Marshall T. Meyer

Religion and Social Activism

VTR Date: November 22, 1987

Guest: Meyer, Marshall T.


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Marshall T. Meyer
Title: “Religion and Social Activism”
VTR: 11/22/1987

HEFFNER: I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. You will hear those words in just a moment today, when today, we do this from time to time as the years take their toll, when today we again honor yet fallen friend with a special reprise of a program first broadcast some years back. True leadership, only in the context of the strongest moral imperatives, is so much needed, so much sought after in our times, yet so seldom found. Embrace it then, when is comes our way, embraces our lives, honor the men and women who personify it, who light our way to the means together here and now. Rabbi Marshall Meyer was just such a leader, such a friend. A man of great faith and of good works, philosopher, social activist, Rabbi Meyer died on December 29th, 1993. He and I had recorded an OPEN MIND together six years earlier. You will see it now. A great, good person, we miss Marshall Meyer much, even as we honor him ever, ever more.

HEFFNER: I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. Now, perhaps there are no days of our lives when concern for human rights, for the survival and well being of others should not loom large. But today, that concern, for a great many persons, here and elsewhere, seems to grow ever larger. Maybe even larger where is should always, but didn’t always, in our places of worship, where our social gospel and spiritual devotions should not be estranged, but nurture one another. Just so much, here on THE OPEN MIND today and several times in the months ahead I should like to turn to this theme, drawing first upon a clergyman particularly well-known not only for his profound spiritual leadership, but for his social activism as well. Rabbi Marshall Meyer presides over Manhattan’s ancient Conservative Ashkenazic Synagogue, Congregation B’nai Jeshurun. There each day he boldly and persistently acts out his faith, and I quote him: “The Judaism that’s not involved in social action is a contradiction in terms”. Of course others, Jews and Gentiles alike, may disagree with Rabbi Meyers’ mix of religion and social action, yet it hardly comes new to him. Argentina’s anti-Fascist newspaper editor, Jacob Timmerman dedicated his crusading book “Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number”, to Marshall Meyer, a Rabbi who brought comfort to Jewish, Christian and Atheist prisoners in Argentine jails. For in his quarter century there, Rabbi Meyer again and again risked to speak out for and succor tens of thousands of victims of Argentina’s murderous oppression, always living out his belief in joining religious faith and social action. And so I thank you for joining me today, Rabbi, and want to ask first what might seem to you to be a rather peculiar and maybe even ungracious question, and that is whether this co-mingling of social action and religion is in your estimation, or has proven to be a divisive factor.

MEYER: In my life or the life of my congregation, or the people I serve? Which.

HEFFNER: In the life of congregations the world over.

MEYER: I can see where those individuals who consider the Church or the Synagogue, in my case…the Synagogue, to be, what they require…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…they could find that very upsetting. I don’t believe that that’s what a service is about. 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 would 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, quote, religion as rite, r-i-t-e, then I’m afraid we would have to, and to quote the words of the magnificent man who is certainly not responsible for my abysmal ignorance, but certainly is responsible for most of the Judaism I know, Abraham Joshua Heschel, who is probably, in my opinion, the greatest thinker of the 20th century in Judaism. He said that if we have to make that division, we’d have to take up the biggest politician of all, and that’s God…has no place in the bible, because he is constantly interested in the poor, he’s constantly interested in the freedom of men and women. He’s interested in the widow, he’s interested in the defenseless, he’s interested, he’s tremendously interested in freeing the oppressed. After all, we Jews make…of the fact that we were slaves under Pharoah in the land of Egypt. And most …as you know, we are all sons of gods, we Jews come from slaves. And this is the thrust of prophetic Judaism, of Toraidic Judaism, and it can be divisive, and if it is it should be.

HEFFNER: Rabbi Meyer, I hear very well what you’re saying. Indeed I have heard you in temple and have been enormously impressed, but I wondered, and that’s why I put the question to you, whether this does not run within a great tradition and work outside of it too.

MEYER: Yeah, I certainly think that religion or the bible has no monopoly in the thirst for human rights, and the quest thereof.

HEFFNER: That isn’t what I meant. I didn’t mean that, I wondered whether the quest for human rights is in your insistence of joining with the human gospel…

MEYER: Sort of a mixed metaphor as a Rabbi…the social gospel…


MEYER: (Laughter) …”Gospel” means the good new of a Kingdom of God in Jesus, you see, this is a specific word. You’re using is generically, I understand…

HEFFNER: Would you like to join them together? You said they must join together.

MEYER: Human rights and religion, yes. But I would say that there has to be, and there IS a difference in Christianity and Judaism. I think it’s not the same thing. I’m just objecting to the word “gospel”, you see?

