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Rabbi J. Rolando Matalon

Religion and Social Activism in Modern America, Part II

VTR Date: February 1, 2014

Rabbi J. Rolando Matalon discusses the role social activism plays in religious life today.

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GUEST: Rabbi J. Rolando Matalon
AIR DATE:2/1/2014
VTR: 10/10/13

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind .. and today — as I did a few months ago — 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, Jr., among others.

But on November 22nd, 1987, my guest here 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 worshipped then, and does now…and where spiritual leadership is shared now by today’s Open Mind 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 this constant commingling of social activism and religion might be a divisive factor.

His reply was quite compelling:

He said, “I can see where those individuals who consider the Church, or the Synagogue in my case, 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 that’s what a service is about, said the Rabbi.

“I believe 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, Dick.

“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 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 Rabbi 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 when last time I asked today’s guest how much he agrees with our late friend, he replied, “Our late friend was also my beloved teacher…he spoke eloquently…and this is why I became a Rabbi. “So I stand firm in that conviction…which is not always easy to implement. But this is what I believe…what people of faith, religious people, are called to do.”

And when I then asked Rabbi Matalon whether these beliefs also led to disagreement with his own congregation today, he essentially replied, “Not really…just here and there”. And I, of course, would ask him now just where “here and there” mostly are. Is that fair?

MATALON: Very fair.

HEFFNER: Where are they?

MATALON: So we have a very large congregation. I think we are known, we have acquired a reputation because of Marshall’s work in the new beginning of our congregation. By the way our congregation was founded in 1825 … we’ve been around for a long time.

But Marshall restarted the congregation after a very, very difficult period in the seventies and early eighties. In 1985 he came and he brought the congregation back to vibrancy.

I was privileged to be part of that resurgence together with him. And under his leadership and my partnership with him and then with the additional of my colleagues after his passing … Rabbi Bronstein and Rabbi Saul … we have acquired a reputation of an active congregation.

We believe in spiritual activism, we believe that we are required, that we are expected … that there’s an expectation that comes from God, wherever God is to … for us to stand up and to do the best we can to fix this world.

And so we have acquired a reputation of an activist congregation. We’re a large congregation. Of course, not everybody agrees with everything, as one would expect.

However, it is remarkable that on most social issues of our time, there is a great deal of consensus in our congregation. We have a great deal of consensus about most issues in America. Of course, I said here and there because we large and it cannot be expected that everybody will be in agreement.

Where there is a little bit more of a disagreement and sometimes a little bit more tension is on the issue of Israel. You know there are two major concerns about Israel.

One is the concern for Israel’s security and safety. And … to some people there is always some sort of a threat to Israel’s existence … very existence. We should not dismiss those concerns.

Another concern is the concern that Israel might be able to raise itself to, to fulfill its aspirations and its dreams … which have been stated in its Declaration of Independence and which have the roots … a very long time ago in our sacred writings and in the Torah and in the prophets, the vision that Israel will be a place of justice and peace and equality and morality where Jewish values, where the, the great Jewish … that have inspired a great part of humanity as well. That we have shared through Christianity and through Islam these great values will be the engine that move this society … this Israeli society … this country forward to fulfill its, its, its aspiration and its dream.

So you have these two concerns … the concern for security, as well as the concern for the, the aspirational vision, might we call it.

Now, of course, we have to be concerned for both. And we have to do … to be concerned for both at the same time. Now there are some people that … when the accent is placed on the aspirational vision they say, “How come you are abandoning Israel’s security?”

When we put the accent on security, some people come and say, “How come you’re abandoning the aspirational vision?”

Now my colleagues and I have the tendency, because we know that most of the Jewish community, the organized, established Jewish community is very firmly concerned and actively defending Israel’s not only right to exist, but also right to security, which is important.

We know that the community cares for them. There are some of us that need to reminding ourselves and reminding the community about this other concern. Which is often sacrificed for the sake of security.

So sometimes we … as we emphasize the aspirational vision, there are those who come to remind us that, indeed, we can’t abandon security.

And so, to quote Leon Wieseltier, he has a wonderful quote in an article in The New Republic, maybe a few years ago.

He says the centrifuges are spinning in Iran. And settlements are being built on the West Bank. He says we should be concerned about the centrifuges in Iran as if there were no settlements in the West Bank and we should be concerned about the settlements in the West Bank as if there were no centrifuges in Iran.

