Celebrating Babel

Michael Lerner
May 24, 2009

Rabbi Lerner's Tikkun magazine published his address at PSR's 2009 commencement with this introduction: One of America’s most respected theological training institutions, the Pacific School of Religion, the largest and most famous of the schools that constitute the Graduate Theological Union, invited Rabbi Michael Lerner to deliver the Commencement Address on May 24. PSR trains ministers primarily for the United Church of Christ and the Methodists, though other Christian denominations often find themselves influenced by the graduates of PSR. This is the written version of the talk that Rabbi Lerner delivered (he received a standing ovation from the over 800 people in attendance after delivering this talk).

The complete transcript of Rabbi Lerner's address follows. You can listen to the audio online.


I deeply appreciate the honor of being asked to deliver this Commencement Address for the Pacific School of Religion, one of the great religious institutions in American society, and the major theological school that understands what we in the Jewish world call Tikkun--the Healing and Transformation of our planet. I salute all of you for your accomplishments, and your families and friends who have supported you through your life and made this day possible.

I was asked to begin by commenting on the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel, in which the early human race sought to build a tower that reached into Heaven itself. The early Jewish commentators, trying to understand why God did not appreciate this enterprise, said that though the Bible doesn't explain what was wrong with what they were doing, God understood that the goal was for human beings to supplant God, using the most advanced scientific and technological information available at the time. And then, adds one Jewish midrash, they hoped to conquer the rest of the world once they had done battle with God.

We in the contemporary world can certainly see how technology and science, which can be used for good, has also been harnessed for the purpose of domination by global corporations and imperial powers. The poisoning of our air and water, the destruction of our food supply by poisons in the water and the ground so that now we have to pay exorbitant fees for organic foods that have supposedly not yet been exposed to these poisons (and hence only the relatively well-off can afford to do so), combined with global trade arrangements that have destroyed local agriculture in much of the third world and accelerated the damage already being done to those countries by the global climate change, itself a product of irresponsible forms of industrialization and the use of our scientific and technological knowledge in ways that are divorced from ethical concerns, has caused a deepening of the starvation and malnutrition that afflicts our planet--a planet in which over 2.5 billion people live on less than two dollars a day, 1.5 billion on less than one dollar a day, with over 20 million people dying each year of starvation or diseases related to malnutrition or inadequate access to medical care and drugs that would be available if they lived in a world that shared our resources and our food more equitably.

So, yes, we can understand the message of the Tower of Babel as a warning against the arrogance of a science and technology that is divorced from ethical purpose and instead serving the interests of power and domination.

So God creates a plethora of languages and spreads the human race across the planet.

And yet, this is also a blessing. The result has been the diversification of the human race and the creation of a wide variety of literatures, cultures, and approaches to the sacred. One of the wonderful aspects of the kind of Christianity that has been developed and taught at Pacific School of Religion is the respect for difference, the honoring of diversity, and the recognition that so much can be learned from the wide variety of experiences of the human race. Instead of an arrogant form of Christianity which still exists in some corners of the Christian world, a Christianity that insists that it has all the answers and that everyone else, in other religions, or in other approaches to the Bible, will be damned, because there is only one way to approach God and they have it-instead of that, PSR has trained you in a form of tolerance, respect, and even joyous celebration of the kind of diversity of approaches to God that actually exist on our planet and in the Christian tradition itself. Here at PSR you have come to see that peoples of color, gays and lesbians, bisexuals and transsexuals, Muslims and Jews and Buddhists and Hindus and indigenous people and forms of spirituality that emerge from the experience of women and earth-based religions--all have great wisdom and all have much from which we must continue to learn. And we can be truly delighted to be living at a moment when the U.S. has an African American president, symbolizing to much of the world that the best aspects of multicultural consciousness are in fact being assimilated into the consciousness of our larger society.

And yet, despite the great advances made on that front, we live in a world of great suffering, a world in which our current economic crisis has revealed the incredibly destructive aspect of an economic, political, and social system that rests on the principle of "looking out for number one" and maximizing our own self-interest without regard to the consequences of others. The materialism and selfishness that led to this crisis is not confined to a handful of Wall Street entrepreneurs, but rather is the common sense and bottom line of our global capitalist order.

And you, as spiritual and religious leaders and thinkers, have the task of challenging this triumph of selfishness and materialism both on an individual, family, community, and global level.