HEFFNER: I shall withdraw…

MEYER: Not because is upsets me. As the phrase goes, some of my best friends are Christians, you know? (Laughter)

HEFFNER: But the question remains, the question remains…

MEYER: Is this a divisive or a rather abrasive subject to have within the Synagogue or within the Church, is that your question?

HEFFNER: Indeed.

MEYER: Yes, it obviously can be abrasive, but it has to be there whether it is abrasive or not. I mean I just refuse to conceive of myself…involved in Judaism…you see, God’s search for Man is an abrasive question. I mean, religion correctly understood is not a series of answers, it’s not a question of answers that are ground out of some kind of machine. It’s not a comfortable Sunday morning in the Church of…many of the social activists I know, like Bill Riverside or something like that…nor should it be a comfortable Saturday morning, when one can just as well stay home and feel that he or she is singing familiar melodies. So there has to be a spiritual charge. And a spiritual charge comes with the charge in its radical sense. I charge you to do something.

HEFFNER: Is this a new understanding? I don’t mean totally new and I don’t mean new to Judaism or new to Christianity. Is it today, as we near the end of the 20th century, a reborn, if you’ll forgive my use of that expression, a re-born concern for joining together?

MEYER: No, well, it IS a rebirth. I think you’re right. It’s rebirth, but it’s going back to the original sources. You see, we as human beings are demanded. We are the individuals, not the demandees, but God demands from us a specific rental, as you will, a spiritual rental to live on this world. I don’t think you have to be an individual, I don’t think you have to be reborn spiritually to walk on the streets of New York City and see the misery of the homeless on a day of such coldness, and to see these people living on the streets and to see them standing in front of luncheon programs in the churches or the synagogues for a breakfast program, and walk callously by because you are in a rush to your synagogue service! And when you walk into the synagogue there is no shelter, there is no aid, no provision made for any of these people…I would go so far to say that a synagogue without a shelter, I can’t consider seriously as a synagogue.

HEFFNER: Are there synagogues without shelters?


HEFFNER: Are there churches without shelters?


HEFFNER: There is a tradition that ignores this combination…

MEYER: …or lack of tradition…

HEFFNER: If one were to make…looking about this nation alone…one were to make an evaluation of the degree to which you’re concern is manifest, in churches and synagogues in this country, what would your estimate be?

MEYER: Ah, I just returned from spending most of my life in South America. I don’t know the numbers, really, but I would guess that the majority of people are NOT involved in social action in the churches or the synagogues, and if they are, it’s in a very safe form. But I think the search for sanctity is a risk. I think it’s the riskiest business there is. I think that a person who practices his or her Judaism seriously, and is committed to that Judaism, is running a constant mission because you can never do enough. And that leaves you with a very, very neurotic angst in not having fulfilled your duties. I’m aware of that. But we are constantly begged with, cajoled and pleaded with to do more.

HEFFNER: Doesn’t it take you, though, into the political realm? And when I say “though”…(laughter)…you’re perfectly right! It does.

MEYER: You’re perfectly right. It does. Yes, but I don’t think it’s limited to any political party. “Political”, as we well know, comes from the Greek “polis”. You and I have a political relationship in the adjective sense. We are looking at each other, we are confronting one another. One would say this is politics, too. Now we’re talking about human rights now. Is this political? Is it a political program? Yes. It is in a philosophical sense. Is it party politics? Do I care whether you’re a Republican or Democrat? Do you care whether I’m a Republic or a Democrat? No. But we do talk about that as a society, and that, in itself, is what politics is about.

HEFFNER: Yet, when…

MEYER: …in politics…in Spanish, it’s wonderful. They call it “politicaria”. “Politicaria” means that you make a vulgar display of politics. But politics, is a state issue, let’s put it that way. What is “state” about? What is “craft” about? What is the society built on? What are our values? This involves us inevitably in politics, and in philosophy and in the question of sanctity.

HEFFNER: Indirectly…

MEYER: I know…

HEFFNER: You use the word “sanctuary”. And there is the Sanctuary Movement. One could think of many aspects…would you not say that it is not political, largely…


HEFFNER: …in what one calls a partisan sense. In this country, that by and large, what you’re suggesting belongs to a more liberal persuasion rather than one that is less so.

MEYER: Definitely so. I’m wishing…I pray that I could play a time game, to go back to 1942 or 43, when the first shots came through from Dachau and…that it was against the war, and to bring in any Jewish immigrants from Europe. And I wish we had it to play over again. We’d see how many Jews would be on the Washington Mall on a hunger strike. I would hope 5 million of them, until we would convince FDR in 1944, 43, 42 to let those human beings come in to save their lives. A million children could have been saved. And if it required breaking the law, if that is politics, then I am all for that type of politics, when the sanctity of human life is at stake. Not for breaking the law to destroy life, but for breaking the law to save life.

