Religion and Social Activism in Modern America

GUEST: Rabbi J. Rolando Matalon
AIR DATE: 08/31/2013
VTR: 06/21/13

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind … and today I would like so much to reprise – at least in tone and intellectual conviction – a well-remembered conversation I had at this table a little over a quarter century ago.

Its theme, as that of several other Open Mind programs in the late 20th century: was religion and social activism … which Jesuit Father John LaFarge, Editor of Catholicism’s “America” Magazine had discussed with me here on Open Mind…and as had Protestant Ministers William Sloane Coffin and Martin Luther King, among others.

But on November 22nd, 1987, my guest was the late Marshall Meyer, the distinguished Rabbi who then presided over New York’s ancient Ashkenazic synagogue, Congregation B’Nai Jeshurun…where, I should note, my wife then worshipped, and does today…and where today spiritual leadership is shared by my guest, Rabbi J. Rolando Matalon, brought there to the pulpit by his great teacher, mentor and friend, Marshall Meyer.

Now, some thought Marshall Meyer too radical, perhaps preoccupied to distraction with concern for the poor, the dispossessed, the “others” of the world around us. And I asked him quite directly, those many years ago, whether his constant commingling of social activism and religion might not be a divisive factor.

First he asked, “In my life, or the life of my congregation, or the people I serve?”

I said, “In the life of congregations the world over”.

And his reply was quite compelling. What he said was:

“I can see where those individuals who consider the Church or the Synagogue, in my case … the Synagogue, to be what they require of a Valium … They would like to come on Friday night or a Saturday morning and hear a very, very anodyne, mellifluous, saccharine service of the same nature, the same taste.

“I don’t believe that’s what a service [is] about.

“I believe,” said the Rabbi, “that there are moments of jubilee, jubilation, elation. There are moments of celebration, there are moments of meditation. “But the basic thrust of the service must be to find in one’s own life the presence of God, and to translate that presence into action. And I think I stand on very solid grounds on that.

“Because if we had to make this division between politics and religion, then we would have — to quote the words of the magnificent Abraham Joshua Heschel, who is probably the greatest thinker of 20th century Judaism — we’d have to take out of the Bible the biggest politician of all, and that’s God … who [would then have] no place in the Bible, because he is constantly interested in the poor, in the freedom of men and women, in the widow, in the defenseless, in freeing the oppressed.

“After all,” concluded Marshall Meyer, “we Jews were slaves under Pharaoh in the land of Egypt. We Jews come from slaves. This is the thrust of prophetic Judaism … it can be divisive, and if it is, it should be.”

Now, I’d like to ask my guest Rabbi Matalon to what extent he would agree with our late friend.

MATALON: Our late friend was also my beloved teacher. And he spoke very eloquently. I learned from him. I hold this to be true and this is why I became a Rabbi. I grew up in Argentina in Marshall’s congregation and he inspired me to discover my calling and I am a Rabbi because of that message, which he delivered over and over again. And so I, I stand firm in that conviction.

Which is not always easy to implement, but this is what I believe … people of faith, religious people are called to do.

HEFFNER: Are you equally a disciple of Heschel?

MATALON: Well, I never met Heschel … Heschel died in 1972, I came to this country ten years later. But Marshall was profoundly devoted to Heschel. Heschel had been Marshall’s teacher. Marshall had also been Heschel’s personal secretary for a number of years.

And when Marshall came to Argentina he built his congregation and he built the Rabbinic seminary down there in Buenos Aires … I think inspired and ah, ah, ah … inspired and filled with Heschel’s teachings.

And so I, I heard about Heschel and … we studied Heschel in the congregation later on and when I went to study at the seminary with Marshall we, we … I, I studied Heschel’s books with Marshall’s commentary and plenty of anecdotes and, and then, of course, I came here and discovered more Heschel. So Heschel has been part of my religious life since my childhood although I never met him, but I do consider him to be one of my great teachers. The teacher of my teacher.

HEFFNER: And the question of divisiveness, the divisiveness of social action. How do you react to that?

MATALON: Well, look, there, there are two aspects to this divisiveness. One is what you indicated in your opening remarks. There are some people who simply want to go to a, a religious place, to a church or a synagogue or an ashram in order to find calm and, and peace.

To escape from the world’s troubles and tribulations, to find some respite from our busy lives and the complexity of life.

And, and, of course, there’s a place for that … to find calm and quiet … to, to focus on the, on the inner life … to, to nurture one’s soul through, through quiet and, and beautiful music and singling and psalms and so on. All of that is valid and, and there must be a place for that.

But that’s not all. The place of religion, the sanctuary, the synagogue, the church, must also be a place of agitation. It is a place where we are presented a vision of the world that could be. The world that ought to be.

And when we hold that vision through our prayers, through our study … through the study of our sacred text … when we hold that vision and we compare it against the reality in which we live, we have to feel agitated. We have to feel that it’s unacceptable, that the world can’t be what it is.

That we … human beings … must do better. That we must try harder. That we must solve the problems that we face. And therefore we have to feel a mixture of agitation and righteous indignation and so we have to hold both those emotions or those sentiments. There has to be place for both in the synagogue.

