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Is Activism Always The Answer?

Not long ago I had to get an MRI for a condition that might have been serious. It wasn’t; I’m fine. But I didn’t know that when I pulled up to the radiology building and saw it was on Activist Street. A message, I wondered, for someone facing mortality? If time is limited, then I should throw myself into political activism, dedicate the rest of my life to fighting for the change I’d always wanted? Or maybe the message was the opposite. If time was precious, then my activist days were through and I should spend my limited moments in study and music and song and friendship. Exit Activist Street.

Anyway, the MRI was clear. Mortality waited (at least for now), and the whole episode was a pretty good lesson for balance, a reminder that the call for “If not now, when” is easily harmonized with the line from Psalms “Be still before the Lord. Wait for God.”

But now things seem so fraught with urgency. Practically overnight, the staid, suburban, blessedly boring American Jewish world I grew up in collapsed in partisan rancor. Neutrality vanished. Rabbinic colleagues I like and respect – not exactly gangster types – are getting arrested for demonstrating, and the act seems less radical than logical, a sign of the times. Formerly apolitical or consensus driven Jewish organizations like Jewish Family Services or the ADL are leading demonstrations against the government. Leaders at synagogues and Jewish schools are deciding that suddenly the only path to meaning is political activism.

And it’s not just Trump. The upcoming 50th anniversary of the Six Day War has injected a similar urgency in our Israel conversations. We feel as if Israel is on the precipice, teetering right now between continuing as a democracy or tipping over into – who knows what, but the time to stop it (or push it) is now. “Do something” is in the air; it’s becoming our community’s primary strategic principle, and it’s colonizing more and more of our human interactions. Last week a friend wrote me “we [he met men of a certain age] joined Facebook to get in touch with high school girlfriends. Now we use it to bash Trump and Bibi.”

I get it. Shortly after Trump was elected I wrote a piece about returning to exile, imagining time in the wilderness as painful, but probably necessary and possibly refreshing. But this was before the Muslim ban, before an alt-right apologist became our president’s most important advisor, before the crude, bullying attempts to silence the media and intimidate the courts, before the nasty, lying, destructive tweets became a daily flurry. We have to do something, and if not now, when? I understand. But I’m not entirely convinced. Crisis times also call for study and contemplation. Nothing in Trump’s America negates those healing realms that exist in spaces beyond partisan politics – music, friendship, prayer. Nowadays I find myself at the corner of Activist and Apathy Street, not really sure where to turn.

A few weeks ago my teacher Yehuda Kurtzer taught the famous gatekeeper section from Kafka’s The Trial. It’s a devastating tale about a man who waits at the gate of the law for years because the gatekeeper tells him it’s not quite the right time to step through. He waits, ages, grows feeble and embittered, but never forces the issue. Finally, weak and close to death, he hears the gatekeeper tell him that this was a gate made only for him, but now he’s closing it. It’s too late. As Yehuda pointed out, this isn’t merely an “if not now, when” text, a sermon about seizing the moment. It’s about regret and aging and missed opportunities. But it occurs to me it might also contain a cautionary note about activism, or at least the urgent temptation to combat social injustice. After all, the guy is stuck in front of the gateway to the law, and the equally frustrating novel where this scene takes place is about a man who tries, but can’t break through his own legal system. Maybe Kafka is telling us that there are other gates, unconnected to law or politics or courts. Gates of the spirit, gates of contemplation.

Last weekend I visited an old friend who’d recently retired from teaching and now runs an artist collective in his backyard. A mandolin player plucked out the notes to a Bach piece, and we sipped locally brewed beer and roamed among brightly colored abstract paintings and odd-shaped sculptures. We talked about our new endeavors and took in the sun and the music (it helps that this episode takes place in San Diego). He explained his life-long love of the arts, and how much pleasure he received from bringing talented artists together. But then he shook his head. “I don’t know,” he said. “These days …” And the words trailed off. I was about to finish his sentence – say something like “these days, what good does any of this do,” but he suddenly continued. “You know,” he said. “Sometimes art is resistance. Music, paintings. Food. Other realms.” I nodded. Sometimes it is. Or sometimes it’s all we’ve got.

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