at marketing,” said David Biale, a professor of Jewish history at the University of California, Davis and a former Tikkun editorial board member. “He is very good at attracting attention to projects that he is deeply committed to.”
Lerner’s congregants see the e-mail plea as yet another example of their rabbi’s selflessness. “What the e-mail meant to me was a blueprint for what to do if he didn’t survive,” said Renna Ulvang, a psychotherapist and member of Beyt Tikkun since 1998. “Asking us to support the organization, which isn’t just him, to keep the movement going if he couldn’t be there with us was the opposite of self-serving. It was serving others instead of thinking about himself.”
David Wolpe, the rabbi at Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and a survivor of lymphoma, placed Lerner’s e-mail in the context of how illness can motivate human beings toward action. “When you’re sick, it focuses you on the time you have left and what you want to accomplish,” Wolpe said. “And sometimes that pushes people in ways they might not otherwise be pushed.”
Even Twersky stressed his criticism of Lerner’s exploitation of his illness was “minimal compared to the fact that the guy has accomplished a lot.”
“He has provided a way for some people who would otherwise never be able to find a door into Jewish life to find an entrance way into Jewish life, and that’s an important accomplishment,” he said.