The Other Culture War

Galileo and the Telescope
Fresco by Giuseppe Bertini, 1858

The Other Culture War

People live and die by ideas.  That’s not the only thing we live and die by, but ideas are big in the lives of all of us. 

For the last 100 years or so, trend-setting thinkers have lived, loved, written and read, gone up the hill to the peaks of their lives and down again, under the following idea: the universe, and everything in it, obey the same laws that govern mechanisms.  It’s generally taken for granted that we conscious beings, who do have purposes, can find neither recognition nor support for our hopes in the laws of nature.

These views have come to prevail among educated people all over the world since the scientific revolution of the 17th century.  As the mathematical and experimental tools for investigating nature became more explosively powerful, it seemed reasonable to let the investigations get to the end of their string.  Meanwhile, philosophers adjusted their views accordingly.

But the end of the string is now in sight.  How so?  Anomalies, data inconsistent with the mechanistic worldview, are piling up.  What kinds of anomalies?   

For one thing, people pronounced clinically dead, devoid of brain activity, come back to life after lengthy intervals, with brains unimpaired and reports — vivid, accurate and well-confirmed — of what they have seen in the operating room while their bodies were lying dead and cold under a sheet.

Precognition is being found to occur under controlled conditions, with predictions confirmed too often to be discounted as chance.  (I’m not psychic, but I’ve had precognitive dreams, and I’ll bet you have too.)

On film, I’ve seen animal communicators change the behavior of animals they’ve met for the first time — standing motionless at some distance from the animal — by mentally entering into the animal’s point of view.

I know a case of the latter kind that I’ll share with you. A friend in Maine  had a horse who’d stopped eating and was losing a lot of weight.  She telephoned the local horse psychic.  He came over and said that the horse was afraid she’d be sold.  So she was trying to make herself unsaleable. 

         “Don’t worry,” my friend told her horse.  “We won’t sell you.”  Right away, the horse starting eating again. In Washington County, they don’t worry about the metaphysics.  They get the problem solved.

So the news is out, all over town.  The materialists are wrong.  There’s more to the world than blind, unfeeling stuff and the mechanistic forces that move it around.

What does this change?  Well nothing much, so long as the materialist paradigm retains its cultural dominance.  How does it manage to do that? 

On this week’s Victor Zammit blog, David Lorimer, founder of The Galileo Commission (named after the 17th century scientist who couldn’t get his colleagues to look through his telescope) explains the all-too-simple methods by which the current scientific establishment manages to hold on to its cultural power.  They pressure university administrators, editors of professional journals, directors of educational television programs and other outlets, threatening them with loss of reputation and ridicule.  Self-described “skeptics” are also on hand to debate serious, well-credentialed researchers into paranormal phenomena.  The skeptics arrive armed with their one, all-purpose refutation.  It goes like this: sure in advance that the findings of their debate opponents must be hogwash, the skeptics haven’t stooped so low as to read their published reports!  The strategy Galileo encountered hasn’t gone out of style.  Refutation by refusal to look at the evidence.  This isn’t science and it isn’t skepticism.  It’s dogmatism.

How long all that can go on is hard to forecast, but to me it looks as if the towers are about to crash.  Even now, you can hear them swaying and creaking in the wind.

So what’s next?  From what I’ve seen so far, the pioneers of the next paradigm are already taking refuge in the metaphysics of monistic idealism.  That’s the view that there is only one substance (one real thing) and it is Consciousness.  Consciousness will be the postulated cause of the Big Bang and everything that’s happened since.  So, in place of the present, downward reductionism, where all is matter, we’ll soon hear of an upward reductionism where all is Mind, there is only one Mind and everything else is to be seen as unreal.

Is that the right view?  What’s the answer?  Is there only one Cosmic Mind?  Is matter an illusion?  Is individuality an illusion?

Well, who’re you gonna believe, the next big metaphysical paradigm or your lyin’ eyes?

In fact, we live in a rough world, with pandemics, sticks and stones, and semi-automatics in it.  And you and I are distinct individuals with different histories, styles, personalities and opinions.

Well then, if metaphysical materialism and metaphysical idealism both erase major features of reality, what should the next big view be?  Ah, that’s the real question.  And it’s fascinating and wide open.  Let me suggest some possibilities.

Ideas might be seen to be as causally significant as epidemics, advances in technology or economic instruments.  We might start paying more attention to deliberately stated reasons and less to supposed unconscious causes.  Cynicism about motives will be correct in some instances but might no longer be mistaken for across-the-board “realism” about human purposes as such.  Good and evil might return to our thinking, once again recognized as real and distinct — not discounted as “projections”  presumed to mask unconscious forces.  Despair might begin to seem premature, since we don’t yet know everything.  Truth might gain in importance.  Love might even be taken seriously.

There’ll be a lot of work to do, as we clear the rubble of a discredited paradigm and think again how to orient ourselves in the landscape of our lives.  Emotional wisdom, nuance, and subtleties might find themselves woven into the new realism.

Ladies, stay on the case!

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Confessions

Abbie in Paris in Confessions, “Beginning-Wise”

Confessions

Last night I was trying to cope with a digestive disaster and wondering what on earth could have caused it, since it didn’t seem to have the usual obvious connection with food.  Two explanations presented themselves.

First, a possible reaction to the second Pfizer vaccine dose.  Digestive turmoil is among the listed reactions, although it’s rare.  The second, which Jerry suggested: emotional? 

Hmm. What could have brought on an emotional reaction that my mind couldn’t handle and so transferred to my body?  Yesterday I was going through the copy editing of Confessions of a Young Philosopher, my book that’s scheduled for publication this year.  It’s been an experience.

I’d forgotten the impact of this book.  Reading it now, I’m quite fascinated, and (forgive me) bowled over by the talent playing over every page.  Every sentence isn’t gold, but every page is. 

