Explain This.

“The Embarkation for Cythera,” Antoine Watteau, 1718-19

Explain This.

If the roof falls in or the ship is taking water, I’m the teammate you’ll want to have around.  I’ll do anything that seems to need doing and I won’t try to be important while I’m about it.  Tragedies?  Catastrophes?  I know about that.  What I don’t know much about is things going quite outstandingly well.  So here’s a whole week like that and I don’t know what to think.

For example: a colleague for whom I have a good deal of respect, human, writerly and intellectual, has just sent an email about my book, A Good Look at Evil.  He commends it in a way that’s both detailed and deep, actually reading it as I intended for it to be read.  

Again, remember the woman friend about whom I wrote in a previous column that our life-long communion seemed on the brink of foundering?  She has written back in an email that doesn’t deal directly with the barriers between us now.  These she leaves where they were.  But she lifts out elements from my Jewish origins that she deems eternal and inspiring.  Her words don’t name abstractions; they’re about my mother, the building with turrets along the roof – 1245 Madison – where we lived, but it’s clear to me what they stand for.  She won’t be treating who I am with moral or social condescension.  

The opinions she held that can rationalize the next Shoah?  Yes, perhaps she still holds them.  She was my woman friend when I most needed one.  I can’t clean the whole attic.

This week I met with an Israeli cousin for lunch at a restaurant with an outdoor terrace overlooking the Delaware river and a cluster of ducks.  We haven’t met since before the pandemic.  Years ago, I had stepped into a family situation in her defense.  I didn’t want to do it.  The family I risked offending was (as an Israeli colleague once described it) one key to the power structure of Israel.  Well, that’s a colorful exaggeration, but they were extraordinary people and certainly not connections I would toss away willingly.  Particularly since my parents had died and I was pretty much alone in the world.  

Had there been others to do it, I would gladly have stepped back and let them do it.  But there was no one behind me, no one to my left or my right.  I was it.  So I did what seemed called for and a whole network of valued connections fell away.  Nor was a friction-free bond with my cousin the compensating result.  No, our relations still harbored all the passionate, difficult fervor of our family and its part in history.  The renewal of our face-to-face relation was something I anticipated with unease.  

Yet, in the interval, we had attained a new level of mutual comprehension and fondness.  All that history — the cost of it through three generations – mutually acknowledged!  You might characterize our lunch as a covenantal reunion.

Also this week, Jerry and I visited a woman friend and colleague of mine, now recovering from surgery in our very good local hospital.  Although it had been two days since her four-hour surgery, she looked astonishingly “ready to meet her public,” as they say.  Despite the scary occasion for our visit, our chattering was filled with the reciprocities of a life-long friendship.  After about an hour, her husband walked in and joined in the same spirit.  We were enjoying an earned familiarity.  Nothing false there.

Continuing my report: with the aid of our omni-competent assistant, I have started doing podcasts of “Dear Abbie,” recording this column from its earliest days.  The first columns turn out more subtle than I remembered, and I read them with fresh discovery that shows through in my voice and tone.  I think they fill one of the cracks in the conventional understanding of real life –- for women particularly.  We are not churning out half-chewed platitudes here. 

This morning brought an email commenting on last week’s column, “Light on the Longest Hatred.” From a colleague who is also a comrade-in-arms, it expresses moral solidarity on the most essential level.

Confessions of A Young Philosopher, my forthcoming book, will be published with illustrations.  Nineteenth-century novels frequently included illustrations.  Not artsy abstract forms for sophisticates.  Pictures showing what’s happening in the story.  To me, that’s how a book should look, if it tells a story. 

Compare a novel that tells a story to a nineteenth-century painting of a landscape.  More keenly than most, the painter has seen what’s already there and lifted it out, thereby helping us to see it too.  Likewise, a gifted novelist has seen the invisible structure of the situation and lifted it out for our mental picturing.  This helps us to reinforce a sense of reality that’s already ours, but so far unconfirmed.  This week, my English illustrator has emailed the “rough” of the most hard-to-picture scene in Confessions, showing that she has thoroughly understood it.  

Now we will too.

So, it’s been one darned good thing after another!  

“Why don’t you buy a lottery ticket?” commented my acupuncturist, who has the qualities of a sage, only less pretentious.

Seriously, what should I make of such a string of supportive, favorable happenings?  It feels as if I don’t have the neurons for it.  Where should I situate it?

You might say, and I hesitate to talk like this in our tragic age, everything’s

normal for a change.

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Light on the Longest Hatred

From the “Exodus Series Paintings” by Maria Lago

Light on the Longest Hatred

I’d intended to devote this column to leisurely reflections on what I sometimes term “the Jewish assignment” in history.  Reflections prompted by a biography I’m now reading, with the title, Rabbi Leo Baeck: Living a Religious Imperative in Troubled Times.  The author is Michael A. Meyer and he writes very intelligently about his subject.

Before starting this book, I knew almost nothing about Leo Baeck save for a vague recollection that he’d been criticized for his role during the Holocaust – was it for not spelling out to Jews what awaited them at the terminus of their train trip to the killing grounds?  

Since I’m not a big fan of armchair moralists who know exactly how other people should have acted during those other people’s mass slaughter, I’d not formed prior judgments about Leo Baeck.  As of now, in the biography, it’s still the 1920’s, he’s rabbi of an important congregation in Berlin and the Nazi period hasn’t yet begun.

However, what I learned from the Preface has put me very much on his side.  During the thirties, when he worked to assist emigration from Germany, Baeck was repeatedly offered asylum and even a favorable teaching position in England.  These offers he refused, choosing rather to give what consolation and assistance he could to Jews who remained trapped in Germany – either by lack of means or because they’d realized too late what Hitlerism portended. 

