Witnessing Marshall Meyer
Josh Feigelson

Rabbi Marshall Meyer, You are my Witness: The Living Words of Rabbi Marshall T. Meyer
Jane Isay, ed. St. Martins, 2004. 192 pages, $21.95


In a recent interview on the Leonard Lopate show on WNYC, the author Philip Caputo was talking about his new book on the Kent State massacre. At one point, Lopate asked whether Caputo thought such an event could happen again. "You know," he replied, "I interviewed the editor of the student paper as part of this book, and I asked him a similar question. And I’ll tell you his answer. 'No, it won’t happen, and there’s a two-word explanation: The Draft.'" What drove student protest against the Vietnam War, in Caputo’s view, was not solely principled opposition. It was also the fact that the entire male student population had a personal stake in government policy and the conduct of the war.

Needless to say, things have changed. How many of us have a personal stake in the fighting in Iraq? How many educated, middle- and upper- class readers of Zeek personally know anyone fighting in Iraq? Or in the armed forces anywhere? What percentage of Americans do? Do you personally know anyone who has risked prison or physical harm for a cause they believed in? How many of us would be willing to put our lives, or those of our children, on the line for any cause?

These questions struck me as I read this collection of sermons and other writings by the late Rabbi Marshall Meyer, an American-born rabbi who lived in Buenos Aries during the darkest days of military rule and risked his life time and again to save the lives of the innocent. As Jane Isay writes in her introduction:

He was a lonely voice against the government, preaching against the dictatorship, welcoming the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo into his synagogue at great risk, and visiting the prisons weekly. He ran a virtual underground railroad, helping people escape the country, hiding others until they could get out, working tirelessly to locate the disappeared. He spoke out at every opportunity; his life was constantly threatened and his wife was advised to take the children home to America.

Meyer could easily have left this dangerous situation -- but stayed and continued his work. After the fall of the military government, Meyer was the only non-Argentine appointed to the Committee for the Disappeared. He is considered a national hero.

Behind Meyer’s courage was a prophetic Judaism. Not prophetic in the sense that he preached the importance of values over the minutia of observance, but prophetic in the sense that religious experience for him was more than aesthetics; it was complete existential commitment. In his words:

Faith is not a comfortable resting place to which I can repair in the face of life’s demands, but rather the strength I can marshal to respond to life’s demands… If we are prepared to admit that faith in another human being requires ultimate risk and promises ultimate joy or abject disillusionment, how can one be expected to take this risk with God?… Faith in God is the most difficult of all faiths. Such faith changes lives and thunders in one’s soul; or, if you prefer, murmurs its existence in breaths of silence, in moments of spiritual ecstasy. This is the faith that makes life a polychromatic, multidimensional drama: sprinting ahead at one moment, falling down with a bruised heart the next. (p. 6)

While many Jewish thinkers of Meyer’s time espoused such a philosophy, few did so as forcefully, with language as direct and uncomplicated. And few if any risked as much as he did. But for Marshall Meyer, religion and religious experience were an eish ochla, a fire that consumed and propelled a deep, complicated, wrestling existence with God and the world. And in his insistence on preaching, teaching, and living his life to such a demanding standard, he met with phenomenal success.

Marshall Meyer was born in Brooklyn in 1930. Raised in Norwich, Connecticut, he made his way to Dartmouth, where a visit by Abraham Joshua Heschel led to Heschel’s adoption of Meyer as a close student. Meyer followed Heschel back to the Jewish Theological Seminary, where was ordained as a Conservative rabbi in 1959. Presented with the choice of an assistantship in the U.S. or serving an outlying community, Meyer chose the latter, and headed to Buenos Aries for what he thought would be a few years.

It didn’t turn out that way. As Ha’Aretz reporter Noga Tarnopolsky put it in a recent piece: "Meyer used his prodigious energy to establish, within a few short years, the Bet El community, the most important congregation in Buenos Aires; a system of educational facilities and summer camps for children; and a Jewish printing press, the first to print Jewish texts in Spanish since the expulsion of the Jews from Spain. He created, in effect, what is now—still—a community." In addition, and perhaps most importantly, in 1962 Meyer founded the Seminario Rabinico Latinoamericano, the only rabbinic school in Latin America, which continues to produce rabbis today.

Saving Argentina’s Jews from assimilation was Meyer's first great effort. His second began in 1976, when a March coup ushered in a brutal military dictatorship. During the next seven years, Meyer would stand virtually alone as a voice against the generals. His efforts to locate and save missing persons in the prisons became the stuff of legend. Tarnopolsky relates: "On his last visit to Israel… he described some of the tactics he chose to bluster his way into clandestine prisons and death camps, often intimidating or confounding the guards so that they released prisoners to his custody, and saying things like: 'What? You have him? This man is a foreign national! I know his ambassador; just yesterday I gave the man my assurances we are holding no one from his country. Ay Dios, do you have any idea the embarrassment this could bring to Argentina? Que desastre! Permit me to clear this up, discretely. You won't get into any trouble. I'll see to it that he gets deported like a common criminal. Just give him to me, and you won't have to worry about a thing.'" It is not known how many lives Meyer saved, but it is certainly in the hundreds.

After 25 years in Argentina, Meyer returned to New York in August 1985 to take up the pulpit of the sleepy West Side Congregation B’nai Jeshurun. Meyer transformed the synagogue into a vibrant center of spirituality and activism, with signature musical Friday night services and proud involvement in liberal causes, including pioneering positions on gay rights. While his life was cut short at age 63 by liver cancer, his work and message have been taken up by his students from Buenos Aries, Rabbis Marcelo Bronstein and Rolando Matalon.

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