Heschel said “prayer must be subversive”. So that when you encounter the prayer book … it’s not only some sort of bond for your soul, which it should be … when you are, when you are discomforted, when you’re troubled. You have to find a place quiet, a place of comfort.

At the same time you have to awaken that sense of subversion against the status quo.

HEFFNER: Be …

MATALON: And that’s the mix.

HEFFNER: B–a–l-m and b-o-m-b …

MATALON: Yes. Yes. So, so the, the … so that’s one divisiveness amongst the people who claim “Well, look, just give me a place where I can find some, some respite from the world. Don’t bring here politics. Don’t bring here the wars and the troubles of the world and the poor and the homeless and, and health care and immigration. Let’s leave that outside of the synagogue.”

HEFFNER: These are deserving people, aren’t they?

MATALON: Of course. Which people?

HEFFNER: Those who say that. Those who look for a b-a-l-m …

MATALON: Those are deserving people … I am … so the role of the religious leader, in the religious institution is, is to persuade, is to convince and it’s sometimes to go against the current of those who only want the peace and the calm.

So we have … you know, we have to, we have to go against that current.

Then there’s another type of divisiveness. And the other type of divisiveness is my point of view or your point of view.

Now I have the privilege of the pulpit. I teach and declare my own understanding of our sacred writings. As a Rabbi I study, I have studied and I continue to study the sacred texts of the Jewish tradition. I am acquainted with the texts of other traditions as well … not as … not as well and not as deeply as my own … I have studied Jewish history and on the basis of Jewish history and Jewish text, I, I understand how Jewish values are formed. And I proclaim my teaching or I teach from an understanding of how Jewish values meet the reality in which we live.

But not everybody arrives to the same conclusion and not everybody holds the same values in the same order. Understand? And therefore there is a divisiveness in terms of sometimes my message does not find friendly … a friendly response, either by members of my congregation or other colleagues or other members of other congregations.

And that’s the … another divisiveness and there is … we live in that tension. That tension I believe is creative … I believe that, you know, I don’t hold the truth or the only truth. I maybe have a piece of the truth … an understanding, a point of view, a perspective … I try to unlock that from within the text … and from within my understanding of Jewish history and the reality in which we live. But other people reach other conclusions and, and I think in the give and take we are all elevated, and perhaps we move to a higher place of a … to closer to higher truth.

HEFFNER: Roly, you talk about reading the text. How fair is it to say that you and others must read into it … rather than read from it?

MATALON: It’s a, it’s a very good question. How much do … how much do we do exegesis, how much do we read from the text and, and derive a message that the text holds for us and how much we are reading into it.

It, it’s something that we must ask ourselves all the time. Am I reading my own point of view into the text?

So here is a … some sort of an answer. I believe that we all read the text selectively. I believe that we … it is … we, we, we do exegesis … but I think that we all read the text selectively.

In other words, we read … we, we emphasize those pieces that we feel are useful for the message we want to deliver. We might be doing exegesis, we might be explicating the text and releasing its meaning … sometimes yet another layer of meaning that we hadn’t seen there before.

But I believe that we … and it think it’s legitimate … I’m not studying the text as a … I’m not studying the text when I talk to my congregation, I’m not doing it as a scholar …

HEFFNER: No?

MATALON: … I’m not doing it as a professor … I’m not doing it as an academic. I’m doing it as a, as a Rabbi … as a preacher … I am there to bring a message to my congregation …so I can be selective with the text … I can choose which piece of a text to open up in order to release the message I am … I am … I am seeking.

I am … I hope I do not impose my own ideas on the text, but rather let the text guide me. But I, I choose the sections that I feel might, if not give me the answers, at least give me the questions that will then put me on the … in the direction I want to go, just to ask the questions.

HEFFNER: Now, perhaps an unfair question … you’ll tell me if it’s unfair … whether you answer it or not. How different, in this way are you from Marshall? Where, where do you take the master and the mentor, the teacher and go in a different direction?

MATALON: Ah, as I said in the beginning … Marshall is my beloved and revered teacher. I have admired him since I was a child and, and I feel honored that I became his student.

And that I had seven and a half years of, of working side-by-side with him. I internalized a lot of his message and his teaching. It is part of me.

But I have a little bit of a different voice … Marshall was very blunt. Marshall was … at the end of his life, in particular, he was very radical … in, in the positive sense of the word.

He was … came on very strong. I think my voice is a little softer. I think that sometimes I can deliver a message very strongly and very bluntly … but my style is different. I think am also more careful lately of bringing other voices and other opinions just as I bring mine … I don’t think Marshall was too open to do that … particularly in the last years of his life, he felt that time was running out. I don’t know if he knew that he was sick. But he felt time was running out.

He, he died at the age of 63 … and I think he felt his righteous indignation was mounting. And he was very impatient at the end. And his message was, was very strong.

I am … I am not there yet. Besides …

HEFFNER: What do you mean “yet?”

MATALON: … well, I don’t know what will be. If I’m granted many more years, I don’t’ know how I will be when I am in my sixties or in my seventies.