Hey, armchair moralists,

that’s good enough for me.

My anticipated hour for writerly reflection has meanwhile collided with an online news item that just came to my attention.  The Professional Staff Congress, the academic union of the City University of New York — to which I belong, which in the past helped me in a job fight and supplies part of my pension – has just passed a resolution about Israel.  The language of the resolution describes Israel as a colonial-settler-apartheid state without a right-to-exist.  

Usually such resolutions are passed by a minority that has nothing better to do.  Everybody else goes home to have dinner with their friends or families and get their work done.  Only the extremists stay up late to get their resolutions through.  By morning, when ordinary people wake up, it’s a done deal.

I am not an effective debater and try my best to “stay out of politics,” since it interferes with my ability to sleep at night.  Nor am I a political theorist.   Therefore, bracketing the string of false claims in the PSC resolution, let me just summarize briefly what gives Israel a better right to exist than any other state on the planet.

What, ordinarily, gives a state its “right” to exist?  Three things: (1) victory in battle, (2) international treaties, (3) productive use of the territory with which its people have mixed their labor.  Israel meets all three of these “ordinary” criteria.  

She meets two further criteria, which are non-ordinary.  (4) Her people have been persecuted for 2000 years in every country where they sought to live outside the land of Israel – their martyrdom culminating in the wickedest collective deed of persecution in recorded history. (5) They lived,  recorded, and remembered their experiences in their land in such a way as to make it a holy land for many peoples besides themselves, thus fulfilling a promise that their record attributes to God: “In your name will all the peoples of the world be blessed.”

Now back to my original question: What was Leo Baeck’s contribution to the thinking-through of the Jewish assignment — the covenant between God and the Jews — as something ongoing?  

The biographer contrasts it with the thought of two of his German-Jewish contemporaries: Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig.  Buber seems more individual: the communion between you and me extends from the two personal I’s, converging toward the divine Thou.  For Rosenzweig, it is experienced in the revelation of God’s love, which calls forth from ourselves the reciprocal response of lovers of God.

Unlike these thinkers, whom he knew and corresponded with, Baeck feels a rabbi’s responsibility toward the Jewish people as an entire community.  He seems to have had a talent for finding ways to give Jews of conflicting opinions some unifying thread or sense of communion with each other.  He was gifted with benevolence and a great sense of responsibility.  He emphasized the moral element in divine commandments but did not discard the external rituals that also tied his people together.  

I haven’t read far enough into this account to say more, but it seems that his thinking evolved to allow room for God’s unpredictable, incalculable presence – the mysterious side of the divine – visiting a people whose vocation would be to partner with God in tying past to future.  That vocation would never be exhaustively disclosed by what happens in the historical here and now.  

As a thinker, Baeck interests me particularly because he’ll be put to the terrible tests of real life in the worst of circumstances.  What will he think, and what will he do, then?

And, speaking of such things, what do I make of the unprecedented hatred that now emanates from so many corners of the academic and opinion-shaping world?  There’s no mistaking it.  It provides the advance rationale for genocide — for the next Shoah.

What I make of it is that it also provides evidence – uncanny empirical evidence if ever there was such a thing – for the place of the Jews in history  spiritually understood.  The Jews remind people of the God whose record in history they first knew and preserved.

What else would prompt so much hatred?

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The Man/Woman Thing

The Courtyard at The Mission Inn

The Man/Woman Thing

We were having dinner at the Mission Inn, which is one of the attractions of Riverside, the town in California where we stayed during the week of my neuropathy treatments.  The Mission Inn is an architectural and decorative masterpiece, put together by a millionaire collector who had unusually fine and original taste.  Its contribution to American aesthetic life lies in the intricacy of its distinctive elements.  The American eye has been habituated to broad brush effects: the stark simplicity of New England Protestant churches, the assertive straight lines of geometrical modernity, the broad highways.  

We are starved for intricacy.

The courtyard restaurant provided a welcome respite from the daily rigors of my treatment, and a chance for us to revive a bit.  As we studied the menu, meanwhile a woman took a seat alone at a table adjacent to ours.  She was African American, fortyish, with a rounded figure and, as she smilingly told the waiter, expected to be joined shortly by a friend.

Jerry and I exchanged smiles with our neighbor and went back to our menus.  My choice is now limited to gluten-free and vegan so it didn’t take me long.

Evening came on, changing the colors in the sky, and still our good-humored neighbor waited to be joined by the friend she was expecting.  At last, she decided to order dinner for one.  By the time she and we were picking up our respective checks, we heard her say to the waiter that her dinner partner had just phoned to explain his absence.  He’d been delayed at a meeting upstairs.  She pointed to the balcony level.

Upstairs at the Mission Inn?  (If you can believe that, as we say in Brooklyn, I’ve got a bridge I can sell you.)  

“Wait!” she was talking to her friend again on her cellphone.  He’d be in his car but he had a few moments, at least to exchange greetings with her, if she could meet him at the corner of Orange Street and Mission Inn Drive.  

“How,” she asked the waiter, “do you get to Orange and Mission Inn from here?”  The waiter wasn’t sure, but Jerry, who grew up in Riverside, was able to give her more exact directions.

As we three stood up and gathered our things before leaving for separate destinations, I was not minded to keep silent.

“It’s hard for us women to find a good man,” I said to her.

“Yes, it is,” she agreed.

“And he is not a good man.  He could have called you before his meeting.”