To understand what you are up against, you must realize that what we face today is just the latest instantiation of a struggle that has been going on for the past several thousand years between two different world views about what it means to be a human being.

I. The Domination Worldview: We are thrown into this world by ourselves, find ourselves all alone, having to survive by ourselves, and we find ourselves surrounded by others who are seeking their own advantage, and the will exploit or dominate you in order to maximize their own well-being. The only way you can protect yourself is to dominate them before they dominate you. The economic marketplace built on this model teaches us every single day that we are alone,that no one is out there in the economy worrying about your interests, so unless you make "looking out for number one" your guiding vision, you will be taken advantage of and hurt. On a societal level, we come to believe that our own homeland security can only be achieved by dominating others around the world before they get the power to dominate you. This is the worldview of Fear, of Domination, of POWER OVER others. I call it the Right Hand of God, because in the Exodus narrative when the Jews have crossed the red sea and the Egyptians have drowned in it, Moses' sister Miriam sings a song to God and proclaims: Your Right Hand God, your right hand is adorned in POWER.

II. But there is another worldview with a different message: that we did not come into this world by ourselves, thrown in alone, but actually most of us came into world through a mother, and in fact, we would not have survived in our first few years without the support and love given to us by our mother or by some mothering other. And your mother did not have a reasonable expectation of a good return on her investment of time and energy and love that she gave to you. It is this experience of love, reinforced in  many other experiences in our life, that allows us to form a different view of how we can survive and thrive: namely, through building loving relationships with others based on generosity and caring for each other. Homeland security can come through caring and generosity, not through domination and power over. And this worldview, the worldview I call the worldview of Hope, of Love, of Generosity-this has been the worldview that most of the religious and spiritual traditions of the human race have articulated, the view I call the Left Hand of God.

Most people on the planet have heard both worldviews. And in fact, both worldviews have at different times in history been relevant to our human needs. When the Jewish people were an oppressed people, we really needed to hear Miriam's song, we needed to hear the story of God, understood as Yud Hey Vav Hey, which Christians mistranslated as Jehovah, or Yaweh but actually is not a name but a concept, that God is actually The Force of Healing and Transformation in the world, the Force that makes possible the Transformation of that which is to that which ought to be, the Force that makes possible the breaking of the repetition compulsion, our tendency to pass on the pain of the past that has been inflicted upon us, and God is What it is About the Universe that makes it possible to overcome that repetition compulsion so that we can overcome the pain and cruelty of the past and pass on love and kindness instead-so at times we Jews, and other oppressed groups, have needed to hear about God understood as the Right Hand of God that has the Power to overcome the oppressive tyrannies that have dominated and hurt us (and for Jews, that has meant not only the empire of ancient Egypt, and Babylon, and Person, and Greece and Rome, but for the past 1600 years it also meant overcoming the cruelty of the Christian world toward us, just as for African Americans and Native Americans the Right Hand of God has meant the possibility of overcoming the cruelty of North American domination, slavery, and genocide.
But if through history there has been a need for both views, today for those of us who live in the midst of the most powerful empire the world has ever seen, a power that is exercised not only through military might that is now waging war in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, but also through a global economic system that disadvantages others and advantages the elites of wealth and power in the advanced industrial societies, and through a global media that shapes consciousness, in this world, it is the Left Hand of God, the worldview of love and kindness and generosity that is so badly needed.

To get that message across, You, the graduates of PSR, are called upon to take the Gospel seriously in a way that it has not been taken seriously by many in the Christian tradition. When Jesus says "love your neighbor" in this globalized world, and when the Torah says, "love the stranger-the Other," these are messages that are meant to be taken quite literally and seriously. What would that mean?

It means that you must become the articulators of a new vision of how to build our world: a vision that calls for a New Bottom Line to oppose the materialism and selfishness of the global capitalist order. You must insist that every institution, social policy, governmental policy, corporation, university, school system, health care system, and even personal behavior should be judged rational, efficient, and productive not only to the extent that they maximize money or power, the OLD Bottom Line, but also to the extent that they maximize love and kindness, caring for others and generosity, ethical and ecological sensitivity, enhance our capacity to see others as embodiments of the sacred, and enhance our capacities to respond to the universe with awe, wonder, and radical amazement at the grandeur of the universe and the msytery of Being itself. This is the New Bottom Line--and your task is to go into the multicultural world and preach that this New Bottom Line, which of course is the vision that emerges from Judaism and Christianity and many of the other major spiritual traditions of the human race,  is now the absolute survival necessity for our planet and for the human race.

