My Grandfather, Rav Tsair

*Erratum: The location of the Archives for Hebrew Union College/Jewish Institute of Religion is Cincinnati, not Cleveland.*

grandfather_and_Einstein.jpg

Rav Tsair and Albert Einstein

My Grandfather, Rav Tsair

 I almost never think about him.  He died when I was about ten, when other supports of a safe childhood were also falling away.   The destiny of a young girl loomed just around the corner, with its built-in other-directedness.  So I never had to find out how he would have viewed me then.

As long as I knew him, he was the protective frame of my life when I was a child.

Much later, when I was older and employed as an assistant professor of philosophy – when I was sophisticated – I would refer to him jestingly as “the king of the Jews.”  Gentile friends sometimes took this literally, even if they were well-educated philosophers.  Maybe it gave credence to a belief, carried over from pre-modern times, that Jews were a secret tribe with underground ceremonies, like (in a short story I once read) the “king of the cats.”  The latter had a long, black tail that sometimes protruded from his well-cut suit.

When I was in my teens, Jewish boys of my generation had still heard of him.  They would react to the discovery that Rav Tsair was my grandfather in one of two ways: by wanting to marry me or by getting sore about it.

What he was to me in my private heart of hearts was another matter: he was a Biblical character.  He was how I knew that the Bible was true – essentially.

He had been the chief rabbi of Odessa, had founded a Yeshiva there where he taught some who became influential figures in Jewish scholarship and culture.  He was a leading figure in the Hebraic renaissance and himself wrote an excellent classical Hebrew.  He had a German doctorate in Judaica.  When I knew him he was Professor of Talmud at New York’s Jewish Institute of Religion.  A thousand people attended the celebration of his seventieth birthday.  Albert Einstein and Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter sent greetings.  His work is still studied today.

A few years ago, realizing that some of the marvelous stories about him might die with me, I wrote a memoir essay titled “Tales of Rav Tsair.”  It was published in Midstream and continues to find readers on academia.edu.

Recently my Israeli first cousin, who now lives in La Jolla, California, prompted me to look into archiving such things of his as might still be in boxes in our Bucks County home.  I’ve found out that the Jewish Institute of Religion has merged with Hebrew Union College and that their archives are presently housed in the one facility in Cincinnati, Ohio.  Having contacted the archivists there, I’ve been inventorying whatever we have here, prior to getting it properly packaged and mailed to Cincinnati.

In the process, I’ve read some of what has been translated into English or what he himself wrote in English and have begun to see what he was and why his presence imprinted me so deeply.  I’ll restate it in my own terms – obviously broad brush and unencumbered by the relevant scholarship.

When Jews lost their last battles with Rome — and, with that loss, political independence and the right to reside in their ancient homeland — they faced decisions about the future: what to do, what to be in their own eyes, how to live on meaningfully, and whether to live on at all instead of allowing themselves to be absorbed into the surrounding cultures and disappear without leaving any aftertrace.

What they actually did seems to me the best of the available options.  Briefly, I’ll try to speak for the opinion-shapers who prevailed.

“First, don’t disappear!   You made an agreement with God to stay the course!   So you haven’t the right to disappear.  You are the footprint left by God in actual history.  You are the ones who kept the evidence more or less intact, despite the dust of trampling armies.  God was really here, on the timeline you shared with contemporaneous cultures — here in places with an address.

“Second, the political defeats have been so devastating that only a deluded people would try at this point to reverse the outcome.  We can’t.  The ground where we fought still shakes underfoot.  So, let’s devote ourselves to reinterpreting and commenting on the records we’ve kept, of our history and its implications.   By now Scripture is fixed.  But common law and precedent are still evolving.  By keeping that commentary current, we can preserve memory, mind, and passion and stay connected to the original timeline.   So far, we’ve done our best to stay on the timeline and, on that line, we can still continue.”