HEFFNER: You take upon yourself, then, what is Caesar’s as well as what is God’s. In other words, you say that “I will break the law, when it occurs to me that it will serve a higher purpose”. Is that correct?

MEYER: That…yes I do…but I don’t like the reference for the simple reason that it is a misreading of it. I think that Jesus said “Leave unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, rather than which is God’s” he wasn’t interested in the temporal world, because indeed, the Caesars were to come to an end. He was indeed announcing the good news. There comes the real sense of Gospel, the news that the euangelion, the Kingdom of God is at hand. You see? And, so why bother with Caesar, because Caesar’s only here for a little bit longer. It just so happens that that is the discussion between Jews and Christians, that Jesus came, but the world didn’t bring such very good news. So we never accepted him as the Messiah and our Christian brothers DO accept him as the Messiah. I often suggest that the difference between Christians and Jews is one of mathematics, if you will. That they’re waiting for the Second Coming, the Parousia, and we’re still waiting for the First Coming. So, that’s the sense of mathematic difference, or arithmetic difference. But basically, what I’m saying when regard to law is concerned, that ah…I know that I have to answer the questions, that you ask the questions, but I can imagine my asking you a question that you would say the same answer. If you were in the face of injustice and you were called upon to marshall your spiritual judgment and you said that I simply have to obey this law, anybody could be faced with that statement. You reserve for your right, certain laws that you are going to break, and we all do. We all do.

HEFFNER: Isn’t that…if you’re right, and I’m sure you are…isn’t that a matter of that traditional question of where do we draw the line? And I wonder how soon, how quickly, you as the leader of a spiritual congregation have, indeed, if I may use the word, the right, and it’s r-i-g-h-t, to draw the line much sooner than your individual congregants would.

MEYER: Well, I tell you, I think the easiest answer would be one’s conscience. But I understand and have lived in a society where the due process of law was lost. The rationale behind the Argentine military Fascist dictatorship was terrorism was the Guerra Sucia, the dirty war. I’ve never read about a “clean war”, but they called it Guerra Sucia, dirty war. And they said that the ends justified the means. Judaism inalterably is opposed to that statement. But on the other hand when the Brigada Rosa, the Red Brigades killed Moro in Italy, and when some of the other great Italian politicians said “we will with our hearts broken, bury Moro, but we will not give away the greatness of Italian law”. And nobody in Italy disappeared.

Now, I make this reservation because you see, I don’t think that we should break the law…because of our own free will. I think we’re dealing with sanctuary. We’re talking about human beings who are about to be sent back to death squads. And if I have the opportunity to put that person in my cellar, or my attic, like Anne Frank…Now let’s talk about it very seriously. The people who we applaud, we Americans…we Jews, we Christians applaud people who defied the Nazi law, which was due process of the law. I mean, a dictatorship law, a due process of their law. What is the difference?

HEFFERN: I think you have, yourself, just indicated what the difference is.


HEFFNER: You talk about due process of law. I think when one lives in a nation, itself truly dedicated to law, within a nation whose postulates you generally can accept, as a moral, it must come much harder to break the law. It must come much harder to draw the line and say “I as an individual will not obey this law. I will engage in disobedience in this point, disobedience in as many points as I think appropriate.

MEYER: Well, that’s precisely what Martin Luther King did with Abraham Joshua Hescher when they were marching in Selma, Alabama.


MEYER: And they were all arrested, and they were put in jail. Now was this correct morally? Were they being politicians? Or were they really searching for the translation of God’s word?

HEFFNER: It was a bet that they made that those laws would be declared contrary to the principles of this society, and they were, indeed. And I wonder if you can too readily, too easily take that route…

MEYER: I think it requires enormous soul-searching.

HEFFNER: Within the Sanctuary Movement?

MEYER: Within the Sanctuary Movement itself. But I am convinced that the Sanctuary Movement stands on the most solid biblical basis, the most humanistic, if you will, the most solid atheistic-humanistic basis, and certainly within the framework of what made this country the great nation that it is and it was and what we are threatened with losing perhaps because we are thinking of tomorrow rather than ten years. Someone told me last night “I think with a microscope. You like to think with a telescope”.

HEFFNER: You would prefer that…strike that…you haven’t said “prefer”. You would, however, move beyond the protest, that would leave in our majoritarian nation, a change to the laws. And you would go beyond that and do violence to the laws.

MEYER: I certainly…let me…very carefully…what I would do. If I had a Salvadorian family in my home, and I knew that the migration authorities were going to come after them, and they were going to send them back to Salvador, and I KNOW that they were going to be killed, that mother, that father and those two children, I would break the law and have them live with me and lie about it. I would. I have done it. I did it in Argentina. When my kids woke up in the morning they didn’t know who was living in the house, because those people were getting on the Underground, as it were, or Air Railroad to save those thousands of lives.