“Yes,” she said uncertainly, as if this was a new thought.  “He could have.”

“We search for a man we can marry.  God makes marriages!”  

As a remark coming out of the blue, it sounds like a strange thing for me to say to a stranger, but I was thinking of the rabbinic midrash where Judah ha Nasi gives this precise answer to the Roman matron who has asked him, ironically, “What has your God been doing since the creation?”  

“We have to align ourselves with the way God sees us,” I added.  “We have to hold ourselves at a certain height.  That helps God.”

She was walking more quickly than we were, but turned and stopped to look back at me.  “I will think about what you said.”  Then she went on, probably to the corner of Orange and Mission Inn.

Ladies, 

if you’ve never been humiliated that way in public,

kindly raise your hand.

There are elaborations and codicils on this scene in all the religions I know of, in the movies, in current feminism.  Personally, I haven’t found them all that helpful.

And now, for something completely different, here’s the King James Bible, explaining the conditions under which the first couple can expect in future to live their expulsion from the Garden of Eden.  The terms for the woman are spelled out as follows:

And I will put enmity between [the temptor] and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; [the temptor] shall bruise thy head and thou shalt bruise his heel.  … I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.

If you want the terms for Adam, look it up.  They’re not a lot of fun either.  

What I get out of this is that relations between the sexes are going to be asymmetrical.  How bad is that?  It depends.  A couple doing the tango can’t simultaneously do identical steps.  

We can live the asymmetry abusively, stepping on each other’s feet.  Or exploitatively, taking advantage of perceived vulnerabilities as we dance around each other.  On the other hand, we can try not to live it abusively, not taking unfair advantage of the in-any-case-incurable man/woman asymmetry.

Of one thing I am sure.  The sex differences are deep and real.  They’re not reducible to social constructs.  Men need protection of one kind and women should be prepared to offer it.  Women need protection of a different kind and men should be prepared to offer it.

In the world of yin and yang,

the sense of honor is not irrelevant.

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Jewish Forgiveness

Rembrandt, 1631

Jewish Forgiveness

For some readers, this title is an oxymoron and might even prompt a double take.  Are we talking about non-Jews forgiving Jews, and how they can do it?  Surely Jews have a problem with forgiveness and grace.  Jews have law.  Christians have forgiveness.  Right?

Wrong.

But I forgive you for thinking that.

While we were in California, I read an interesting book actually titled Forgiveness by two British philosophers who write in the straightforward analytic style, Eve Garrard and David McNaughton.  Their book is an effort to think clearly and honestly about a topic where reflections have often been hazy and out of focus.

Their viewpoint is entirely secular.  God’s not watching.  Yet the Christian culture of the authors is visible.  Examples of forgiveness pure and unalloyed are either lifted from the parables of Jesus or lives of contemporary non-Jews; cases of forgiveness withheld involve Jews.

The authors are careful to note that the posture of forgiveness can cover a multitude of missteps, including refusal to bear witness, indifference to justice, self-promotion, acquiescence in wrongdoing, and surrender of self-respect.  Correlatively, refusal to forgive can save self-respect, draw vital lines between right and wrong, honor the victims and subordinate self-interest to the overriding claims of justice.

When all the ersatz cases have been gotten out of the way, what finally do the authors say forgiveness is?  Why is it a good thing?  They say it expresses a sense of human solidarity — both downward and upward.  On the downward side: given other circumstances, I too — being like the perpetrator only human — could have committed his atrocities.  On the  upward side: given our common humanity, I respect the wrongdoer’s potential for someday turning in a better direction.  Even if today he’s unrepentant, he retains the possibility of rejoining the human community that we all continue to share.

One thing struck me immediately.  These authors seem wholly unaware of the magnetic power that evil-doers can exert.  There is a charm in doing wrong and a contagion in it.  I’ve seen it exercised by people who never looked so good as when they were being bad.  The identification with wrongdoers recommended by these authors comports blissful unawareness of this contagion.

We’re all capable of it, you say?  And how!  Nobody’s above it.  I don’t care how holy you are.  You’re not above it either.

Cited in Yaffa Eliach’s Hassidic Tales of the Holocaust is a Hassidic Master who delineates the problem.  If, says the Master, I find something in the wrongdoer I can identify with, I forgive him.  If I find no such element, I flee as far and fast as I can.

Here is a nice sense of the difference between evil unmitigated and the kind that can be pulled back into the human community.  Garrard’s and McNaughton’s appeal to generic humanity fails to notice this distinction.

Emmanuel Levinas cites a midrash on the topic of misplaced fellow-feeling.  A certain rabbi wanted to give a butcher another chance to repair his insulting behavior toward the rabbi.  Thinking that the butcher needed to  apologize for his disrespect and be forgiven by his victim before Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the rabbi presented himself at the butcher shop.  The butcher was so disconcerted to see the same man he’d insulted now standing in his shop that he swung his axe the wrong way, dislodging a bone chip. The chip flew into his skull and killed him.

The moral?  Don’t force your good will on someone not ready to accept it.  You may do more harm than good.

The rule of Yom Kippur is that you ought to forgive the person who shows genuine understanding of and regret for the wrong done to you and asks to be forgiven for it.  The understanding shown by the apologizer is what gives promise that in future this injury won’t be repeated.

Wrongs committed against God are in another category and must be laid before the Lord directly.  God forgives those who turn back from what they have done and turn their faces toward God.

I am a person who doesn’t sport a thick skin.  On the contrary.  I run around without much in the way of protective layers.  As a result, I’ve been perceived – misperceived I’d say – as a walking target.  In the course of extensive reflections on this topic, what have I learned?