Let me try to explain the title word “confession.”  St Augustine, in 4th century North Africa, wrote the first book bearing that title.  Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote another, in 18th-century France.  Books in that genre show two things simultaneously: first, the subjective development of the writer reliving key incidents and phases from his actual life and second, the progress of a life motivated by one contending worldview after another. 

As the author gets disillusioned with his original worldview and proceeds to the next, the confession becomes at the same time the memoir of the author’s culture or era.  So a confession portrays the writer’s search for himself and search for truth in his age. 

A highly-regarded Australian philosopher, who’d read Confessions in an earlier, less-well-developed version, drew these comparisons with Augustine and Rousseau and wrote to ask me,    

         “Has any woman done this?” 

Every scene in Confessions is set out in rich, dramatic strokes with this defining feature of the plotline: key details are also landmarks of the thought-world I was moving through.  Europe, America, youthful lives caught in their earnest tragedies, religions and irreligions, communism, the “impossible position” of the Jews, race and its complications, man/woman seduction and eternal love, and what it meant to be a Jewish girl venturing into the hyper-masculine precincts of philosophy.

What happens in the book is that the plotline unfolds simultaneously at ground level and in the world-of-ideas.  Think of the way the Bible tells you simultaneously what’s actually happening and what God thinks about it.  Confessions has its own double plotline: the real happening and its conceptual mirroring or shadow.  That’s the genre of a confession.

But the intensities are at one point dirge-like, at another full of frantic effort to find one’s footing and not be deceived.  The search is the one we all face:

how to live out the promise of one’s life.

The book is in three parts: I Beginning-Wise, II Analytic and III Another Paradigm.  So far, I’ve read through Part II.  There the writer meets a set of factors that close off the promise of her life.  The promise is not closed off by fashionable attitudes or emotional-level traumas.  Rather it’s as if a competent surveyor had explored every exit and found each one barred.

That’s a point hard to prove and, I suppose, many just won’t get it.  Many readers will have suggestions to propose to the girl I was, quick fixes of every kind, such remedies as the culture offered then.  (That’s what it’s like to tell your troubles to a poor listener.)

For me at the time, however, palliatives couldn’t mask the underlying realities.  I knew I was foutu.  (That’s French.  Never mind what it means.)

So all that prepares what I’m about to read in Part III, Another Paradigm.  Or would have read, had my innards not gone to the nether regions.  In Part III, because I can’t see a way out of a landscape marked by “no exit” signs, I enter into a gnostic worldview.  What’s that?

Actually, for individuals and for cultures, it’s a common method of hoped-for escape.  The gnostic views the actual world as bad — a delusive place — created by a bad divinity who is a deceiver.  Gnosis means knowledge.  The gnostic claims to have secret knowledge by means of which he or she can tear off the veil that conceals the true world of spirit.  Sometimes (as with “libertine gnosticism”) the adept will break the norms of the actual world in order to hasten the advent of the hidden world of spirit.  There are gnostic cults, entire gnostic systems of belief, and utopian political views that are recognizably gnostic.

According to philosopher of history Eric Voegelin, people often cannot bear the strain of life in the actual world and – seeking a flawless world – leap imaginatively into that alternate reality.  In Heaven on Earth: The Varieties of the Millennial Experience, historian Richard Landes shows how these modes of escapism have intruded sizeably in real history.  Historians tend to downplay these phases, perhaps embarrassed by their apparent irrationality.  Hans Jonas, in The Gnostic Religion, points out the similarity of contemporary existentialism to the gnosticism of the ancient world.

What ought I to have done, instead of what I did do?  Should I have prayed honestly and fervently asked the God I believe in now to open a way for me?

The peculiar thing is that, though I don’t at present agree with the last-ditch atheism I adhered to back then, my deeper suspicion about that situation does not take me to theistic remedies for the girl I was.

I might be wrong, but my present hypothesis is that God did not want me to find an exit.  He preferred that I live through the gnostic calamities of Part III and come back to tell the world about them.

From our false or mistaken views

we can sometimes extract the real thing.

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Are We Seeing a Culture Shift?

Stormy Weather, Pas de Calais, c.1870
Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot

Are We Seeing a Culture Shift?

Dates vary, when people try to characterize a phase of culture, but for (let us say) the past 50 years, opinion-shapers in our culture have functioned under the aegis of the following influences:  post-structuralism, deconstruction, post-modernism and the marxism of Antonio Gramsci.

Here are some tendencies shared by all of these views, which bear on our speeches, writings and doings — our expressive acts:

(1) There is no objective reality against which to check our expressive acts.

(2) Claims to express objective truth, impartial justice or universal values of any kind are suspect; what expressive acts really convey are group agendas whose purpose is to dominate other groups.

(3) The conscious intentions of individuals are irrelevant to decoding expressive acts.

What does this mean for you and me, practically?  Well, if you say or do anything that can be construed as serving the agenda of a group labeled dominant, you can’t get off by claiming that you intended no injury to anyone oppressed by that group.  Why not?  Because intentions don’t count (cf #3 above).

Of course, once you topple truth, it follows that anything goes!  So the regime of blacklisting can rove unopposed down the highways and byways where opinions are shaped.  People will join up with denouncers to forestall being denounced themselves.

Meanwhile however, I’ve been discerning a cultural shift.  Before I describe it, what about prevalent claims #1, #2 and #3?  Anything wrong with them?   

Yeah, there is.

Let’s start with the first, that there’s no reality check on human assertions, spoken, written or enacted physically.

Nobody who drives a car believes this.

Look at how few accidents there are, compared to the number of drivers!

As soon as we get on the road, we calculate the intentions of other drivers, whether or not they signal, also their degree of control over their vehicles, their distance from us, their speed relative to ours, and the intricate maze of converging lanes and road signs.  No reality check?  Pu-leese.  Or you say that the driver’s adjustments will be mostly unconscious?  Okay. Mind if I wait for the designated driver?