That’s how the Jews stayed the course, through the ensuing centuries of misrepresentation and persecution.  Till the late nineteenth century, when European Jews thought they beheld the panoramic prospect of a peaceable assimilation.  They would treat the lineage of their long past as a “religion” like other religions, meanwhile blending harmoniously into the European cultures that promised careers open to talents.  Indeed, with all the talent Jews had, they could construe their very exile as a Jewish mission.  Their dispersion had given them the chance to be a “light onto the nations.”  To their grateful neighbors, they would bring the ethics of the prophets!

My grandfather understood that the so-called “mission” of exile would be unimpressive to a world that thought sufficiently well of itself not to seek any supposed “light” from Jews who were vastly outnumbered.  My grandfather had walked upright through a pogrom.  He knew what that mob looked like.

If political independence was the obvious alternative to exile, fear alone could not furnish motivation sufficient to secure it.  Even realistic fears can be discounted  — psychologized away – till it is too late to act on them.  In the Biblical mindset, thought and action don’t occupy separate domains.  Exilic Jews, whether secular or believing, had become disproportionately intellectualized. Were there intellectually sound reasons to try to recover that patch of ground where thought and action could coalesce, as they had naturally done in Biblical times?  Within the Jewish system of meaning itself, were there foundations deep and solid enough to undergird the Zionist project?

With his Biblical mindset and mastery of Talmudics, my grandfather found that there were.

Against German Higher Criticism, he argued that the Oral Law was not a latter-day excrescence of a culture whose folk vitality had been lost long ago.  Rather, as he was able to show, the beginnings of the Oral Law were contemporaneous with the written Bible, evolving in parallel to it.  They presupposed and referred to each other, appearing now in the one form, now in the other, as circumstances warranted.

Against the abstract universalism of an exilic “mission,” he argued that the universalism of the prophets was woven warp and woof into the skein of national renewal.  Universalism and particularism were not in conflict then.  They harmonized as, in everyday experience, they still do.

Insofar as Rav Tsair’s argument was found persuasive, the Talmudists were no longer authorized to retreat from the world into their traditional self-contained seclusion.   Nor were the Hebrew-speaking Zionists forced to become merely secular, just to mark themselves off from the quietism of the rabbis.

He made the Bible 

and the people who had lived with God

and wrote about it –

ongoing.

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The Thrill of Admiration

 

Michelangelo’s David, 1504

The Thrill of Admiration

These days I’m reading Jacob Howland’s wonderful book about Plato’s Republic, the great dialogue that shows how hard it is to teach virtue in the political arena.

At the same time, I’m mentally settling down after last week’s column about my grandfather.  Known by his pen name, Rav Tsair, ”the Young Rabbi,” he now stands out to me as a figure in Jewish history.

Meanwhile, I’ve just composed a cover letter, to go to editors of magazines, reviews and journals, along with chapter eight of A Good Look at Evil.  That’s the one about Hannah Arendt, a political thinker who is today widely respected.  My chapter makes the case that Arendt distorted the twentieth century events she wrote about and did so for unworthy reasons.

In the first two cases, there is this thrill of admiration for actors on the big stage of history who played their parts well.  In the third case, well, regret would be the kindest thing I feel.  Arendt is best known for Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil.  It’s a book whose gist is that the guy who implemented the Holocaust was a robotic bureaucrat acting mindlessly inside a machine-like Nazi bureaucracy.  This is not true.

About fame and fortune, Solon, lawgiver to Athens in the 6th century BCE, said,

“Call no man happy until he is dead.”

The point was that you never know what reversals fortune may bring.  Aristotle added that the risk to happiness doesn’t end even with death, for reputations can also be lost post-mortem.

Plato’s high place in human memory seems pretty well secured by now.  Thanks to him, the name of Socrates, his revered teacher, will likely shine forever.  “Forever” meaning as long any hero is still remembered.

At present, my grandfather’s stature seems planted solidly in the Jewish state for whose existence he supplied far-sighted justifications: historical, intellectual, moral and spiritual.