Forgiveness is no quick study.

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Book Matters

“Young Girl Reading”
Seymour Joseph Guy, 1877

Book Matters

Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America

By David Hackett Fischer

The four British folkways in the title are the Puritans in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the Quakers in Pennsylvania, the Royalists in Virginia, and the Scotch-Irish in the Carolinas and Tennessee.

Of late, we’ve been so focused on the other demographics in the American mix that we’ve stopped asking ourselves how people in the above-named four groups saw themselves.  That’s the question every anthropologist who visits a far-off tribe has been trained to ask.  Supposing it’s a fair question, this book attempts to answer it.  

It goes to 898 pages, including maps, illustrations, and charts, statistical and genealogical.  It’s not an exciting read, but good for bedtime or when you’re laid up with an injury or bad cold.  It doesn’t tell a story.  Instead, it details seventeenth-century speech patterns, religious beliefs, courtship and marriage customs, cooking, naming, architecture, orientations toward caste and class, status accorded to women, childrearing views, attitudes toward self-government, crime, punishment, and money.

Have I got you interested?  My word!  Who wouldn’t want to know those things?  As to how they saw themselves, we have ample evidence: in diaries, letters, memoirs and court records.  Here’s the abbreviated tour.

The Massachusetts Puritans came from a region in and around East Anglia and they didn’t change much when they got here.  They discouraged applicants who couldn’t pay for themselves or wanted to retain hereditary privileges.  They preferred to do without servants.  The Calvinist faith they came here to practice stressed that we are all born sinners and most of us, therefore, damned for eternity.  If, by relentless, righteous effort, we proved able to do the right thing, that might be evidence that God had spared us.  Children were viewed as little hellions.  Parents had to break their devilish little wills.  Congregants would spend six hours on a Sunday, listening spellbound to sermons.  The minister preached behind a pulpit on which a giant eye was painted, reminding them that God was Watching.  Inside marriage, sex was not regarded puritanically.  Young people chose their spouses and sustained often-ardent marriages for life.

Next case: the Quakers.  They came here to escape brutal persecution, also visited on them from the three other British groups.  Their “thee’s” and “thou’s” were grammatical ways of avoiding formal modes of address.  They disdained to recognize titles or inherited privilege.  They were doting parents, seeing children as innocents, imbued with the “inner light” that grownups cultivated in themselves.  Since they settled among the peaceful Delaware Indians, their pacifism didn’t put them at risk.  For a couple to get married took stamina, since the whole community had to give its consent.  Sex was not well regarded, except for reproduction.  Though many came from humble backgrounds in northern England or Wales, their frugality and hard work tended to bring them success in America.

The elite Virginians really were “distressed cavaliers,” some of whom had fought for Charles I.  They imported a large servant class to sustain their hierarchical style of life, into which enslaved Africans were subsequently fitted.  Male children were raised to keep their wills unbroken, and to fight for their honor – in the sense of “candor, courage, fidelity to family and loyalty to a cause.”  The females were rated for their social position and as breeders.  Social codes were intricate and took hours of training to master.  Bloodlines were valued and traced — in people and horses.

The fourth group, the Scotch-Irish, included dwellers on both sides of the wild border region where the kings of Scotland and England hadn’t fixed the line separating their kingdoms.  To America they brought their fighting spirit, religious revivals and contempt for pretense.  As for courtship: if you were swept off your feet by a young girl’s charms but failed to marry her, her family would keep yours in their gunsights for the next three generations.

How did these culturally distinct “races” of Britain ever get on the same side in a joint fight for American independence?  

Here’s how.  After about 150 years of leaving the colonies to their own devices, a new regime in the mother country started to act like (what they call in Australia) pommy twits: with clipped accents, burdensome fees and taxes, and brazen displays of contempt for the colonials.

Well, we can’t have that, can we?

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For the Love of Wisdom

“Aristotle Contemplating a Bust of Homer,” Rembrandt, 1653

For the Love of Wisdom

When I first began my graduate studies in philosophy, I’d be told – in so many words as well as body language – that any residual hopes of finding wisdom in this field should be put away, along with other childish things.

We could take courses in the history of philosophy, where we’d encounter bygone philosophers who had entertained that hope – to see where they went off the deep end.  Or we could study well-regarded contemporaries who’d suffered from no such illusions.

In the English-speaking world, where the main effort was to banish cloudy notions and to be clear, the very ideal of wisdom seemed like a shadowy projection, able to give no account of itself that withstood scrutiny.

On the Continent, philosophy provided insights that had to do with real people — struggling through lives bestrewn with hazards – but the lessons I came across in those days involved renouncing illusions.

Off campus, this was the heyday of Freudian psychoanalysis.  At least two of my friends were undergoing this kind of psychic reconfiguring.  One of the friends was a woman who’d graduated first in her college class.  The other was an unusually intelligent and sophisticated male philosopher.

Their “cures” flattened them.  Whatever idealizations they’d harbored were now treated as excess baggage — nothing they needed to carry.  What were they carrying instead, to help them ford the future’s rapids?  Nothing, so far as I could see.  They’d traded their “illusions” (as they now regarded former painful aspirations) for … nothing at all!

Now it so happened that I brought to the study halls another stream of influence.  I didn’t know what precisely to do about it, and it afforded no entry into the kind of philosophy I was learning in graduate school.  

