Friday, June 09, 2006

Struggling for Judaism

I want to expand my Wednesday comments on the significance of Rabbi Marshall Meyer‘s achievements in Argentina.

Wikipedia has this to say:“ Rabbi Meyer founded and led Comunidad Bet El, a congregation that became a model of many other Conservative synagogues both in Argentina and Latin America. The congregation established its own day-school. During the years of the military regime of 1976-1982, Rabbi Meyer became a strong critic of the military government and its violations of human rights. He worked to save the lives of hundreds of people that were being persecuted by the regime and he visited prisoners in jails, among them the renowned journalist, Jacobo Timerman, who dedicated his book, Prisoner Without A Name, Cell Without A Number, to the rabbi, who "brought solace to Jewish, Christian and atheist prisoners".
When democracy returned to Argentina Rabbi Meyer returned to his native country in 1984 and accepted the position of rabbi at Congregation Bnai Jeshurun in New York City, with the mission of reviving the congregation.
Between 1984 and 1993, Bnai Jeshurun became a thriving liberal community that attracted thousands of Jewish people. The challenging theology espoused by Rabbi Meyer, the spiritually uplifting religious services, an agenda that emphasized social action as a central part of the synagogue’s principles, led to the rapid growth of the congregation, which became a model for many other synagogues in the United States. He died in 1993”

I find this story fascinating. In a time when every Jewish apparatchik cannot yada-yada enough on the importance of reviving Jewish life and slow the horrendous rate of intermarriage, Rabbi Meyer managed to do this not once, but 3 times, Argentina, other countries in Latin America, the upper West Side. Each time he used the SAME formula: a spiritually uplifting service in Hebrew (read Carlebachian) & social action (read political and humanitarian goals that required struggle, hard work, and in Argentina big- time courage and fearlessness). I think it was the combo that made the formula work; neither singing nor political action would have worked in isolation.

I want to focus on small part of this complex formula…the struggle. In general it can be argued that what makes a life meaningful is the struggle to achieve a goal, not the goal itself. The day you have your ton of money is the day money becomes uninteresting. In the same way a religious community flourishes when there is something to fight for and someone to fight against, an outside that is pushing the other way. It is one of the main reasons why Orthodoxy is so meaningful and successful. The difficulties involved in being religious are not in general a negative but a positive. Denominations that make it too easy, that have no difficulties and no struggles lose members. Witness the decline of the Episcopal Church. The struggle for chosen goals enables both the individual and the collective self to coalesce, and creates purpose and meaning .

What I admire about Rabbi Meyer is that he didn’t create an inside group by demonizing the outside, ‘der trefe velt’. The issues were always real: the struggle against fascism, injustice, poverty, war, states of affairs that somehow always exist in abundance. In a time when so many Jews have turned right politically, any branch of Jewish life that adopted the Meyer formula, including the requirement of knowing how to read Hebrew, (remember it’s supposed to be difficult), would have a substantive, differentiated and attractive answer to the question ‘Why be JEWISH?’

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