As for Hannah Arendt’s posthumous reputation, right now it’s stupendous.  She has practically become an industry!  A film was made casting her as the heroine who defies popular opinion to uncover the suppressed truth.  (To discover that she did no such thing, see A Good Look at Evil.)  Professorships have been named after her – and you can bet that anyone holding such a named professorship will look unfavorably on my chapter eight.  Books and articles still appear, solemnly preoccupied with her false claims about Eichmann and his victims.

To get to a juster view — of the perpetrators she wrongly exonerates and the victims she wrongly defames — I have worked, as a writer and philosopher, to dim Arendt’s posthumous reputation!  If she died “happy,” at the top of the ladder of public esteem, my chapter could posthumously diminish that happiness.

If I’m right, recalibrations of that reputation would be overdue and proper.  However, even if my revisiting of Arendt should turn out persuasive to opinion-shapers, it may get oversimplified in the retelling, so that her real story ends up distorted in some other way.

What do people mean when they speak of the “verdict of history”?  Is history right?  W. H. Auden has a line about the death of his fellow poet, W. B. Yeats:

He became his admirers.

If one has ascended to history’s big stage, I suppose there is an equal chance of becoming one’s detractors.

One of the themes of Plato’s Republic is that the just man or woman is happier than the unjust, even if – in the eyes of contemporaries and later posterity – the just person is subjected to the worst tortures and vilified ever after.

Is the just man or woman happier than the unjust, even if history’s verdict is unfairly weighted in the negative?  Who can say?

Given all these uncertainties, there is a particular joy – a thrill – in appreciating a great figure whose fame has justly and rightly survived the buffetings of time, chance and mass opinion.  It’s as if one is saying – where death has not diminished the runner’s well-deserved honor –

Good show, lass or laddie!

You pulled it off!  You did it

for the rest of us who run and may not finish!

What is it to survive and shine deservedly in the human story writ large?  To occasion, for strangers generations hence, that thrill of admiration?

If human history is something like a long romance, I guess it’s like …

being lucky in love.

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My Grandfather, Rav Tsair

Rav Tsair and Albert Einstein

My Grandfather, Rav Tsair

 I almost never think about him.  He died when I was about ten, when other supports of a safe childhood were also falling away.   The destiny of a young girl loomed just around the corner, with its built-in other-directedness.  So I never had to find out how he would have viewed me then.

As long as I knew him, he was the protective frame of my life when I was a child.

Much later, when I was older and employed as an assistant professor of philosophy – when I was sophisticated – I would refer to him jestingly as “the king of the Jews.”  Gentile friends sometimes took this literally, even if they were well-educated philosophers.  Maybe it gave credence to a belief, carried over from pre-modern times, that Jews were a secret tribe with underground ceremonies, like (in a short story I once read) the “king of the cats.”  The latter had a long, black tail that sometimes protruded from his well-cut suit.

When I was in my teens, Jewish boys of my generation had still heard of him.  They would react to the discovery that Rav Tsair was my grandfather in one of two ways: by wanting to marry me or by getting sore about it.

What he was to me in my private heart of hearts was another matter: he was a Biblical character.  He was how I knew that the Bible was true – essentially.

He had been the chief rabbi of Odessa, had founded a Yeshiva there where he taught some who became influential figures in Jewish scholarship and culture.  He was a leading figure in the Hebraic renaissance and himself wrote an excellent classical Hebrew.  He had a German doctorate in Judaica.  When I knew him he was Professor of Talmud at New York’s Jewish Institute of Religion.  A thousand people attended the celebration of his seventieth birthday.  Albert Einstein and Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter sent greetings.  His work is still studied today.

A few years ago, realizing that some of the marvelous stories about him might die with me, I wrote a memoir essay titled “Tales of Rav Tsair.”  It was published in Midstream and continues to find readers on academia.edu.

