There is a big difference between Marshall Meyer and the self-righteous teenager, of course: Meyer tested his values in his experience. He earned his stripes by putting everything on the line and speaking truth to power. And there’s the rub: Meyer sacrificed himself, or risked sacrificing himself, which gave him the right to live an uncompromising life. In this generation, in the United States at any rate, sacrifice is a foreign word.
Speaking to an audience at Dartmouth in 1991, Meyer gave a speech called "Why and How to Be an Activist." "There are dangers inherent in compromise," he said. "It’s hard when your life is at stake. It doesn’t have to be dramatic risks, such as participating in a demonstration against cannons or machine guns. You who are students now, your lives are also at stake. Your future is at stake. Your capacity to love, to care, to share. Your willingness to stand up for something, to take your education seriously. Let it come with a price! Pay for it!" (p. 43) There is something at once noble and lame in this plea. Can you really compare standing up to a bullet with a sit-in to unionize grad students? It seems we’re defining activism down, creating an aesthetic category of social action to allow ourselves to feel good about our lives.
Like most who speak to college students today, Meyer in this speech is collaborating in the sham. Why not give ‘em hell? As a rabbi about to go off to the Hillel of a major private university, I find myself pondering this question. Is the condition of Jewry so desperate that we’re afraid to speak a truly challenging message from the pulpit? Are we afraid we will drive away the remaining few who might come to listen? Is that what prompts us to speak about aesthetics, to try to make even tochacha (rebuke) feel good?
At the same time, as one of those college kids Meyer was speaking to, I find myself vexed by my own choices. Marshall Meyer could have done as I have chosen to do, going from rabbinical school to a cushy job working with wealthy, intelligent self-starters. He could also have made good money, had a nice house, made sure his kids went to the best schools. But he went to Argentina, to a foreign culture and a Jewish community on the ropes. And when the going got really tough, he risked the lives of his children for his cause. He allowed himself to face the test of Abraham, when he could just as easily have avoided it. I can’t imagine putting my son’s life on the line in such a direct way. And even though I rationalize my choices in terms of him ("I’m taking a [relatively] good-paying job and doing Hillel rather than pulpit work so that he will have a good family life."), I can’t escape the voice inside me that says that those choices really come down to my own lack of guts.
Whenever I have taught the Binding of Isaac, the main reaction I get is, "What a disgusting story. How could Abraham sacrifice his own son?" The attitude is one of complete moral disgust. And even more, what does it say about Judaism that we read this story as the main feature on Rosh Hashanah?! This attitude is primarily found among non-Orthodox Jews. The Orthodox tend to fawn over Abraham as a pillar of spiritual excellence, setting aside his own morality for the word of God. But both reactions miss the point, one which (I hope) Meyer himself would have made: This is one of the paradoxes of human existence, that in order to derive ultimate meaning, we have to be prepared—truly prepared—to commit ultimate sacrifice. Everything else is aesthetics.
It's sometimes said that a good religious leader comforts the afflicted, and afflicts the comfortable. The rabbinate is just that sort of dance, between making Jews feel comfortable on the one hand, and challenging them on the other. If you are too accepting, you stand for nothing. If you are too demanding, you drive people away. Few rabbis get it right. Perhaps what makes Meyer such a compelling voice is that he got it so right. Marshall Meyer told it like it is, lived his ideals, and he did it from a place of love. His words challenge us to sacrifice—the ultimate challenge, to give of ourselves—and they are mirrored in his deeds, which demonstrate his love. He was the real deal, and we can only ask for more.
The new Museum of the American Indian, plus Esther Nussbaum on Yad Vashem
Bernard Henri-Levy on the death of Daniel Pearl
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
Zeek in Print
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