What about #2 and #3, which claim the irrelevance of the agent’s consciously-formed intentions to any assessment of the work?  Let’s start with aesthetic intentions.  Corot was a nineteenth-century French landscape painter.  The surfaces of the Corot canvass, coated with paint mixed with his own recipe for varnish, had a luminosity that was immensely pleasing.  New York’s Metropolitan Museum held a Corot exhibit some years ago, which I attended.  Figure my shock when I entered the exhibit only to see room after room of flat, prosaic, grey paintings hanging on the walls. 

That evening, I met an artist at a gathering and asked him,

         “What happened to Corot at the Met?”

         “Oh,” he said, shaking his head and raising his hands helplessly.  “They cleaned off the varnish!”

         “How could they do that?” 

If the artist’s intentions don’t count,

 why not?

Why do I think that such a pervasive phase of the culture is about to change?  With high ocean waves still chopping, and dark clouds overhead, what allows me to claim, “Land ho!”

I subscribe to The New York Review of Books, so that I can keep up with what the beautiful people are supposed to think nowadays. For the first time in a long time, I saw indications in the March and April issues that the recognitions of truth, artistic intentions and philosophy’s impact on culture are each making a comeback.

Thus, in the March 25 issue, philosopher John Gray reviews Witcraft: The Invention of Philosophy in English by Jonathan Rée.  Rée’s central claim is that philosophy is an art, an expressive act to which truth is irrelevant.  Nothing new about such a claim.  It’s entirely in keeping with the Zeitgeist. The more striking then, Gray’s flat-out, deadpan denial of Rée’s claim.  Gray points out that two contradictory views of the soul have been held by different philosophers: Plato’s that the soul survives death and Epicurus’s, that the soul dies with the body.  These “are rival doctrines for addressing what happens to the human mind when the body dies, not different traditions in art.”

I know that’s too obvious to need saying.  However, in the current climate of opinion, it needs saying.

Now in the April 8th issue, here is Cathleen Schine’s review of Antiquities, the new novel by Cynthia Ozick.  Schine has written a long, appreciative celebration of a talent infused with lifelong, personal, writerly purpose.

How did an intelligent life of sustained creative intention get acknowledged in a fashionable review?  How did a novel, about an individual aspiring to integrate his memories, get reviewed in a manner respectful of the writer’s aim and achievement in writing it?

In the same issue, I see Adam Kirsch’s review of a three-volume reissue of Ernst Cassirer’s The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, newly retranslated by Steve G. Lofts.  Kirsch’s review is a masterly exploration of the changing place of Cassirer in our culture, his rivalry with Heidegger and the existentialists, which became a life and death struggle, and – without irony! – what Cassirer meant by his claim that the expressive forms in culture trace a progression from confusion to clarity.

Suppose (enlarging on these few clues) we were to grant my supposition that the culture is in the process of turning back toward a common search for truth, with self-understanding a shake-out from that search.  What would such a shift mean?

It means:

You have to love life enough to grapple with it.

You can’t just flirt with it.

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The Right Way to Act

Nazi soldiers round up Jews for arrest during Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. 
National Archives and Records Administration

The Right Way to Act

An essay of mine with that title, excerpted from my Good Look at Evil, is now posted on academia.edu.  It’s on the question of how to conduct oneself during one’s Holocaust.  The title is meant ironically, of course.  My aim was to disarm the many accusations that writers on the topic of the Holocaust have leveled against its victims

What did the victims do that is deemed so wrong?  They were too compliant.  [But a gun against the head is powerfully persuasive.]  They were insufficiently heroic.  [Hey, armchair moralizer!  I wanna see how heroic you get when, by Nazi order, you’re naked.] 

And their murderous tormentors?  Do they get criticized?  Oddly, the same critics who fault the victims often lean toward exonerating their killers: those poor fellows are just you and me in altered circumstances.  We are all guilty.  Extenuating circumstances encircle us all, too numerous to enumerate.  People are just social roles, with legs on them.  You can’t tell the players without a playbill.

And blah blah blah.  Are there any confusions and obfuscations still unsowed?  We’ll get right on it.  We’re the cultured few!  We’re beautiful.

A serious question remains, how should one conduct oneself, if faced with the worst of moral challenges:

a seemingly endless sea of human malice?

The question is not a character test, per se.  For example, though I had (and still have) the highest opinion of my own parents, even as a child I did not think that they would do very well in a Holocaust.  They were complex people, well-read in a number of languages, able to detect subtleties in human interactions and far-flung implications among the opinions of the day.

But it’s a feature of cruelty that its motivations and methods are astonishingly simple.  Complex people can be quite undone by simple cruelty.

I have a rather complex mind and a sensibility that’s inconveniently receptive.  Given that standpoint, I don’t like to think how I would do in a Holocaust.

All this is leading up to telling you about the most extraordinary book that I read during the week we were away in California: Hassidic Tales of the Holocaust by Yaffa Eliach. (Hasidism is a sect within Judaism valuing personal devotion and piety more than intellectual attainments.)  Though Eliach’s book won a literary prize when it first appeared, I never see this book referred to in discussions of the Holocaust or other books on religious, ethical or cultural topics. 

Martin Buber did pioneer work in collecting and translating hasidic tales that had already been transmitted in that milieu for the last two hundred years.  What Yaffa Eliach did was much harder.  She went to her students at Brooklyn College, some of whom were the children of Holocaust survivors, met and interviewed their parents and people to whom she was referred through these initial contacts, collected the stories from their sources, verified them through dates and other evidences wherever possible, and recorded these first-hand accounts for posterity.  She is a good writer, an intelligent listener, and a dedicated commemorator.  She deserves much wider recognition than she has so far received.

She was also my colleague at Brooklyn College.  We served on one faculty committee together.  Some of her students would have been my students as well.  The first time I met her at a faculty reception, I recall asking her — about one of the tales in the book – whether she thought such a thing could actually have happened.  Her answer was commonsensical and well adapted to the naturalistic tone of my question.  Though I’d read the book through, the fact was that it made no deep impression on me at the time, and she could probably sense that.

