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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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.
Star Wars, George Bush, Judaism, and the Penis
The So-Called Jewish Cultural Revolution
Witnessing Marshall Meyer
We Will Destroy the Museums
Dan Friedman on Ashes and Snow
Heart of Pinkness
Our 670 Back Pages
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Jacob said to an Angel, Tell me your name
The Warm, Impossible, Wall-less Summer World