Words and Actions

My drama, like everyone’s, goes on upstairs, in the head. And I don’t think you can write the drama of the mind. All you have are the things people do. It’s always about what they do. Zia Haider Rahman

The people I admire most are those who translate their beliefs into action. Knowing and thinking is not enough in my book, nor are the words I write. Yet I am as guilty as anyone in failing to meet this standard.

From my first encounter during the Free Speech Movement while I was a graduate student at Berkeley, to the years not long after when this country was at war in Viet Nam, my beliefs were not followed by deeds. Instead, I stood by to complete my dissertation and teach my classes, while all around me my friends, students, and colleagues were out on the streets protesting.

The life of the nameless narrator of Zia Haider Rahman’s recent novel, In the Light of What We Know, was not unlike mine. It’s true that I’ve lived as someone who stands aside, choices determined by the sweep of ease and opportunity—and the corollary of standing by is not participating.

So it was that I was deeply impressed with what I learned about a man by the name of Andy Bachman, who lived and worked in the affluent Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn. Andy Bachman was a much-loved Rabbi at a Reform Congregation that drew more than a thousand families, including some of the well-known writers who live in the area.

To everyone’s surprise, Rabbi Bachman recently resigned from his congregation and his other Jewish obligations. He said he wanted to help the poor, regardless of their religion.

“I think that I deliver really good and really inspiring sermons about social justice, but is that really enough. It’s crazy to thank that’s enough. In order to maintain my sense of integrity and to keep the flame burning strongly about my commitments, I knew it was time to step away.”

Insuring justice and acting to preserve it are long-standing Jewish traditions. Bachman no longer felt he really was doing that. And he didn’t feel leaving his congregation was abandoning Judaism. Rather he was simply going to express it in a different way.

Like Rabbi Bachman, Simone Weil is another individual who put their convictions into practice. Weil graduated from the prestigious Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris, became a professor of philosophy and teacher at a number of schools throughout France. But that was not enough.

She worked as a laborer among the working class at factories in France. While there she conducted classes for the workers. She did the same with each of the farm families where she lived, harvesting the crops, milking the cows, cleaning up the barns etc.

She said, “From the moment that I act, I make myself exist….What I am is defined by what I can do."

Weil felt that hard labor is the truest road to knowledge, not the academic world in which she excelled. And so, like Andy Bachman, she “resigned” from her academic profession to devote her life to the plight of the working class. She believed it demanded the best efforts of each of us.

She also believed that physical work was important for an intellectual, “lest the mind become all too taken with itself, all too removed from the concrete realities of everyday life, the burdens that rest upon the overwhelming majority of the earth’s population.”

Both Andy Bachman and Simone Weil are among those individuals who serve as models of intelligent activism for me. It wasn’t sufficient for Weil to worry or feel compassion for the poor, nor was it enough for Andy Bachman to preach the importance of justice.

Rather what was required was acting in accordance with their convictions, even if it meant depriving themselves of ordinary satisfactions.


Linda said...

Wonderful - with two very good models. I have heard of Simone Weil, didn't she come to a tragic end?

That kind of action takes a whole lot more courage than most of us have. Where do they get it? What is it that shapes that kind of character?

Richard Katzev said...

Yes, it is said Weil literally starved herself to death. She managed to return to London to join De Gaulle's government in exile there, came down with tuberculosis and soon thereafter died, still a young, vibrant woman.

I don't know the sources of that kind of life are from. It's a terrific question. I've written a lot about it, in two essays in one of my books. I will continue to ponder the question.