Tikkun magazine today announced that Rabbi Michael Lerner has accepted the invitation extended to him by the King of Saudi Arabia to attend an international conference of Muslim, Christian and Jewish religious leaders that will begin Wed. July 16 in Madrid, Spain. The conference seeks to foster interfaith dialogue and mutual understanding.

Lerner expressed some degree of hope and some degree of skepticism about this gathering. On the one hand, Lerner believes that bringing together Muslim, Christian and Jewish leaders can only be for the good. Lerner's synagogue, Beyt Tikkun (in San Francisco and Berkeley, California) is currently working on recreating the Noe Valley Ministry in San Francisco as a place of worship for all three Abrahamic faiths, sharing the same building and sharing some religious teachings and spiritual wisdom. Last year on Rosh Hashanah Rabbi Lerner brought Sheikh Hamza Yusuf, a Muslim scholar who has been a major voice for interfaith cooperation and respect in the Muslim world, to read and chant in Arabic at Beyt Tikkun the Muslim story in the Koran of the binding of Isaac immediately after the Jewish version in the Torah was read. Often, in part because of the fear that Muslims have been living under in the US post-9/11, it has been difficult to get many Muslims to participate in these interfaith gatherings, so Rabbi Lerner praised the role of the King of Saudi Arabia in arranging for many Muslims to be present in Madrid.

On the other hand, Rabbi Lerner also acknowledged the possibility that this might simply be a cheaper way of the Saudis earning public relations credit globally at a time when they could have earned those credits in a more significant way--by dramatically increasing oil production in Saudi Arabia which would have then lowered the cost of oil around the world, a step that would have benefitted the world's poor who are suffering from the rising oil prices. Or, Rabbi Lerner contends, they could have announced an end to the Saudi ban on the practice of other religions in Saudi Arabia besides Islam--a ban that is not shared by any other Muslim country in the world. Or they could have indicated a willingness to fund Palestinian refugees living in refugee camps around the Arab world.  Lerner  noted that the Saudis have done very little to provide the billions of dollars of material aid to the Palestinian people that they desparately need while suffering under the Israeli occupation. Significant Saudi investment in the West Bank and Gaza could have provided for housing and indoor plumbing and jobs for hundreds of thousands of Palestinians had the solidarity the Saudis often expressed for their Muslim brothers and sisters been turned from anti-Israel rhetoric to concrete material support for the Palestinian people. Still, Lerner said, the King is obviously trying to turn the tide of Muslim sentiment away from the violent extemists, and this deserves some real credit. Rabbi Lerner says that if the King would meet with him in Madrid, he will raise these issues, as well as the need to start educating the Muslim world to seeing Israel as a potential ally rather than a permanent enemy. A first step in that direction, Lerner says, is to sit and talk together, and he hopes that religious leaders like himself can elevate the dialogue from the "who is to blame for what has happened" to "how can we move forward to create more love, kindness and generosity of spirit between these three religious communities. Other religious leaders attending the gathering include the Archbishop of Canterberry (head of the Anglican church), representatives of the Vatican, the religious historian Karen Armstrong, the most respected Catholic theologian in the world Hans Kung and the Chief Rabbi of England, Jonathan Sachs.