To read certain books understandingly,

one has to be ready.

In the hasidic world, the tale is a primary teaching tool, conveying more than an abstract argument can.  By its example, it shows how people can bridge the distance between The World of Truth and our lives here on earth.  Once told, the listener is left free – in the silences beyond the tale — to ponder its implications.

In these tales, the Holocaust’s countless cruelties are not foregrounded.  The degradations and humiliations are not underscored.  They are the shadows in the background.  That “background” is large indeed, stretching from horizon to horizon.  However, the spotlight is elsewhere.

What is foregrounded?  The immensities of human devotion, loyalty and deathless love – right in the midst of moral devilishness and physical chaos.

Though almost every story contains a jewel-like teaching, I’ll tell just one that picks up the question with which we began: What’s the right way to act during one’s Holocaust?

There was a macabre ceremony that the S.S. conducted with its Jewish slave laborers when they returned at close of day, ragged, frozen, exhausted and starving.  They would be lined up to face their tormentors and required to shout, repeatedly and in unison, that the Nazi regime possessed the most respected race on the face of the earth and that the Jews were the most accursed race on earth.  While they shouted in that way, they would be beaten with rubber truncheons.

One of the prisoners, a secular-minded lawyer, befriended another prisoner, who was a revered Hasidic rabbi. 

         “How,” the lawyer asked the rabbi, “can you join in the diabolic choir?”  Before the rabbi could respond, the lawyer confided that he had managed to get hold of two cyanide capsules and – as the only way out of this inferno — was offering one of them to his rabbinic friend.

         “I will not be able to enter The World of Truth,” the rabbi responded, “and face my illustrious ancestors as a murderer, as one who has taken a life — even his own life.  Thank you, my friend, for your friendship.”

That very evening at the intolerable roll call, when the S.S. men asked their familiar question, “Who is the most respected race on earth?” an answer came roaring – again and again and again — out of the gathering dusk:

“The Jews! The Jews! The Jews!”

As the S.S. men ran forward to find the forbidden voice, they came upon the lifeless body of the lawyer, a last smile still visible on his face.

Here are two views of life, of love, of duty.  We can try to ponder, which is the greater?

Don’t answer too quickly.

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Book Matters

“Young Girl Reading”
Seymour Joseph Guy, 1877

Book Matters

The Blessing and the Curse: The Jewish People and Their Books in the Twentieth Century

By Adam Kirsch

This is an unusual book. Its author, Adam Kirsch, has combined skills rarely found together: poet, successful literary critic, academic administrator of the M.A. program in Jewish Studies at Columbia University, and thinker who shines a discerning light on the Jewish people’s pathway through time.

Here I’ll just mention the one other of Kirsch’s eleven books with which I’m freshly familiar, having read it this year: The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature. So far as I know, Jews are the only people who relate to their God primarily in and through human history. If you ask, What has that people been doing since the fall of the Second Temple in 70 CE?, in that book, Kirsch offers a well-tempered tour through the literary evidence.

The Blessing and the Curse raises the same question for the twentieth century. To get to answers, Kirsch again turns to the thing he knows best: writing.

The first section looks at assimilated European Jews of the period before the Second World War: figures like Franz Kafka and Arthur Schnitzler. If Jews tend to keep the link between past and future in view, these writers were living with some degree of awareness that their future was about to disappear! What they disclose is the cruel unnaturalness – the sheer wrongness – of such a prospect.

Had Kafka lived another thirty years after writing The Trial, he would have been deported to Auschwitz. Kirsch is not too fastidious to mention this – nor too “universal” a literary critic to note that Joseph K, the protagonist of whom Kafka writes that “one morning, without having done anything wrong, he was arrested,” lives in the condition of Kafka’s people. Their nameless “crime” could not be specified because it was only — that they were Jews!

When Kirsch assesses writers whose canvass is the Holocaust, because they lived through it — writers like Victor Klemperer, Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi – he makes a point I’ve not seen made before: these survivors were assimilated, Western European Jews. That’s why they survived! They came late to the ashes. The ones who lived and died inside a purely religious frame were from Eastern Europe. They died first.

Perhaps (and this is my suggestion, not Kirsch’s) if we want to know how it may have been for the ones who mostly didn’t survive, we might consult the Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust gathered by Yaffa Eliach or else Rabbinic Responsa of the Holocaust Era, tr. Robert Kirschner, where the questions asked by the pious of their rabbis, about how exactly to behave while being martyred, have been collected.

Next Kirsch turns to a group of twentieth-century American Jewish writers and zeroes in on their problematic. Most of them thought they needed to kick away the past – their parents, the old country and its fears — in order to become fully-free Americans. Of course, if the covenantal assignment includes the linking of past to future, there must be some vulgarity attached to that kind of disavowal. Cynthia Ozick, for whom “assimilation is not only ignoble but impossible,” appears to be the outstanding exception.

I know little about Israeli writers, which may be why Kirsch’s reflections on them in the next section were new to me. I suppose I’ve thought of them as bronzed, athletic and living in an integrated way, since in Israel one is “home” at last. There the surrounding dangers must be obvious and physical. But Kirsch detects a theme of homesickness that connects Israeli writers with their co-religionists abroad: in the course of the two thousand years previous to 1948, exile itself had become “home.” A nostalgia –coexisting oddly with a vivid awareness that one is home — imparts its own kind of suffering. Come to think of it, I too felt that when I was last in Israel. It’s quite head-spinning.

Also, when you have your own country to fight for, you forfeit the moral high ground of the perennial exile. In America, we have waited two hundred years to allow ourselves the luxury of remorse for having taken this continent. In Israel, the remorse coexists with the fight. Israeli writers underscore that double awareness.