And I believe that is the position that we should embrace. Now, as I said before, knowing that there are a great many people and, and a great many institutions … great institutions of organized American Jewry who are availing and defending Israel’s security … some of us need to be reminding ourselves and reminding Israel and reminding world Jewry that we need not … we must not abandon Israel’s aspiration. Which I believe Israel doesn’t, but sometimes it gets caught in the, in the issues of security.

And so, that’s where sometimes the disagreements occur, the tensions occur. I think there’s a great deal of consensus in our congregation that everybody wants Israel to be secure and for there to be peace. I think there’s no fight about that … about those principles.

HEFFNER: Those are the aspirations. And you say they’re, they are common to the congregation. What happens to you in your role as spiritual leader when you feel that a point must be made on one side or the other.

Life doesn’t go in such a way that we’re always saying on the one hand …and on the other or … in point … terms of point A and in terms of point B …

MATALON: Right.

HEFFNER: What’s your relationship with the congregation?

MATALON: Well, I have … I’ve been in this congregation for now 27 years. So there’s a very long history and trajectory and besides discussing these issues which I don’t discuss as a politician, I discuss these issues as a religious leader and informed by my understanding of the sources of our tradition …

HEFFNER: Rabbi Matalon …

MATALON: … I don’t do this as a politician.

HEFFNER: What, what does that mean, “I don’t do this as a politician”?

MATALON: I don’t engage in politics. For example if we talk about the issue that we were just discussing … about Israel, for example … I’m not an expert in, in borders and, you know, how many refugees, how many … where the borders should go … I mean I’m not … that’s not my expertise. And that’s not also my interest.

There are people who would resolve this conflict and sit down and talk about maps and talk about all sorts of issues that have to be discussed. My interest is, as I said at the, in the opening that I, I believe there’s an expectation.

The expectation from God is that we will sit with those with whom we disagree and we will solve our issues peacefully and respectfully. That we will see the other person as a human being in the image of God.

That’s why I’m saying as speaking as a religious leader, as a spiritual leader. This is what our traditions command us to see the other … not as lesser, not as a … some sort of a demonic force in the world.

But somebody created in the image of God who has the same right to, to life and to dignity and to freedom as I have.

And that our conflicts have to be resolved on that basis and on the basis of morality and on the basis of justice.

So, that’s … I believe what our traditions come to remind us and this is what religious leaders are supposed to put before our followers and our congregants is to remind us all the time.

It’s … of course, it’s, it’s much easier … the other path is much easier.

HEFFNER: That of the politician?

MATALON: That, that … no, that of not resolving the conflict and that of war and that of permanent conflict. It’s the … it’s much more difficult to uphold these principles to see the other in, as I was explaining. And so we have to … because it’s more difficult … we have to keep reminding and working and making the effort to … to bring ourselves … to put ourselves on that path.

And so I speak this language, informed … what does it mean “informed” by the, the tradition? I understand the texts of our tradition … I’ve studied them. I’ve studied our history. I understand, as best I can what are the essential values of, of our tradition and I do my best to try to, to mediate them to my congregation … to explain them, to search together about what this could possible mean in more complicated situations.

And this is, this is part of my work. Now, I’ve been there for, for a long time. I, I don’t … as I said, I don’t only speak about these things, I also teach about other things, we pray together, we serve together, we study together.

I attend to people who are sick and also to, to mourners and, and so on and so forth. My work is encountering the members of my congregation in all sorts of different situations and that’s where the, the bonds between the spiritual leaders and the congregants is forged.

And so over these years, you know, I’ve had the occasion to, to be with people in happy occasions, to celebrate and I’ve been with people in difficult and sad occasions. And, and we have a bond. So when I speak about these issues, I don’t, I don’t speak in the vacuum, I speak in the context of, of a relationship.

And sometimes people disagree, but the disagreements … most of the time, hopefully are within the context of a relationship.

HEFFNER: Again, Roly, if, if I may … I’m not a troublemaker, you know that … but I can’t help because others after we did our last program referred back to what was happening in December 2012, when the New York Times, which I don’t think was making trouble or trying to make trouble had stories relating to your synagogue cheering UN Palestine vote tests its members … “Congregation B’nai Jeshurun a large synagogue on the Upper West Side of Manhattan is known for its charismatic Rabbis, its energetic and highly musical worship and its Liberal stances on social issues, but on Friday when its Rabbis and lay leaders sent out an email enthusiastically supporting the vote by the UN to upgrade Palestine to a non-member observer state … the statement was more than even some of its famously Liberal congregants could stomach.”