What influences were those?  There was my philosopher father, Henry M. Rosenthal, whom one of his teachers described as “one of the very few extraordinary men that have walked into my life … not only a man of unusual literary gifts but of extraordinary spiritual insight and courage.”  There was Leo Bronstein, my father’s best friend, who was hard to characterize: a thinker about art, author of multiple books, having a mind that was a distillate of multiple cultures but owned by none, a loved and – by his students unforgotten — teacher at Brandeis University.  There was my mother.  When I telephoned my oldest friend to tell that my mother had died, my friend’s first words were, “She was a jewel of a human being.”  In Milbridge, Maine, where my parents had a home, she was assessed with Downeast accuracy as “almost a saint.”  And there was my grandfather, former chief rabbi of Odessa and much else besides.  He died before I entered adolescence, but he was a large enough figure to be a patriarch in the Biblical mode.  He was the real reason I thought the stories in the Bible might have happened more or less as they were reported … .

These influences hadn’t gone into me like the ingredients of a recipe, ready to stir and bake. Rather, my first duty as I saw it was to gain enough escape velocity to be able to live my own life, rather than merely celebrate theirs.  Their era was not mine.  Their problems were not mine.  Their genius was not mine.  If I failed to go forward and find my own way, with the materials at hand in my experience, whatever I did or said to honor them would not be credible.  The world would think: if they were so great, why did you never get a life of your own?  And the world would be right.  To devote my life to honoring them would be to dishonor them.

So I did not turn back to commemorate any of them till I was well along on the pathway that belonged uniquely to my own life.  I mention these influences now because they were sufficient to impart the conviction in me that there is such a thing as wisdom.  If my teachers thought otherwise, my teachers were mistaken.  And the work I eventually did in philosophy would go toward showing that, and showing why. 

The other day, I came across a book titled, What Is Ancient Philosophy? by an author with the highest academic credentials one can get in France.  He has become an influence, in the fields of classical studies, philosophy and beyond.  He is Pierre Hadot, Professor Emeritus of the College de France in Paris.  He tells that the ancient philosophers didn’t merely engage in the verbal contest between rival theories.  Their words, publicly spoken and written, were not granted intellectual permission to go in one direction while their lives went in another.  

Hadot’s ancient philosophers founded philosophic schools, each identified by its own sense of what wisdom is.  In words and by mere close association, they taught and exemplified ways to live.  They gathered students, developed future teachers, often ate in common and allowed their students to take in — by dialogue between peers, dialectic, meditative practices, classroom question and answer — not merely what they thought but

who they were.

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My First Teaching Non-Anxiety Dream

“Moses and the Tablets”
Rembrandt, 1659

My First Teaching Non-Anxiety Dream

I don’t know how many academics and former academics have teaching anxiety dreams, but mine followed me even after stepping down from active faculty status.  You can take the girl out of the classroom but you can’t take the classroom out of the girl.  Particularly late at night when she’s asleep.

As soon as that kind of dream begins, I recognize its well-worn form.  Either I can’t find the building or the classroom or my notes and it’s past the hour.  The dreams recur — always desperate, harrowing and unforgiving.

So imagine my surprise the other night when, in the midst of a teaching dream, this is what happened.  I was comfortably on time in the classroom.  Every seat was filled.  The lesson had to do with a philosopher who showed the influence of Plato.  Accordingly, I pitched into an explanation  of Plato, quoting A. N. Whitehead’s claim that all of Western philosophy is a series of footnotes to Plato!

Turning to the blackboard, I wrote “Plato” at the left end and began, with fervent enthusiasm, to draw the timeline on which Plato’s influence had played out across the centuries.  What I drew looked like a diagrammed sentence, with a straight line across the blackboard between subject at one end and predicate at the other, while dependent clauses and subclauses showed the lineage of influence in all its complexity.

Meanwhile, a couple of girls stood up to tell me that they had to leave.  It was four o’clock on Friday and they needed to start getting ready for Shabbat (the Jewish sabbath).

Instantly I said that this was more important than their premature preparations for Shabbat and they should sit down again.  They did. Without protest or back talk.

Returning to Plato and his impact on philosophy, I began to wax more and more eloquent as I unfolded its intricacies.  Lines of influence that might have appeared too obscure to cite, or blocked by distractions, became a  transparent, flowing stream, gaining momentum and breadth as I spoke.

There was a second interruption.  A man in workman’s overalls stood up and said he had to leave because he was due to drill some steel girders.  

“No!” I said instantly.  “Plato is more important than steel girders.”  Several students stood up and spoke in support and appreciation of this classroom hour.  The alarm rang at last, bringing to a close my most (my only) successful teaching dream.  

It was Saturday morning.  Time to get up for Bible study, of the Torah or Pentateuch.  Jews all over the world study the same Torah verses at the same time of the Jewish calendar year.  Today it would be the verses in Numbers 16 through 18, which describe a series of popular rebellions against the leadership of Moses and his brother Aaron.  I had a pretty clear idea of what I would have to say, if I said anything, when it came my turn in the discussion, as well as a sense that I’d be going against the consensus.

We are a Reform congregation.  That’s the most liberal of the denominations, so discussions of the Bible often draw on examples from psychology, sociology, group dynamics, management skills and so forth.  Since Hebrew scripture puts a lot of that kind of material in front of the reader, it is feasible to read it entirely in terms of such on-the-ground, empirical categories.

I don’t read it that way.  I try to take it on its own terms, as a book that reports the doings of human beings in actual historical settings as they live out their ongoing relationship to a real God who created the world and cares what they do.  Whether or not the events reported actually happened is an empirical question, hard to settle from 3,000 years down the road.  But the events are reported as if they happened.  These are not stories about gods and heroes, like Homer’s Iliad or India’s Mahabarata.  Of all the sacred scriptures I know, this is the one most explicitly historical.  To my mind, you can learn more if you read it as it was intended to be read.