The final section has the theologians, or anyway — since Judaism is fairly nondogmatic on theology — writers like Martin Buber and Abraham Joshua Heschel with their view from high. Since they are pretty different one from another, it would be daunting to try to offer generalizations about them as a group.

At no point has Adam Kirsch given us happy endings. He’s done better than that:

he gives us grounds to accept

an unfinished story.

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Sanctifying the Name

Renée Falconetti in “The Passion of Joan of Arc,” 1928
Carl Theodor Dreyer, Director

Sanctifying the Name

Christians have the concept of martyrdom, from a term of Greek  derivation that means witness.  The martyr refuses to renounce her faith despite all that the world can throw against it.

The corresponding Jewish figure does something called “sanctifying the Name.”  God is sometimes simply called “the Name” (Hashem).  A worthy action sanctifies the Name, whereas acting in an unworthy manner desecrates the Name.  To suffer for God’s sake – where the alternative would desecrate the Name – is not enviable.  Nobody seeks it.  But it is a kind of spiritual promotion.

To illustrate: a midrash (teaching story) has Moses asking God,

         “Who now [in 135 CE] best understands me?”

         “Akiba,” God replies and takes Moses across the centuries to where he can see Akiba, who is just then being flayed alive by the Romans.  “You see,” says God, pointing him out.  “That is how I treat My friends.”

         “That’s why You have so few of them,” Moses mutters.

The story is ironic in the Jewish manner, but its meaning is straightforward.  Akiba is God’s friend!  On the ladder of human aspiration, it doesn’t get much better than that.

Last week, I wrote here about a distance healing but neglected to mention one thing that the healer noticed.  It was a “wound” I’d suffered that hurt me deeply.  She called it “an ambush.”  As I replayed the recording of what she sensed during that hour, the word ambush stood out.  Suddenly I knew what she meant.  In my whole life, only one experience had that character.

Readers who’ve followed this column for a few years will remember that I’d been the target (though not the only target) of a rejected-sexual-predator-turned-harasser.  Nowadays, this drama plays out in many settings.  In the case I’d lived through, it took place within an institution designed to serve as God’s home.  As to the identity of the bad actor, the leadership had other testimony, and would not have needed mine in order to proceed to take proper action.  Nevertheless, over time I was prodded to come forward and name names.  Eventually, once I learned that other women had been targeted too, I did decide to make this a fight in earnest – no matter the cost in time, energy, and health.   The leadership did finally oust the predator.  At the time it did so, I was suddenly accused of putting the institution at risk of a lawsuit.  I don’t know who the plaintive was supposed to be.  The predator had no grounds to sue.  I had a long track record of supporting the institution and had been working in this instance to protect it.

The details of the leadership’s accusation against me were loftily withheld, but its betrayal of my trust hurt me profoundly and continued to do so long after the predator had been ousted and a new regime put in place.  No apology to me was ever tendered, nor any word of appreciation for my long fight – which had been for the honor of all concerned.  Rather, the leadership’s parting act of disrespect toward me replicated the predator’s disrespect, in another key. 

So the wound remained and festered.

Women do not come forward because the wounds from doing so cut deeper than the predator’s original ones.  The predator operates in broad daylight, often against several women simultaneously, because he counts on this reluctance.

As it happens, I am a rather sensitive soul.  If you kick me around with a heavy boot, my body and mind will know it.  Over the year following this acrid victory, I sought costly cures for the physical and mental symptoms that hung on.  They did not work.  Eventually, a book on post-traumatic stress plus guidance from Martin Buber’s hasidic masters on how-to-forgive-in-the-absence-of- atonement did help.  Finally, I felt released from the kind of experience that intuitively I had known how to dodge through all the sinuosities of professional life, but had not managed to escape in a place where protection should have been a given!

By now, I’d come to think of all that as water under the bridge.  For me to learn that the wound was still treatable — and therefore noticeable — had the effect of reviving the whole story as an unsolved problem.

What did I think about it?  Was the problem “masculinity”?  These yin and yang traits, which may be psychical and spiritual as much as physical, can be lived on a high or a low level.  In the case I’ve been describing, the men had lived their masculinity on a low level.

That said, how am I supposed to live my own verdict?  “That’s life, girl”?  Hey, I’m a philosopher, but not a stoic.  I also have a serious relation with a personal God — who is not just “Cosmic Energy.”  Now I’ve been reminded of the wound’s continued presence.  So what’s left?  Is it enough just to accept the hurt and keep on hurting?

I’m a person who likes happy endings.  I won’t even read Kafka.  For me, shoulder-shrugging isn’t sincere.  It’s another name for the problem itself.  How do you cure what is simply uncured?

I prayed about it.  After all, God must see and suffer many such desecrations of the Name.  How does God handle it?

As I asked these questions, I seemed to float upwards consciously into a sort of congruence with God in this respect. And I saw … what?  It was something that caused me to laugh out loud.

I had suffered, to sanctify the Name!

It was a promotion.

Take heart, girls.  It’s a promotion.

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Healing at a Distance?

"The Song and the Space," Arthur Polonsky
“The Song and the Space,” Arthur Polonsky

Healing at a Distance?

The other day I had a distance healing.  Of what? you might ask. 

Was it a psychological problem?  That’s why we have therapists.  Was it a physical problem?  We have medically-approved treatments for those, backed by statistical studies.

Actually, I do have a physical problem, which interferes with one of my favorite, low-cost things to do: namely, walk.  In search of medically-approved treatments, I have trekked from one well-accredited New York neuropathist to the next, leaving his or her office with a diagnosis – hey, it’s neuropathy! – and a bill. 

In recent years, an improbable “accident” – a tip volunteered by a stranger at an airport — led us to an experimental treatment, from which I’ve noticed incremental improvements over time.   However, it is available at just one clinic in California.  That’s a long and expensive trip, which we take periodically.  This past year, the California trips were delayed by the pandemic.

