Walter isn’t ready for the day right now.
Two months on from the October 7th massacre, many Diaspora Jews feel torn between a hardcore need for self-care and urgings by some Jewish community leaders to continue the work of social justice as a form of healing. Those community leaders are wrong.
After the greatest mass murder of Jews and the accompanying greatest rise in antisemitism since the Holocaust, the world is as different post-10/7 as it was the day after 9/11. It took a long time for some New Yorkers to let the impact of that day settle in. I still remember a woman complaining loudly on the E train later that afternoon that the train would be skipping the station she needed in lower Manhattan—even though that station had been crushed underneath two falling, 110-story skyscrapers hours before.
It’s like that right now in the Jewish community. Psychologically and emotionally, we’ve all been horrendously impacted by 10/7. But some of us refuse to acknowledge that the world is different now—and at least for right now, so are we.
The different streams of denominational Judaism diverge in the weight they each give to the 613 Jewish mitzvot (commandments)–individually and as a whole. But we all feel a pull towards tikkun olam—engaging in efforts to help heal the world. For many liberal Jews (and that’s liberal about the commandments, not politics), tikkun olam is at the center of our Jewish identities. That’s why we engage so deeply in social justice.
The Talmudic tractate Pirkei Avot, often loosely translated as Ethics of the Fathers (it’s really Chapters of), contains Rabbi Hillel’s famous teaching (Pirkei Avot 1:14):
“If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am for myself alone, what am I? And if not now, when?”
Jews for centuries have engaged in tikkun olam with those words echoing in their heads. But the social justice, allyship, and advocacy efforts of liberal Jews throughout the 20th and 21st centuries have been very specifically a response to this urging by Hillel to be a proud Jew who also stands for others and does so right now if not sooner. And if we feel lazy about it, we also love to give ourselves a moral kick in the can with Pirkei Avot 2:16:
“He [Rabbi Tarfon] used to say: It is not your duty to finish the work, but neither are you at liberty to neglect it…”
These are bedrock Jewish moral targets and I don’t question their necessity. I do, however, question their timeline. When the largest loss of Jewish life in eight decades happens, how long does Now last? Is there a reasonable answer to When? How wide does our tent have to be to ensure that we aren’t for ourselves alone? And what defines—and doesn’t define—neglecting the work?
Because a lot of things have to happen in this particular Now beyond the work of tikkun olam. Or to reframe that work, right now, surely tikkun olam must begin with the healing of us, our Jewish selves, first. After 9/11, it took years for some New Yorkers to feel like themselves again. Years to move forward. Years to stop feeling terrified. Some of us accomplished that by leaving New York and never looking back. (See: me in Chicago for the past nearly 21 years.) Some still haven’t stopped hurting. Some still haven’t found a way to forgive. And none of us will ever forget.
Such is the world for Jews after 10/7. It’s going to take time—a lot of time. We’re all broken in some way. Some of us will get our feet back under us faster than others. Some will need years. Some won’t ever be the same. And the work and the time and the journey that will be required to recover and heal as best we can are not things to be taken lightly. Yet in some quarters within our community, we are expected to pick up the task of social justice and stand with others who right now are still letting us know they don’t value our allyship—or in many instances, our very lives—at all.
So if not now, when? At this particular moment, it’s okay to answer with Later. Later when I am able. Later when I am healed. Later when I can find a way to trust others again. Later when others value my Jewish humanity again. Later when I am no longer terrified. Later when I get my wholeness back. Later when I am at least less broken. But right now I need to be for myself, so that I can continue to be here at all.
And I don’t want to be alone right now, but I know I have my Jewish community to comfort me. And until I feel able to stand with others in the wider world, I can stand with my community. There’s obviously an outstanding need for Jews to embrace each other in community right now. And there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, it what’s we should have been doing all along.
And if your journey to healing is so fraught that you can’t find a way back to wider allyship, your life, and health, and healing are most important. If after 10/7, your answer has to be Not Anymore, there’s nothing wrong with that, either. As Jews, we are meant to do our best, but we are not meant to be martyrs. There are enough toxic calls to martyrdom in the world right now. And there are enough Jewish hands and Jewish hearts to take up the slack while we’re all on our differential healing timelines.
For the sake of self-healing, for the sake of community healing, Now is going to take as long as it takes. It’s okay to let it.
I’m an #OpenlyAutistic gay, Hispanic, urbanist, Disney World fan, New York native, politically independent, Jewish blogger in Chicago. I believe in social justice, big cities, and public transit. I write words and raise money for nonprofits. I’ve written this blog since 2005. And counting...
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