In the verses we were to discuss, a series of rebellions confronts Moses and his brother Aaron.  This is the leadership that has already guided the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, taken them through a body of water that parted before them but drowned the Egyptians coming after them, fed them in the wilderness, given them the ten commandments as well as a body of laws sufficient to hold them together in the Land Promised to them at the end of their journey.  By divine intervention — visible, audible and palpable to all who were involved — this has been made feasible, with Moses acting as mediator between the Israelites and the God who has singled them out for His purposes. 

These events form the shared experience of thousands of people whose incessant groaning discomfort and despair is minutely recorded – not redacted to produce a patriotic epic.

The rebellions reported in Numbers 16 to 18 take place after these and more providential interventions have occurred for all to see.  The rebels are destroyed in ways that no ordinary man or woman could bring about, nor is theirs a natural death.  In the face of unmistakable evidence of divine intervention, the people blame Moses for the death of the rebels.  In terms of the story as told, it’s a lie — an obvious lie.  

Why do they do it?  Why not just give up, shut up, get into line behind the leader God has obviously singled out for the job?  They don’t – because what they are suffering from is not ordinary wounded pride or frustrated ambition.  From what, then?  

Spiritual envy.

It’s a malady not classified in our contemporary psychologies.  Yet, from the beginning of Biblical history, it motivates the first fratricide and much else recorded in that book.  History spiritually considered (which is how the Bible looks at history) is pocked with incidents of spiritual envy.

This was roughly what I said when it came my turn to pitch in at our zoom Torah study.  It seemed to make less-than-zero impression.  People continued with their social and psycho-political analogies to the end of the hour.  Did I go on too long?  Just to retell the whole story (longer than what I’ve cited here) under this lens allowed no time for any tactful softenings.  But clearly, I hadn’t been persuasive.

I remembered my pre-dawn dream where I had stood fast for the overwhelming gift of Plato, refusing to be distracted by those who made as if to leave.  In the dream, the effect had been a wholly persuasive immersion.

It was like a happy ending that came before the actual event – while the actual event lacked any sign of effectiveness or resolution. And yet in real life, I had told the truth about the text just as, in the dream, about a different text.  

Truth is one thing.  Persuasiveness is quite another.

But in the dream

They were the same thing.

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Why I Failed to Notice that I’m Happy

Why I Failed to Notice that I’m Happy

Lately, I’ve been passing through what a friend called “a perfect storm” of setbacks.  When they mount to a certain number, you can’t tell what’s big and what’s little.  Anyway, they came to the point where, in tears, I said aloud, 

“I can’t do this any more.”

First came the fractured toe.  We had to postpone our scheduled trip to California for neuropathy treatments.  They’ve been the only treatments that did any good, but – put off too long – a slide backwards is noticeable.  Neuropathy limits the kinds of physical exercise and recreation one can enjoy, but even these were placed off limits by the toe injury.  Meantime, Jerry’s been going through what he’s termed a “dental apocalypse,” for which his regular dentist referred him to The Fixer in New Jersey for what amounted to out-patient surgery.  Meanwhile, when I was in the midst of transferring all the information from my lemon of a computer to a still-newer computer (this one possibly not a lemon), our computer technician became unreachable by phone or email.  We haven’t seen her since the delicate information transfer began.  It’s like your house builder leaving in the rain before the roof is on.  Meantime, the Israel/Hamas war began with the media somehow failing to recall who started it.  With a life-long but oft-troubled friendship a possible casualty.  Finally, a loved collegial friend is in a health crisis that so far resists medical remedy and shadows my days.

At our brunch yesterday, Jerry — who knows my narrow-angled taste in music — placed a gift bag containing two country music cd’s in front of my plate.  One was a bluegrass album titled “Carolina Blue,” the other was by an artist new to me, Luke Combs, called “What You See Is What You Get.”  

I love presents and Jerry finds great cards.  This card showed a rather bug-eyed character with hair standing on end, barefoot and wearing a light blue night shirt.  The character stands on a giant jig-saw puzzle that folds out, missing pieces of which are falling from the sky along with the caption that reads,

Don’t worry.

Sooner or later

Everything falls into place.

If the anguish of my recent days is understandable, what is less easy to comprehend is how and why I got up this morning, sat for meditation, and realized that … I’m quite happy.

Huh?

Is there something wrong with me?  Am I “out of touch with my feelings”?

Friends, rest easy.  That’s one defect I don’t have.  If it’s there to be felt, I’ll feel it.

So what do I mean by “happy”?  How did that get to be an accurate self-characterization?

There’s a midrashic story, told in my childhood, that might shed some light here.  Here’s how it goes:

A householder in distress comes to see a rabbi known for his wisdom.  

“Rabbi,” says the householder, “my life has become unbearable.  As you know, we live in a one-room house.  Now my wife’s mother has moved in with us.  She puts her nose in everything.  We have no privacy.  My wife complains that I don’t like her mother.  Our marital life is now embittered.  My mother-in-law entertains a gossipy neighbor right in our kitchen which is also our front parlor.  My sister parked her oldest son with us for the month.  Now my wife’s pregnant again though we can’t afford another child and there is no room to put him anywhere.”

“I see,” said the rabbi.  “Very good.  Now this is what you must do.  Take the cow, the goat and the chickens from the yard and move them into your house.”  

“Respected rabbi!  How can you advise such a thing!  We’ll go crazy!”

“Just do it and come back in two weeks.”