Recently my Israeli first cousin, who now lives in La Jolla, California, prompted me to look into archiving such things of his as might still be in boxes in our Bucks County home.  I’ve found out that the Jewish Institute of Religion has merged with Hebrew Union College and that their archives are presently housed in the one facility in Cincinnati, Ohio.  Having contacted the archivists there, I’ve been inventorying whatever we have here, prior to getting it properly packaged and mailed to Cincinnati.

In the process, I’ve read some of what has been translated into English or what he himself wrote in English and have begun to see what he was and why his presence imprinted me so deeply.  I’ll restate it in my own terms – obviously broad brush and unencumbered by the relevant scholarship.

When Jews lost their last battles with Rome — and, with that loss, political independence and the right to reside in their ancient homeland — they faced decisions about the future: what to do, what to be in their own eyes, how to live on meaningfully, and whether to live on at all instead of allowing themselves to be absorbed into the surrounding cultures and disappear without leaving any aftertrace.

What they actually did seems to me the best of the available options.  Briefly, I’ll try to speak for the opinion-shapers who prevailed.

“First, don’t disappear!   You made an agreement with God to stay the course!   So you haven’t the right to disappear.  You are the footprint left by God in actual history.  You are the ones who kept the evidence more or less intact, despite the dust of trampling armies.  God was really here, on the timeline you shared with contemporaneous cultures — here in places with an address.

“Second, the political defeats have been so devastating that only a deluded people would try at this point to reverse the outcome.  We can’t.  The ground where we fought still shakes underfoot.  So, let’s devote ourselves to reinterpreting and commenting on the records we’ve kept, of our history and its implications.   By now Scripture is fixed.  But common law and precedent are still evolving.  By keeping that commentary current, we can preserve memory, mind, and passion and stay connected to the original timeline.   So far, we’ve done our best to stay on the timeline and, on that line, we can still continue.”

That’s how the Jews stayed the course, through the ensuing centuries of misrepresentation and persecution.  Till the late nineteenth century, when European Jews thought they beheld the panoramic prospect of a peaceable assimilation.  They would treat the lineage of their long past as a “religion” like other religions, meanwhile blending harmoniously into the European cultures that promised careers open to talents.  Indeed, with all the talent Jews had, they could construe their very exile as a Jewish mission.  Their dispersion had given them the chance to be a “light onto the nations.”  To their grateful neighbors, they would bring the ethics of the prophets!

My grandfather understood that the so-called “mission” of exile would be unimpressive to a world that thought sufficiently well of itself not to seek any supposed “light” from Jews who were vastly outnumbered.  My grandfather had walked upright through a pogrom.  He knew what that mob looked like.

If political independence was the obvious alternative to exile, fear alone could not furnish motivation sufficient to secure it.  Even realistic fears can be discounted  — psychologized away – till it is too late to act on them.  In the Biblical mindset, thought and action don’t occupy separate domains.  Exilic Jews, whether secular or believing, had become disproportionately intellectualized. Were there intellectually sound reasons to try to recover that patch of ground where thought and action could coalesce, as they had naturally done in Biblical times?  Within the Jewish system of meaning itself, were there foundations deep and solid enough to undergird the Zionist project?

With his Biblical mindset and mastery of Talmudics, my grandfather found that there were.

Against German Higher Criticism, he argued that the Oral Law was not a latter-day excrescence of a culture whose folk vitality had been lost long ago.  Rather, as he was able to show, the beginnings of the Oral Law were contemporaneous with the written Bible, evolving in parallel to it.  They presupposed and referred to each other, appearing now in the one form, now in the other, as circumstances warranted.

Against the abstract universalism of an exilic “mission,” he argued that the universalism of the prophets was woven warp and woof into the skein of national renewal.  Universalism and particularism were not in conflict then.  They harmonized as, in everyday experience, they still do.