We at Tikkun have formed an international interfaith organization called The Network of Spiritual Progressives and we are inviting you at PSR, you graduates, and your families and friends, to join this organization whose goal is to promote the New Bottom Line across denominational and religious lines. You will find yourself soon in a world deeply attached to the Old Bottom Line, and you will be surrounded by people who try to convince you that you must be realistic and that there is no alternative but the Old Bottom Line--so that is why you need a Network of Spiritual Progressives to support you and provide a context when it seems as if not only the big corporations, but even the board of the church or religious school that you serve seems addicted to the Old Bottom Line and dismisses as a utopian fantasy the possibility of a world based on love, and caring and generosity. And we at the Network of Spiritual Progressives have developed a Spiritual Covenant with America that you can read at our Web site www.spiritualprogressives.org, and I urge you to read it and to join there on line. To make these ideas more immediate, we've developed a campaign for a Global Marshall Plan that calls for the US and the other advanced industrial societies to donate 1-2% of their Gross Domestic Product each year for the next twenty years to once and for all end global poverty, homelessness, hunger, inadequate education, inadequate health care, and to repair the global environment. And I'm proud to announce that this Global Marshall Plan was introduced into the last Congress, and will be re-introduced shortly into this Congress, by the first Muslim elected to Congress-the Hon. Keith Ellison of Minnesota, and has been co-sponsored by a variety of Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish Congresspeople, including Congresswoman Barbara Lee of Oakland. And the core idea underlying this campaign is that in the 21st century we need to understand that our well being as Americans depends  on the well-being of everyone else on the planet. So we are arguing that the US must move from a foreign policy based on the strategy of domination to a strategy of Generosity, and the Domestic and Global Marshall Plan is an example of what that would look like. So I hope you'll join the Network of Spiritual Progressives-and yes I even have with me some brochures so you could join today, and your guest could decide that the best way to give you a gift is to buy you a membership in the Network of Spiritual Progressives!

So here is the good news that I bring to you and that I ask you to bring to the communities that you will be serving in the future: that almost everyone on the planet actually wants to live in a world based on this New Bottom Line, including those who are most cynical about it. The problem is, they have mostly been convinced that they are the only ones, or its just the people in their friendship circle or their church, or their religion or their country that wants such a world based on love and generosity. They really don't believe that anyone else wants that, and because hold a deep pessimism about what others want, they themselves have given up on the possibility of this kind of a world, and instead have become practitioners of the Old Bottom Line, and the worldview of domination or power  over becomes their guideline for how to live and how to build a society. And then, others, looking out at the world, see only these others acting according to the worldview of fear and domination, and they conclude that they too would be all alone, seen as irrational or crazy were they to take seriously the teachings of Jesus or Moses or Buddha or Mohammed or Martin Luther King Jr. or Gandhi--and so they retreat into themselves, trying to find a way to sustain their personal hopefulness, but being unwilling to act upon their deepest aspirations.

Your task is to help people come out of the closet as spiritual beings, to help them affirm that their deep desire for a world of love and caring and generosity is not impossible or utopian.
There has never been a better moment to bring this message to the world. The old order is  crumbling.  Trying to revive that system will prove elusive, even to the brilliant president we have now and to his brilliant advisors. It is based on the wrong premises, and it is and will fail. Similarly, the consequences of the existing system are causing a global environmental crisis that cannot be cured on the basis of the old assumptions. The planet needs a New Bottom Line.

You are fortunate to have been trained in one of the traditions that brought that New Bottom Line into the world through the teachings of a great Jewish prophet, Jesus of Nazareth. You have much to teach the world. So, respecting the great diversity, we nevertheless have a message that can reestablish the unity of all peoples that got undermined when they used that  unity at the Tower of Babel for the wrong goals. Your message, the message of your Christian tradition, is wonderful and amazing, the challenge is overpowering, and as the Talmud Rabbi Tarfon said: it is not upon you to finish the work, but neither are you free to abandon it. Many blessings to you and your families and friends in the years ahead.