The faithful congregant sighed and shook his head, but did as he was told.  After two weeks, he came back to the rabbi.

“Now,” said the rabbi, “remove the cow, the goat and the chickens, and return to me after two days.”

“Okay, we did that,” reported the householder two days later.

“And how do you feel now?”

“Oh, it’s such a relief!  It’s like paradise now!”

We’ve found another computer technician.  Jerry’s dental apocalypse has been competently treated and is healing.  My toe isn’t right yet but it’s better.  The anti-semites still have their Jews-on-the-brain-problem, but have slightly less to talk about in the present lull.  I might find a way to steer my long but troubled female friendship into stiller waters.  My loved collegial friend whose condition isn’t remedied is a sturdy soul and could well weather this one too, with God’s help and my fervent hopes.

So I’m in the position of the rabbi’s parishioner.  The cow, the goat and the chickens are back in the yard and things look a lot better.  Good enough, in fact, for the many blessings in my life to come into view once again.  For which I am happily grateful.

Evidently, there are many ways that the present restorations could each come undone.  Or new and worse dangers could present themselves.  What would become of my just-restored happiness then?

The fact is: our lives, as human beings, are threatened lives.  We could die suddenly, or be surprised by some accident leaving us in much worse shape than we are now.  Health could go.  Needful things and precious people could be lost.  It could all go.  What then?  

The threatened lives we live

are precisely the lives we love.

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Was It A Past Life?

“Red Square on Black”
Kasimir Malevich, 1920-24

Was It A Past Life?

By now there are many cases on record of individuals recalling previous lifetimes.  A person under hypnosis will seem to remember incidents that occurred under conditions quite different from those obtaining in that person’s present life.  Children under a certain age can exhibit reactions to a painful circumstance they describe that is unlike anything that could have happened in the child’s experience.  Sometimes these apparent memories can be independently confirmed.  Yes, there was a sailor by that name on the ship’s roster and he did go down with that ship.  

Would such a case provide a “refuting instance” of the current materialist/mechanist model of the laws of nature?  Apparently not.  In working science, one exception to a physical law doesn’t overturn it.  Not even a thousand anomalies would be sufficient, by themselves, to overturn an established law of nature.  According to one philosopher of science, scientific theories “remain forever submerged in an ocean of anomalies.”  The current theory, or paradigm, would be retained until “there is a manifestly better alternative available.” 

So I don’t offer my tale as evidence for the truth of reincarnation.  It’s just … something to ponder.  Something that follows me.  I’ll share it with you now.

The first clue came some years back.   A diagnosis of breast cancer had been followed up by an excisional biopsy and radiation treatment.  In order to make sure that the radiation remained within required perimeters, small blue marks were tattooed around the treatment area.  I had not expected that and the blue marks offended me.

I was home after the first day’s treatment when the phone rang.  It was Edith Wyschogrod, an old friend and one time president of the American Academy of Religion.

“How are you?”

“I’m okay I guess.  But, Edith, I had the strangest sensation right after the treatment.   A strong smell of gasoline – like from car exhaust.”

“You must have known,” said Edith, “that Jewish women were tattooed in the death camps before being sent to the gas chambers.  It was likely an association of ideas.”

I wondered about that.  The gas used in the death camps was Zyklon B.  Did that have a smell like exhaust from an automobile?  I never read that it had. 

Years later, with the cooperation of an empathic Japanese/American woman GYN, I had the tatoo marks photographed for the medical record and competently removed.  (Degradation is not uniformly as compulsory as it’s often said to be.)  I did not brood over the incident.  It fell back into the wider context of that illness and its treatment.

Some time later, I was reading about the Holocaust, a subject I have written about in several chapters of A Good Look at Evil.  I came across a mention of other killing techniques, not widely known, that the Nazis had also used.  They included the use of exhaust gas emptied into the back of sealed trucks.  This was striking to me because it vindicated my impression that what I smelled — with hallucinatory vividness in the hospital — had been car exhaust!

It was some years later that I decided to try a past life hypnotic regression.  I wasn’t thinking about these earlier experiences.  I wanted to see if it could help with my neuropathy.  (Although such hypnotic regressions have sometimes led to remissions of phobias and physical ailments, in my case, this treatment did not help the neuropathy.) 

Under hypnosis, I found myself in an unnamed German town.  The Nazis were in power, so it must have been after 1933.  I was a Jewish young woman.  Although the systematic killing of Jews had not yet begun, my family and I were in seclusion.  We avoided the street.  However, the Nazis did learn of our existence from a neighbor who was an informer.  One afternoon, they came with loud poundings on the door to round us up.  They did not take us far.  Just to a parked truck into the back of which we were made to climb.  The truck was sealed and gas from the exhaust poured in.

I remember how I felt as I was dying.  First, an absolute refusal to take this as normal – or setting a new norm – or in any sense inevitable.  I saw it clearly as abnormal, entirely wrong, and in no sense excusable.

As I was leaving my body, I recall pausing in midair and looking round to take in the larger human scene, of which this incident was a small part.  I saw that the phenomenon – the Shoah – was vast in scope.  It extended as far as my gaze could reach.  To the horizon and beyond.  It was almost global.

There was something else that I felt.  The vision would stay with me and would inform any future life as an obligation.  Whatever future form it took, I would have to fight it.

I should say here that this “memory,” vivid and precise as it was, was not confirmed by any empirical evidence from my present life.  When, as a girl, I’d hitchhiked through Germany with my friend Anna, I felt neither fear nor dread.  

“You know,” one of our smiling Austrian drivers confided to us, “they tell terrible stories about S.S.  I was in S.S.  All my friends were in S.S.  We were all picked men!  Not a one of us under six feet!”