HEFFNER: Do you see any indication that we won’t need to do that in this country?

MEYER: Yes, I think that well…I would hope so. I think that…I don’t think the American people will stand…well, I think if we really begin to send these people back to death squads, and we in the human rights community can document that we are, as we have in the past, to death, I don’t think the American people will put up with this. But I think there have to be some sacrifices made. And there are those individuals who feel called upon, not because they’re heroes, but because they can’t sleep at night,

HEFFNER: Talking about not sleeping at night, one needn’t turn to Latin America. But you yourself have said, we look at THIS country…

MEYER: And this city…

HEFFNER: …in this city, and probably in the major cities around the country in which this program will eventually be seen…Not one of them is without the problem we have here in one scale or another, which led me before I came here today back to Luke, if I may, “it is easier for a camel to go through a needle’s eye than for a rich man to enter into the Kingdom of God”. That has to do, obviously, with the degree that we provide for our own unfortunate people. And I wonder if that passage from Luke is something that you can subscribe to.

MEYER: I can subscribe to it. I’m not particularly happy with it because I think it lends itself to an individual ipso facto, because he is rather comfortable with his money can’t get into the Kingdom of Heaven and a poor man, ipso facto can. I think it’s much more demanding that that, as I understand it. Luke, of course, was a Jew, as was Jesus. Jesus lived, died…and of course, was born as a Jew, as were all of the apostles. But they did…this is called the Mishradic style of writing, which is a metaphoric style of writing,

HEFFNER: Not about every…

MEYER: Okay…

HEFFNER: Not about every poor person, or every rich man. What about this nation?

MEYER: Our nation, I believe, has to take it very, very seriously. And I sense that we have been living off the wealth of the third world for decades. We are hated by some 5 million Latin Americans for that. We are seen as living IN a Democracy, but exporting support to Fascist regimes. And if you look, to a very large extent, at the United States’ involvement with Central
America, South America, this would be true. I’m not going to apologize about it. I feel horrible about it, I feel guilty about it, it does not fill me with pride as an American and I will do everything in my power to right that within the Democratic process, of course and with due process of law, because it is a major systematic issue of methodology and policy.

HEFFNER: And when we…

MEYER: There are forms for that.

HEFFNER: And when we come to the homeless in our own country again, are there…what kind of action do you see to be taken by a congregation?

MEYER: First of all I think that there is something very sick in the society, almost an obscenity, that the fact that there are so many homeless in the United States of America is an obscenity. Not a sin. It’s worse that that, it’s an obscenity. There is no possible reason that is acceptable that there are so many homeless. There is no possible reason to explain away the hungry in the United States of America. This is your fault, this is my fault, this is everybody’s fault who are watching this program or are listening to it. And we can…do we have the wherewithal to stop this? To do away with it? And to take the proper action on the federal, on the state level, on the city level on the township level, on the private sector level, and in every synagogue and church as well as every mosque as well as every Masonic temple, Elks or Moose club, or whatever fraternal organizations? Wherever human beings…I mean, this can be stopped, it must be stopped if we want to avoid what I believe is going to happen in ten years. Because if these people are so angry, now we’re talking about 40 or 50 million Americans who don’t have enough to eat and who have not very good working conditions to say the least. If they get the wrong leader, or for them the right leader, God help us in five or ten years.

HEFFNER: That’s very clear to you, isn’t it? Why is it not to other leaders of other congregations?

MEYER: Because I don’t think they’re very interested in looking at it. It depends on what your life experience has been like, Dick. Half of my life I’ve lived abroad. I’ve see the glorious wealth of Buenos Aires go up in flames. I’ve see the Park Avenues burn down. We think it’s impossible. We’re terribly naïve. Frightfully naïve and the clock is ticking quite quickly. Not because I’m a revolutionary, not because I’m a…not because I’m a fellow traveler. But because this is what the real message of Judaism is about. Equality, the possibility of living and let live…but you see, HELPING to live and let live. You see living and let live is fine, it’s a fair attitude and doesn’t require any exigencies on my part. I don’t have to let live. I want to live and HELP you to live, because you may need my help. And if we understand that, then we will begin to capture some of the greatness and some of the beauty of the glorious ideas that made our country…not only ideas, of course, but actions that made our country at one time in the world. We’re not that now. Some people may think that we walk tall and have found our self-esteem. Just travel enough around the world and it will suggest that it’s not so.

HEFFNER: Rabbi Meyer, I so much appreciate your coming here today. The message is obviously a very important one. I want to continue this discussion, continue this theme, and you taught me now to use the phrase that I began with. Thank you again very much.