Rabbi Lerner is editor of Tikkun magazine and one of America's most respected contemporary theologians. His book Jewish Renewal: A Path to Healing and Transformation (Harpers, 1995) was hailed as "taking its place alongside the work of Martin Buber and Abraham Joshua Heschel" and Professor of Religion Cornel West, commenting on Lerner's book The Left Hand of God: Taking Back our Country from the Religious Right (2006--a NY TImes national bestseller) said that Lerner "is the most significant prophetic public intellectual and spiritual leader of our generation." Lerner is also well known as editor of Tikkun Magazine, started as "the liberal alternative to Commentary magazine and the voices of Jewish conservatism," and as the most prominent rabbi in America who is both pro-Israel and pro-Palestine, and for insisting that Palestinians and Muslims are equally precious to God as Israelis and Jews (a view that has made him controversial among some in the Jewish world). Lerner is also chair of the interfaith Network of Spiritual Progressives--NSP (www.spiritualprogressives.org), an organizaiton with thousands of members throughout the US and Canada.  The Network of Spiritual Progressives-NSP primary focus is on what it calls "A New Bottom Line" in American society, one that values love, caring, kindness, generosity, ethical and ecological sensitivity, and awe and wonder at the grandeur of the universe. Many people who don't affiliate with any religion or traditional beliefs in God have joined the Network of Spiritual Progressives which proclaims that it is open to "spiritual but not religious" people as well. The major way that the NSP advocates for a New Bottom Line is through advancing a detailed NSP version of a Global Marshall Plan (to change the terms of international trade agreements, and to have the US and other G8 countries dedicate 1-2% of their GDP each year for the next twenty to "once and for all end domestic and global poverty, homelessness, hunger, inadequate education, inadequate heath care, and to repair the global environment), a plan which was recently endorsed by several Congresspeople who introduced it as House Resolution 1078. Lerner will be presenting these ideas both in Madrid and at meetings in Denver with the delegates to the Democratic National Convention.

Rabbi Lerner can be reached for interviews through Tikkun Magazine: Will@tikkun.org or 510 644 1200.

The conference begins with an initial presentation by Saudi King Abdullah . King Juan Carlos of Spain and Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero and Muslim World Leagie Secretary-General Abdullah Al-Turki will address the opening session.

The fist session, titled "Dialogue and Its Religious and Civilizational Foundations," will be chaired by Bawa Jain, secretary-general of the Millennium World Peace Summit. Hussain Hamid Hassan of Dubai Islamic Bank will speak on "Dialogue in Islam," while Lebanese Minister of Culture Tariq Mitri, a member of the World Council of Churches, will speak on "Dialogue in Christianity." Arthur Schneir of Appeal of Conscience Foundation in the US and M.M. Verma, director of Interfaith Foundation in India, will also address the session.

Saleh Bin-Humaid, president of the Saudi Shoura Council, will preside over the second session that will focus on "Dialogue and Its Importance in Society." Nichiko Niwano, president, the Committee of World Parliament for Religion and Peace, Japan, will present a paper on "Dialogue and Interaction of Cultures and Civilizations," while professor Federico Mayor Zaragoza, president of the Cultural Foundation for Peace in Spain, will speak on Dialogue and its Impact on Peaceful Coexistence. Abdulhadi Tazi, a member of the Moroccan Academy, will present a paper on "Dialogue and Its Impact on International Relations," while Redwan Al-Sayyed, chairman of the International Institute for Islamic Studies in Lebanon, will speak on the topic, "Dialogue in the Face of Calls for the Clash of Civilizations and End of History."

The third session on "Common Human Values in Areas of Dialogue," chaired by William F. Vendley, secretary-general of the World Conference of Religions for Peace in the US, will be held on Thursday. Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR); Muhammad Ali Taskheeri, secretary-general of the World Forum for Proximity of Islamic Schools of Thought in Iran; Shankaracharya Omkar Anand Saraswati of India; and Miguel Angel Ayuso Guixot, rector of the Pontifical Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue at the Vatican, will present papers.

The fourth session on "Evaluation and Promotion of Dialogue" will be chaired by Rabbi Caudio Epelman, secretary-general of the Jewish Congress in Latin America and the Caribbean. The speakers are: Ezzuddin Mustafa of the UAE, Xue Cheng of the Buddhist Association of China, Econos Haddad of Jordan's Center for Religious Coexistence, and Nabil Luka Bibawi, member of Egypt's Shoura Council. The concluding session will start at 10 a.m. Friday when Abdul Rahman Al-Zaid, assistant secretary of the MWL, will read out the final communiqué.