That’s not my only reason to try a distance healing.  In addition to my impatience at the prolonged wait, I’m always curious to know the why of physical problems – the mental side – if there is one.

Though there’s often no getting around the physical approach to a physical problem, in my own case, I get around it whenever I can.  It’s my belief that I owe my relatively good long-term health to my policy of declining at least 60% of the medical tests and treatments urged on me through the years.  I’ll omit to list the side-effects of some of the treatments I’ve refused, damage discovered too late by those who surrendered to the importunings of the Oracles in white. 

My self-trust isn’t blind.  I eat rationally, exercise, do yoga, meditate and try my best to resolve my contradictions.  [Huh?  Contradiction?  What’s that?  It’s where I affirm and deny the same thing in the same respect or where I persist in a claim even when the evidence shows its falsity.  Contradictions have legs outside the classroom.  If, for example, a witness under cross-examination is led to say something and then to deny what she previously said, the jury will tend to discredit her testimony.  In personal life, if I endorse and also oppose the same action, my body will feel it and be unhappy.  So it’s prudent to overcome one’s contradictions.] 

Also, wherever feasible, I try to avoid toxic relationships. And, where holistic alternatives seem promising and harmless, I try them.

In the course of one such quest, I myself acquired a “second degree” in Reiki healing.  I gave four such healings, three of which were reported successful by the recipients.  The fourth was reported a flop, but it was in a domain (bankruptcy) of which I know little.  I stopped doing Reiki healings when my teacher insisted that I charge for them.  Since the recipients were all personal friends, that wasn’t possible for me.

Anyway, I know from experience that distance healing can work as advertised.  That doesn’t prevent charlatans from preying on the unwary. But it’s not all phoney.  Three out of four ain’t bad.

This time, I selected a healer whose video I found on a blog featuring reports of near-death-experiences, other paranormal phenomena, and scientists in panel discussions of theoretical anomalies.  The young woman stood out to me as honest and good-hearted.

The distance healing took place on Thursday the 25th of February and lasted about an hour. I was not on the phone with the healer during that time. My only instruction was to relax and be in a private space. It’s too soon to tell whether there will be any long-term physical improvement. 

That said, lying alone in my half-darkened, silent room, I certainly had an interesting train of experiences.  They were unexpected.  Not one was a recognizable “projection” coming from me.  I’ll try to describe them.

The experiences formed part of what is called a “life review” – but not the kind standardly reported by people revived after an NDE.  The episodes I saw were presented in reverse chronological order and all belonged to one category or type of event.  They were taken from the course of my romantic life. 

First, I perceived words in my mind, quite clear though soundless:

“Take off your shoes.

This is holy ground.”

A mental picture formed — of desert ground with red glowing embers underfoot – as I took off my sandals.  Because of my neuropathy, I no longer wear sandals and don’t ordinarily take my shoes off after I’ve put them on.  As to “holy ground,” the vision would allow me to revisit places of romantic failure.  What’s holy about that ground?  To my astonishment, each would be shown as a key juncture in a long but connected spiritual journey!

In bare feet, I was soon transported to Australia’s Blue Mountains, where, with my first husband and colleagues from Sydney University’s Department of General Philosophy, we used to go on bush walks.  Like the fauna DownUnder, the terrain looks prehistoric.  Back then, I used to clamber up those cliffs in sandals, though others wore their hiking shoes.

Because my first marriage had ended in divorce, I’ve remembered it as one of my life’s missteps.  Now, in the vision, I saw it quite differently.  A love can be real though the relationship fails.  The gift of John’s love had been — the vision showed — Australia!  A completely different culture and a reason-of-the-heart (which would have moved me as career advancement did not) to learn how the Brits-in-exile did philosophy and saw the world!  Before that, I’d worked with Merleau-Ponty and Hegel.  I didn’t even like England.  There’s no foreseeable way I would have come to this expansion of thought and sensibility.  Yet, since philosophy is the longest and most inclusive of conversations, for me it was of great importance to absorb this understanding.

Before now, I had never seen this as the gift of John’s love.  When we courted in New York, he had not yet been offered the job.  So he himself would not have seen it that way either.  The vision dealt in its own medium, not the language of cause-and-effect in any ordinary sense.

The vision now took me to an earlier candidate for my heart’s affections.  He’d been someone with whom I felt very much at home and comfortable – till a certain turn of events showed that he lacked backbone.  His gift to me (as the vision peculiarly presented it) was the knowledge that enduring love must include backbone.

The path finally stopped at my first love.  He’d been a communist, a devout Parisian atheist (that’s a religion too!) and a son of the violence that racked Europe in his Greek boyhood.  The vision did not pause to worry over his “unsuitability” for me but went directly to the “gift” that his improbable love delivered, the problematic of my work and life:

how to live in history.

Jerry, to whom I’m now married, puts legs under my romantic belief in happy endings.  From our union has come the courage to fill in the corners of my life, see the shards come together into a living whole and have a life that makes sense to me.

What did the vision tell me about the origins of my neuropathy?  Well, first it said that the path I’d traveled in my romantic life hadn’t been a series of missteps.  Where I had seen failure, the vision showed a succession of sure-footed forward phases.

Could it be that my walking difficulty originated in the belief that these had been mere stumbles?  Since the healing, my steps appear slightly more balanced.  But it’s too soon to tell if these improvements will continue, or stop, or even slide backward.

I haven’t solved the mind/body problem,

but I may have taken a step in that direction.

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How Did I Get To Be This Happy?

How Did I Get To Be This Happy?

If I put this question to an existentialist, the answer would be: “Because you’re inauthentic.  You walk around in bad faith.”  The human situation can be deemed absurd (if you’re feeling French) or productive of profound anxiety (if you’re feeling German).  But by no means can it be called a site of “happiness”!

Now let me ask a person from my native city.  From afar dimly, I can still make out that New York sound: 

“Puh-leese!  Don’t be disgusting.”

