Josh Feigelson Witnessing Marshall Meyer, p.2


Another word to describe the kind of existential commitment Meyer preached is integrity, and that word aptly describes nearly every page of this book. Meyer's words ring with an uncompromising honesty, a dedication to principle, that gives the lie to politicians on both left and right, and religious figures, both liberal and orthodox. Take this passage, which on its surface seems like a precursor to George W. Bush's second inaugural address: "True hope is born from the ashes of the idols that impede freedom and man’s actions. True hope is born through the process of changing the world, of bettering oneself and one's society. True hope is born with my determination to eliminate all evil that is within me." (p. 34) Freedom, self-betterment, banishment of evil—Meyer sounds as though he were speaking at the Republican national convention. But then he continues:

True hope is born when I learn to scream NO to injustice, to bribery, to corruption; when I scream that I will be involved; when I scream that I won’t stay frozen in my ways. True hope is born when I can scream with all my being: YES to honesty; YES, I am my brother’s keeper; YES I am, and we are, guilty of multiple sins and errors. True hope is born when I am willing to forgive others, as I am willing to forgive myself; when I am willing to forgive others, and to be more demanding of myself.

This is neither Democratic nor Republican language (though Republicans have successfully co-opted more of it for their use than Democrats). These are values nearly everyone agrees on, but few put into practice; they are, unfortunately, above politics. They are the kind of sentiments that make Jed Bartlet of "The West Wing" such a popular president.

Meyer’s integrity grows out of his belief in the ultimate importance of heshbon ha-nefesh and teshuva, honest self-reflection and return to our deepest selves. Take his moving definition of sin:

We must recapture the reality of sin if we are to address those actions we commit which alienate us from our Creator—actions that are born when we anesthetize our sensitivities to the moral order of the universe.

To sin is to err from the goals of creative living. We sin against ourselves and against God when we do not live up to the capacities with which we have been endowed. We sin not only when we act in destructive ways, but also when we fail to defend the sanctity of life. These sins of omission are at the root of the degradation and destruction of the social fabric. Every one of us is guilty of failing to act to enhance our own lives and the lives of others. (p. 122)

Throughout this book, Meyer retrieves moral and religious language from the forces that have diluted it from its meaning. He speaks of the "sanctity of life" and "the moral order of the universe," and in the same breath utters the phrase "creative living."

What Meyer is doing in all of this is trying to correct the course of modernity, in both political and religious terms. The liberation of the individual is a great accomplishment, but its apotheosis has gone too far: our society has become so individualized that we have lost a sense of community. The sovereignty of the individual has led to complacency and non-participation in communal causes, both religious and political. Ironically, this lack of engagement in community has deprived many individuals of the sense of identity they yearn for, and has led many to seek out communities of the like-minded, around churches and other mono-cultural institutions. Thus, in either case, by allowing and even encouraging individuals to seek self-fulfillment, or by encouraging "tribal" groupings in the face of a faceless civil society, our culture has handicapped our identification with and sympathy for one another. And once that subtle move of dehumanization of the other occurs, as we have seen in recent events, it is a short step to abusing the other in a variety of ways.

While advocating and celebrating the liberation of the individual and the pursuit of self-fulfillment, Meyer simultaneously preaches—loudly, emphatically—that self-fulfillment must come within a context of community, and a community that extends beyond the bounds of people like oneself:

If we are to guarantee a democratic process, if we are to guarantee a democratic society, we must reeducate ourselves to respond to the injustices of our society. We must commit ourselves to the welfare of the polis within which we live. In short, we must be responsible citizens of our society. We must vote, we must become candidates and leave our soft lives of tranquility. We must maintain civilized discourse with those who hold contrary views. We must not slap and punch when we get angry. We must learn how to live with the drama of existence, which is no easy task. (p. 41)

The specter of the Holocaust hovers in the background of these sentiments, and one can hear Buber and Levinas in Meyer’s insistence on identifying with the Other. But Levinas is a tough nut to crack. Meyer’s gift is his ability to build a spiritual message in direct, powerful, sermonic language that takes the heady truths of the philosophers and relocates them in the digestible words of the Prophets.


One might expect that the question of chosenness, of the role of the Jews, would be problematic for Meyer, as it tends to be for many liberal Jews. Isay does not give us a passage in this book where Meyer directly addresses the question, though it would seem from his sophisticated views of God that he would try to reframe the terms of the discussion. And this is exactly what he does, to brilliant effect:

We Jews have a precious message to give to the world, a central part of which is an unalterable commitment to make the world in which we live a better place. We are commanded to love our neighbors as ourselves. We are commanded to insure justice, to clothe the naked, to feed the hungry, to liberate the persecuted, and to share our bounty with those who have less than we. We are commanded to be "rahamanim b’nai rahamanim," compassionate, merciful, loving. We are commanded not to be idol worshipers, whatever those idols may be. We are commanded to be God’s witnesses: "Atem Edai," you are My witnesses, says Adonai. The Midrash comments: "If you are My witnesses, I am God, and if you are not My witnesses, I am," as it were, "not God." We must not fail. (p. 9, emphasis in original)

Meyer does two things in this passage: In Prophetic style, he highlights the ethical commandments of the Torah; and he deftly but forcefully fuses that message—the hallmark of liberal Judaism—with the concept of mitzvah, commandment. This is a Judaism that Orthodox and Reform alike can agree on.

This is another theme of this book: Meyer’s utter obliviousness to parochialism. He would have none of it:

Unless the synagogue becomes sensitive to the needs of all peoples who are hungry and downtrodden, unless we are capable of feeling rahmanut (compassion) and hesed (loving kindness) for everybody who is being persecuted, what right do we have to think that the world will take notice when we scream out only on anti-Semitic issues?

Either God created us, or we created Him. All of us act as if we created Him, as if He is in our pocket, and we know exactly what He wants. For so many people, He is only interested in Jews. And if God is only interested in Jews, as naïve and as complicated as it may sound, by definition He can’t be God. (p. 29)

The simplicity and urgency of such a message has an adolescent ring to it, as do many passages in the book. One frequently wants to say, "Rabbi Meyer, that’s really beautiful, but it’s not the way the world works," the way one might to a fifteen year-old who insists that if everyone just became vegans and drove hybrid cars we would solve all our problems. But as anyone who as ever been a teenager knows, adolescence is marked by an uncanny ability to sniff out hypocrisy. Part of Meyer’s integrity, and what makes him so refreshing, is his honesty. When he has found truth, he will not relinquish it. This is the essence of his prophetic voice.

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Top image: Sharyl Noday, A Promised Gift
Lower image: Sharyl Noday, Healing the War Within

June 2005

Star Wars, George Bush, Judaism, and the Penis
Jay Michaelson

The So-Called Jewish Cultural Revolution
Leah Koenig

Witnessing Marshall Meyer
Josh Feigelson

We Will Destroy the Museums
Dan Friedman on Ashes and Snow

Clive Firestone
Nicole Taylor

Heart of Pinkness
Michael Kuratin

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From previous issues:

The Hasidim
Hila Ratzabi

Jacob said to an Angel, Tell me your name
Abraham Mezrich

The Warm, Impossible, Wall-less Summer World
Jay Michaelson