And then it quotes some of your congregants who took great exception to it. How was that resolved?

MATALON: So first of all, it was a statement that intended to indicate or to express the, the wish that this vote that took place in the UN on November 29th of last year … the, the wish that it would be a good step forward … that once the Palestinians received such recognition from an overwhelming majority of the UN members … received the sense of recognition and dignity … that this would move the peace process forward in, in … in a faster way, in a better way … in a, in a firmer way.

The … that expression was not properly captured in the an email that was sent to the congregation. The thoughts that we shared were drafted by someone … it did not exactly capture … exactly the nuances that we were looking …this is a very delicate issue and the email went out on a Friday afternoon … without proper editing and proper checking … and there was some miscommunication … internal miscommunication and a number of people were offended by the celebratory tone of this message.

I do believe that something positive can come out of this … my colleagues, as well, believe that something positive can come out … it’s not necessarily a bad thing that the … Palestinians received such recognition. And we were hoping that this would move the efforts of the … the diplomacy efforts in a positive direction.

But some people, as you said, took exception with the language. Some people took exception with the, the mistakes that were made in sending this email when it was known that a number of mistakes had been made.

And there was some discontent over a period of time and we had a number of conversations with congregants and dialogues and we had to move past this issue. We’ve all learned from this. And we … one of the very positive outcomes of this is that … not only that we created systems so that such mistakes would not recur …

HEFFNER: In dealing with the outside world.

MATALON: No, in dealing with the internal mistakes that were made in sending this communication. So there were a number of protocols that were put into place to, to make sure that everything works the way it should work.

But we’ve also had to clarify our positions and we had to establish a mechanism by which people who disagree with any position that the Rabbis take and we didn’t take this position on behalf of the congregation, we took it on behalf of ourselves.

But that was not clear in the email and so people say, you know, “Don’t speak for me. You know, speak for yourself.”

So we have to, number one be careful that when we speak we should speak for ourselves, we don’t represent anybody but ourselves. And that when people disagree with positions that we might take, which people are entitled to disagree … and we’re entitled to our positions … people are entitled to disagree that we might have some form of a dialogue and constructive dialogue and, and, and engage with one another, acknowledging that our community, our congregation is not monolithic and that there is a spiritual leadership that has ideas and thoughts and that there is a, a large congregation where not everybody is in agreement with this position or that position.

HEFFNER: That differentiation between spiritual leadership and the congregation at large, is that something that one would have found expressed a half century ago … a century ago, two centuries ago when the congregation was established?

MATALON: Well, I think that there is a great variety of, of congregation dynamics between the spiritual leaders and, and the members of the congregation. You have congregations where the, the membership represented by their Board of Directors or Board of Trustees … Christian and, and the Jewish congregation equally would empower the spiritual leader to, to say certain things and then certain other things could not be said.

There’s a great many examples of, of such congregational arrangement and then there are examples of spiritual leaders who spoke their mind, regardless of what their members of the congregations thought.

And in many cases Rabbis or Preachers or Pastors who have found that something in the situation having to leave their congregations because of disagreement.

There was one very famous Rabbi in the early 20th century who was a Rabbi at our congregation for just a short period … for a few years … who founded his own congregation in order to be able to speak his mind freely.

He called … his name was Rabbi Stephen Wise, he was a luminary of the Reform Movement in the early 20th century and he founded his congregation called the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue and it … the Free Synagogue is that he would have the freedom of the pulpit.

Now many places, many congregations have in their By-laws the principle of freedom of the pulpit. And in many cases it becomes just some sort of theoretical freedom of the pulpit where the Rabbi or the Pastor is not allowed to, to, to be really … to speak his … freely his or her mind.

And so most places, I think, are somewhere in between in some sort of a back and forth and some sort of creative tension and that’s not necessarily bad.

HEFFNER: And Rabbi Matalon, at this point neither of us has the freedom to go on because the program is over …

MATALON: I’m so sorry …

HEFFNER: (laugh) and our time is up. But thank you …

MATALON: Thank you for having me.

HEFFNER: Thank you for joining me …

MATALON: Thank you.

HEFFNER: … Rabbi Matalon.

MATALON: Thank you.

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.