Okay.  Sorry.

Ah, here comes a postmodern person!  I’ll ask her how best to comprehend my present, unfamiliar state of happiness. 

         “You haven’t a clue about your actual state!  Your life is a fiction.  So, enjoy your self-report, so long as you don’t take it seriously!”

Well, canvassing the experts still leaves me in the dark.  Maybe my question is not one commonly asked.  I guess there’s no harm in asking myself this uncommon question.  I’m as good a detective as Nancy Drew and I’m reporting a change in how it feels to be me.  When did this change begin? asks the good detective.

We might start with what in my life has changed objectively during this year-of-the-pandemic.  For one thing, I’m running in the black at last with regard to three long-term debts of honor.  

First, the papers of my grandfather, whose pen name was Rav Tsair, have now been safely archived at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.  He taught at HUC and is still studied and written about by Talmudic scholars, here and in Israel.  He was the towering figure of my childhood and I loved him.

Second, the pandemic opened a time window that allowed me to go through the materials of Henry M. Rosenthal, my father – a huge collection of letters, journals and manuscripts, thus coming to a better grasp of the enormously magnetic and gifted man he was.  His shorter pieces are being posted at https://independent.academia.edu/RosenthalHenry thus facilitating the next steps with respect to archiving.

Third, Elmer Sprague, my senior colleague and comrade-in-arms, died this year.  He was a man who went to every graduation, wedding, bar mitzvah and funeral belonging to his “station and duty.”  So I know he’d never forgive me if I failed to get a proper obit into the American Philosophical Association’s Proceedings and Addresses.  With the help of some faithful colleagues, and a few months of homework from me, we got it in.

So much for debts of honor.  Was there anything else on the “objective” side?  Well yes, one does work in the world and mine takes shape as writing.  What’s new in that realm?

Confessions of a Young Philosopher is now as good as I can make it and I expect its publication this year.  Since I believe stories and pictures belong together, it will include some very nice illustrations.  The kind that novels used to have, even though this is a true story.

A Good Look at Evil is now available on Amazon/Audible as an audiobook.  Having listened to Matthew Cohn’s inspired reading, I myself have come to think the book truthful, helpful, unpretentious and original.

Dear Abbie: the Non-Advice Column has become a way for me to reach out to more readers than I ever had within professional confines.  And people who know me, or care about my life, get the breaking news almost as soon as I live it.

We come now to the inner changes.  First, my relation to God has changed.  I don’t know why and don’t well understand it, but the God toward whom I’ve ordinarily turned my face upward to pray – as Someone at a distance – seems to have moved down and gotten closer to where I am.  At first, I found this quite disconcerting – regarding it almost as a loss.  But little by little I’ve gotten used to it and realized it doesn’t signify that God has merged with me — or that I’ve lost the God who is not me.  Just that it’s become a more synchronous interaction.

On the inward plane, another puzzle piece moved into place with my recent reading of Martin Buber’s hasidic tales.  The saints of that tradition made suggestions about forgiveness that I wrote about here last week.  Internalizing their cryptic hints has eased certain moral burdens.  Up till now, I’ve felt oddly responsible for those who had injured me.  I carried the memories they had conveniently repressed, against such time as they might return to claim (to face) those inflicted injuries and take them off my hands.  Now the zaddikim prescribed the following script and it seemed to work just about as they’d said:

Here, Lord, you take it —

along with the moral bookkeeping —

and I’ve felt noticeably lighter ever since.  It doesn’t mean I “forgive” someone’s injuries to another.  Or that I whitewash the memory of what happened.  Or that I don’t try to repair whatever’s reparable by me.  Only that I’ve shifted the spiritual burden over to the One better equipped to carry it.

I note one other inward change: from the horse.  Lately, I’ve been unable to ride California because a touch of chill (mine) was succeeded by lots of snow and ice, falling and whipping round the neighborhood.  In the interlude, a delayed-take revelation sank in: I’ve had a reunion with a horse who knows me as well as I can be known – not on all levels of course – but intimately and straight from the shoulder!

Meanwhile, I’ve been looking at videos of animal communicators.  It’s a new field with an international cast of practitioners.  Their human/animal interactions on film are quite readable, like human-to-human interactions when you turn off the sound.  Animals have deep emotional states and powers.  They bond with humans.  They can be offended – nay traumatized! – by humans.  Their complaints make sense.  Their personalities are distinct.

What change has this made in my awareness?  The natural world itself now seems good or at least filled with goodness.  The trees seem to send greetings and to get them in return.  The sky joins the chorus.  I no longer feel invaded by sorrow as if by a second nature.

My natural state

 of cheerfulness

reasserts itself –

 after so many years!

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A Good Look at Evil Is Now an Audio Book!

We meet with evil in the ordinary course of experience, as we try to live our life stories. It’s not a myth. It’s a mysterious but quite real phenomenon. How can we recognize it? How can we learn to resist it?

Amazingly, philosophers have not been much help. Despite the claim of classical rationalists that evil is “ignorance”, evil-doers can be extremely intelligent, showing an understanding of ourselves that surpasses our own self-understanding.

Meanwhile, contemporary philosophers, in the English-speaking world and on the Continent, portray good and evil as social constructs, which leaves us puzzled and powerless when we have to face the real thing.

Thinkers like Hannah Arendt have construed evil as blind conformity to institutional roles – hence “banal” – but evil-doers have shown exceptional creativity in bending and reshaping institutions to conform to their will. Theologians have assigned evil the role of adversary to the divine script, but professing religionists are fully capable of evil, while atheists have been known to mount effective resistance.

More than broad-brush conceptual distinctions are needed. A Good look at Evil maps the actual terrain – of lived ideas and situations – showing how to recognize evil for what it is: The perennial and present threat to a good life.

To get your copy, click here!