He hadn’t scared me.  I thought the encounter was funny.  In sum: nothing in my present experience confirmed this tale empirically.  

One more clue came the other day on C-Span.  A Holocaust survivor was being interviewed.  He said that, initially, Jews were murdered in trucks rigged up so that the exhaust pipe emptied into the back of the sealed truck.  When the trucks got stalled in the mud or broke down, and could only kill small numbers at one go, it became clear that stationary gas chambers, housed in death camps, would have to be provided for the purpose of mass extermination.

I waited a day to talk about it with Jerry.  What did they all mean, these clues, these odd reminders?  Was my “memory” real?  If so, why not more context to bear it out?  Was it a mere projection?  If so, why these graphic data – spread out at wide intervals over years?

As the signs of the new anti-semitism begin to gather like elements of a tidal wave — as well-respected figures attach their signatures to delegitimations of Israel that lay the groundwork and prepare the justifications for the next Shoah – what I have felt is not astonishment, not even outrage: only a sinking, over-familiar recognition.

Was it a real memory?  Was it an emblematic experience?  Or does experience itself include a third level:

where emblem and fact merge?

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What’s My Relation to God as of Now?

Abbie at 6

What’s My Relation to God as of Now?

From my earliest memories, the question, Is there a God, wasn’t a question I asked.  This though, once I grew up, I got to be a philosopher by profession, temperament and conviction.  The God question I did have concerned the kind of relation I had to the God who IS.

From time to time, in childhood, I would ask my father whether some Bible tale really happened.  But that kind of a “cold call” (out of context) question was not encouraged.  It was not suppressed.  Instead, rather oddly perhaps, it was treated as beside the point.

“Would Daddy sacrifice me if God told him to [as He’d asked Abraham to do with his son]?”  As I recall, that was the only question I asked my mother, where I took a literal approach to the Bible.

“No!  She responded decisively.

“Would grandpa?”

“Yes.  Grandpa would.”

That satisfied me.  It secured two valued contingencies: first, my safety, since grandpa had no direct authority in my case; next, proper piety.

In college, I was a philosophy major, so in due course I read Anselm’s ontological argument to the effect that the very concept of God implies the existence of God.  And I read Aquinas’s five ways to prove the existence of God.  To me, these texts were interesting, and set nice discussions in motion.  Skeptical arguments, like David Hume’s, were less interesting to me, but of course we studied those too.  But they didn’t seem to touch my orientation toward the divine, which wasn’t based on an argument or counter-argument yielding a conclusion, but rather a relationship.

Relationships don’t depend on arguments.

Later on, in my twenties, when youthful hopes and expectations were shattered, I took the relationship off the table.  Perhaps, initially, I did so to save it.  I did not know who had failed whom, Him or me.  I couldn’t change God.  Maybe best just to deal with me, solo and unadorned.  It seemed more a matter of focus than unbelief.

There was one thing I hadn’t factored in.  The space previously reserved for divinity wouldn’t stay vacant.  If you take God out of it, other gods can climb up on the altar and take it over.

As I emerged from the combat zone of my twenties, the work of reinstating the relationship took the shape of writing about the loss of it.  As retrospection and recuperation became sentences on the page, my memories grouped themselves into the three chronological divisions of a typescript: Parts I, II, and III.

The trouble was, the three parts fell apart.  And yet, I knew they were intimately connected and followed some inner logic of their own.  What was the connection that tied one life phase to the next?  My own life became, for me, a detective story.  Who dunnit?  What was the most consistent and complete explanation?  What tied all the clues together?

I’m an educated person.  Educated people took Sigmund Freud very seriously.  Could Freud explain me to me?  Not really.  For Freud, underneath the smooth surface of our public lives are the jagged, broken pieces of our thwarted, repressed desires.  So the broken stuff is the real stuff, for Freud.  Be middle aged!  Be sad sack!  Be disillusioned!  Settle for Plan B!

Well, that was his idea, but it wasn’t mine.  Not only would it fail to put the three Parts of my manuscript together.  It wouldn’t even try!  It would prejudge the outcome of my efforts.  That’s not philosophical.  You need at least to keep an open mind.

Next I tried Hegel, a philosopher of history who sought to discover the significance of human life in linear time, real space, and real cultural settings.  Could he provide the Ariadne’s thread that would take me understandingly through the labyrinth of my youth?

I wouldn’t have written on Hegel, as I have, if I didn’t think he provided some understandings that other thinkers lacked.  But my own experience showed me that there is more to a life than the dialectical clash of concepts.

What else is there?  Who am I, really?  What did I — do I – will I, desire, really?  What is the truth about my life-long voyage of discovery?  It seemed to me that these questions were important to take seriously, persistently and wholeheartedly.

One could of course regard such questions ironically and self-mockingly.  That can look smart, but it’s the attitude one puts on for show, for effect.  It’s a pose.  It’s not sincere.  When the sad clown gets home, she wipes off the smiling make-up.

These questions are the intimate ones.  They can only be asked in the presence of a Witness who sees in full what is going on and takes one even more seriously – even more to heart – than one quite dares to take oneself.  By situating my story in its sincere relation to such a Witness, I could find the Ariadne’s thread through the labyrinth.  The three chronologically sequential phases found their inner logic and fell into place.

What emerged was the story of me in that ongoing, silently passionate, two-sided, covenantal relationship!  Hence the name “confession” – signaling pilgrimage of the spirit – in my present title for the forthcoming Confessions of a Young Philosopher.   

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