I, I may get to the point where I feel more desperate about the, the nature of the world and the problems and, and of trying to get a message across.

I don’t know. I’m not him. I am me. And I know that I am a little bit more soft spoken.

The other thing is, that I think that Marshall spoke in the eighties … and the early nineties … I think that the place of the religious and the teacher has changed in the last 20/25 years.

HEFFNER: How so?

MATALON: I think that the great preachers and leaders of the last … of, of, of the sixties and the fifties and the sixties … even the seventies … you mentioned a few in your open remarks … Reverend Martin Luther King, Abraham Joshua Heschel, the Reverend William Sloan Coffin. So those people … and Marshall Meyer … those people were, were, were very powerful in their message.

Their message was very sharp. I, I, I think they had also a, a stand … a platform that religious leaders no longer have. I think that religion has become devalued … for all sorts of reasons.

After, I think, the sixties and the seventies religion has become devalued maybe it has to do something with the Religious Right. But I think it has to do with many other factors.

And, and you no longer have preachers, who speak like that, who have that kind of platform. And, and therefore … and today, I think also people are expecting from their leaders, whether it be religious leaders, political leaders … they’re expecting to engage in conversation and dialogue …

HEFFNER: Rather than be led.

MATALON: Rather than just be told …

HEFFNER: Told.

MATALON: … I think people are expecting to engage in conversation, in a back-and-forth. And so, today, you see many religious leaders have blogs where people can deliver comments and … or have other type of an opportunity for people to engage with them. I think that’s, that’s the new era. I think maybe it’s the … you know … maybe it’s because of the Internet and how communications are done today. Social media … you see it in all these countries that are now … where there’s rebellions going on. And, and I’m not just talking about Egypt and Libya and so, I’m talking about Turkey. I’m talking about Brazil. People want to engage. And so I think it is true also about religious leaders. People want to engage. And so the tone has to be different.

Now, that being said, at the same time … you know many of us have a conviction and the way we … as I said, the way we read our sources and the way we read reality … pushes us, you know, to deliver a message that sometimes needs to be loud and needs to be strong and needs to be sharp.

And if people disagree, they disagree, but we have to create the context or the, the ability for people to engage and, and, and to speak up. And for us to have that kind of a give and take.

HEFFNER: What do you see in your congregation these days in terms of willingness to deal with fundamental questions, If religion is playing a lesser and lesser role, what do you see in your congregants?

MATALON: Well, our congregation has grown from Marshall’s days. It has grown to a congregation of almost 4,000 people.

HEFFNER: So you must be doing something right.

MATALON: And … hopefully. But at the same time, our congregation has become less homogeneous … ideologically. Our congregation is large and diverse. And not everybody agrees with what my colleagues and I hold in terms of our, our views on all sorts of issues.

And we have all sorts of people with all sorts of ideas. Wonderful people. Caring people and we agree on many things and there’s disagreement about other things.

And so we have … we are working very hard on finding a mechanism whereby we, as religious leaders, can express our views carefully … with a lot of well-founded views … carefully and respectfully and strongly and clearly.

And at the same time as I was saying before, to find the framework where people can come and say, “I don’t agree with you, show me why did you reach that conclusion”. Show me why do you hold that view or that idea? And where people can, can openly disagree.

It is fine to disagree. So, we are the leaders, we are the Rabbis of this congregation and we have both the honor or the privilege AND the responsibility to express ourselves clearly. And at the same time we have the responsibility to, to listen and to learn from others as well.

HEFFNER: What do you find in the responses that you hear about the new generation and the older generation who still, of course, go to B’nai Jeshuran … what are we like? What are people like? What’s your congregation like.

You said, diversity, of course, and I appreciate that. But you must have a feeling.

MATALON: Oh, yes. I think that … I mean first of all our congregation wants services that are meaningful and engaging and real and authentic. Where it’s not just some sort of ritual by rote. But prayer that is meaningful and consequential and transformative.

I think people want us to be a congregation that is engaged with the issues of the day. There is not much disagreement about most of the issues with which we engage in terms of our social justice involvement. There isn’t a great deal of disagreement.

I think our congregation wants to be involved with Israel … very strongly in supporting Israel, and at the same time supporting within Israel those projects or ventures that will make Israel a more … a just and a more peaceful country, a more … a, a, a country of more democracy and more equality for, for all. And we support those projects and those movements because we love Israel and we want to make Israel stronger and we want to see peace.

And so I think there’s no disagreement about that. Here and there there’s some, there’s some disagreement about which specific direction to take, here or there. But by and large this is what people want.

HEFFNER: Roly, our time is up now, but I want you to come back … if you will … because when you say “”here and there”, I’d like to challenge that because I have the sense and you may in your eloquence and in your familiarity with the situation assure me that it is just “here and there” and there aren’t fundamental differences. But I appreciate so much your having joined me today.

MATALON: My pleasure to be here.

HEFFNER: Thanks, Roly …

MATALON: Thank you for having me.

HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

And do visit the Open Mind Website at thirteen.org/openmind to reprise this program online right now or to draw upon our Archive of 1,500 or so other Open Mind and related programs. That’s thirteen.org/openmind.

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