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Forgiveness Revisited

“Study for Rachel from The Mothers of the Bible”
Henry Ossawa Tanner

Forgiveness Revisited

Lately I’ve come to a new attitude toward forgiveness and, for me, it’s a really great change.  You might say, it’s a move closer to the Christian view, but that would be misleading.  The change was prompted by reading Martin Buber’s hasidic tales that give precise and detailed views of zaddikim (saints) in that tradition as they move through the world.

What had my previous attitude been?  Here’s an illustrative incident that happened a few years ago.  I wrote about it here right after it occurred.

It was at a restaurant where I was having lunch and writing in my journal.  The place was almost empty save for another lady having her lunch in animated conversation with the owner.  Presently, the words “Jews,” “Jewish,” “Israel” and “Jewish lobby” pierced my writerly bubble and they were not said in any flattering style.

Now I suppose I could be taken for Italian but the chances of that mistake were diminishing once I began raising my head as if struck by lightning every time the J word ricoched round the restaurant.

I don’t care for scenes in restaurants, so I waited till her conversation partner had gone back to the kitchen before walking up to her table and handing her a note.  It said that her exercise in classic anti-semitism (I think I wrote “classic” rather than “genteel” – a fine point) had gone far toward spoiling my lunch.

She spoke up across the empty tables then, indignantly denying that she’d said anything anti-semitic.

         “I think,” she began, when I interrupted her as follows:

I KNOW what you think.

I don’t want to hear it.

Your freedom to talk this way in a restaurant

is MENACING to me!

I’d gone back to writing in my journal when, to my surprise, I noticed her standing over my table, asking me (almost tearfully) to forgive her.  She didn’t know what had come over her.  She was, she said, especially sorry that she’d “spoiled [my] lunch.”

I was not much tempted to forgive her.  She had not squarely faced the wrong, which was not just a breach of restaurant protocol.  Her words gave me no assurance that she’d renounced her views and wouldn’t be voicing them in future, when she deemed it safer to do that.

The rabbinic view, as I understood it, is that forgiveness of wrongs done to persons is obligatory if three conditions are met: first, the transgressor shows that she has understood the wrong she did; second, she is sorry for that very wrong; third, she thereby provides the basis for trust that, when tempted in the future, she won’t repeat the injury.  In this tradition, the interaction called “forgiveness” is a humanly grounded one.  It doesn’t flutter aloft on angel’s wings.

At the same time, I was well aware that the lady in the restaurant was going by a different playbook.  I sensed her puzzlement at my refusal to repeat the magic “I forgive you” mantra.  Maybe I was giving her new grounds for theological anti-semitism!  Jesus, after all, had said to forgive seventy times seven (Matthew 18:22).  So why did I hold back from saying the three words that would tidy up the situation for this normally polite lady?

There’s a story about forgiveness that some of my Christian friends have shared with me.  After World War II, a certain Dutch woman who had saved Jews from the Holocaust encountered a fellow who had informed on his Jewish neighbors in Amsterdam, causing their discovery by the Nazis, deportation and death in concentration camps.  Unless memory fails me, he was the very neighbor who had informed on the family of Anne Frank.  Anyway, whatever his exact misdeeds, the good lady who had saved so many Jews told this remorseful collaborator that he was now “forgiven.”

This story, when I first heard it, had not warmed my heart.  It still doesn’t.  Instead, the expression used by Dietrich Bonhoffeur, the Lutheran martyr to Nazism, comes to mind:

“Cheap grace.”

Let Anne Frank forgive him before you do.

I tell these stories to sketch for you the view I held prior to the recent personal change that I’ll try to describe now.  It’s prompted by the hasidic saints I’ve been reading about.  They showed enormous life experience, an unfettered love of God and a refusal of self-righteousness that

 I found stunning to behold.

Don’t just take my word for it.  Here’s one of them on the topic of evil.  The zaddik reported studying the military tactics of King Frederick of Prussia!  The king did not attack frontally but would fall back, drawing his enemy forward and then launching a surprise attack from the rear.

“What is needed is not to strike straight at Evil

but to withdraw to the sources of divine power,

and from there to circle around Evil,

bend it, and transform it into its opposite.”

The other night I had a dream.  A woman appeared who in real life had done me a long series of grave injuries, among other things managing to end friendships dear to me and vital to my personal and professional life.  In the dream, she was young and pretty again and came over to kiss my cheek.  In view of our history, I shrank away.  In response she stepped back to express a brief, straightforward apology for all the harms she had done to me.  The dream included a back scene signifying that, although the lost years we might have shared could no longer be restored, the future would not be weighted down by what had been lost.

         “What do you think it means?” I asked Jerry over brunch the next morning.

         “It was a visit from her soul.”

It was?  So, at least on the level of her soul, she acknowledged the many harms and was now free to go?  On the one hand, her defamatory fictions would remain where she’d put them because it was much too late to fix all that now.  On the other hand, I could feel lighter.  And I did!  As if I no longer had to carry her moral burdens against some distant day when she could lift them off my shoulders.

I could release her.  I could let her go.  She’d be all right now!

So I think I see what Jesus may have been getting at.  He wasn’t distributing a get-out-of-jail-free card or promising “cheap grace,” as I’d thought.  It was more like hygiene for the soul.

I don’t see forgiveness as a cure-all.  One of the hasidic masters said he could only forgive a person if he had something in common with him.  If he had nothing in common, he would stay as far away as possible – lest the perpetrator drag him down.

My own recent experience confirms the hasidic warning.  Delighted with the newly-discovered power of forgiveness to lighten my own life’s weight – I began eagerly to review the many kinds of release it might bring to different recollected situations.  Till I came to one individual whose diablerie had proved too much for me in the past.  Whew!  It was still way too much!  Mentally I careened away – as if escaping a powerful vortex.

Our modern sophisticates have failed utterly to describe a key feature in the geography of experience: 

The moral landscape is

ripe with opportunities

and

pitted with dangers.

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