Insofar as Rav Tsair’s argument was found persuasive, the Talmudists were no longer authorized to retreat from the world into their traditional self-contained seclusion.   Nor were the Hebrew-speaking Zionists forced to become merely secular, just to mark themselves off from the quietism of the rabbis.

He made the Bible 

and the people who had lived with God

and wrote about it –

ongoing.

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Alter Egos

“Village au Cheval Vert ou Vision a la Lune Noire”
Marc Chagall, 1877-1985

Alter Egos

 I’ve just finished reading the remaining chapters of my book, A Good Look at Evil.

Though it’s a contribution to the field of philosophy, it has a dramatic build to it.  Initial chapters deal with the conceptual battles about value judgments and then apply its concepts to the perils of personal life.  After that, the geographic scope widens because the topic is genocide.

By the time we get to the Holocaust, the case is made, layer by layer, that evil doesn’t get clearer than this.  The counter-thesis — that the Nazi was a mere cog in his gigantic bureaucracy and that his victims  (most thoroughly, Jews) were in some sort of complicity with him – is held up for inspection, turned round and looked at from all sides, and found unpersuasive.

Another formulaic claim, that the Nazi motivation was simply “racist,” is refuted.  His key allies came from nonNordic races.  Despite his public rhetoric about race, in private communications spirit and will were at the forefront of his concerns.  What he hated in the Jews was the Jewish spirit!

All that is laid down before we get to Part IV, the recent chapters, which deal with true stories of real persons.  The cog-in-the-wheels-of-bureaucracy thesis about evil is associated with the name of Hannah Arendt, who wrote Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil.  Eichmann was of course the man in charge of making sure the Holocaust happened.  He had made his escape to Argentina and was enjoying life there when Israeli agents kidnapped him and brought him to Jerusalem to stand trial for crimes against humanity and crimes against the Jewish people.  Arendt’s report on the trial echoed Eichmann’s own claim that he hardly knew what he was doing and was just following orders.

Claims like this permit endless moral evasions, displacements and projections. Everything is fogged over.  Nothing is clear cut.  Possibly for that reason, Arendt’s thesis found immediate favor with intellectuals and has pretty much passed into the public domain as received truth.

My Chapter Eight shows the claim about the “banality” of evil to be the visible tip of an entirely different story: one in which Arendt had a personal stake, a story that had nothing banal about it.  The reality is almost gothic.  Having just reread it, Chapter Eight seems to me a startling piece of intellectual detective work.   It evades nothing.  It casts a clear light over the documented dots that, before now, no one had connected.  Reading it leaves me literally breathless.  Obviously, whatever my private reluctance, I have an obligation to try to make this discovery more widely known.

*         *          *

Meanwhile, I’m happy to say that horses have come back into my life.  I haven’t been on one since I was thrown at a run a few years back.  I was deemed to have hit the ground gracefully, but didn’t want to try my luck at falling a second time.  If I can help it, I don’t want to end up in a wheelchair.  However, I’ve now found a stable with beautiful Arabians and part Arabians who have empathy for people.  The Arabians et al give only three lessons a week, so they don’t get sick of us.  And riders are taught to keep their goodwill by talking to them in their own language:

you learn to talk horse.

My first lesson happened to have been scheduled the day I learned of the death of my dear friend and colleague, Elmer Sprague.  There was no way I could have found words to express my grief.  I just sat in the saddle and cried my heart out.  The horse looked at me with his big brown eyes, not surprised, not restless, just giving me time for my tears.

The riding lessons involve giving directions without using the reins, digging in your heels, kicking or, God forbid, using the crop.  You communicate through posture, degrees of grip, and where you put your weight.  And, most of all, through your intention.

By now, I’ve got over my terror of riding again.  Since getting thrown, I’d been so scared of horses, I didn’t even like to watch them in the movies.  By now however, I can get Cali to walk at a long or a short stride, to turn in large or small circles, and to halt – all without using the reins or my heels.

Last Friday, when I’d got down (harder than mounting if you have neuropathy), I did some grooming, submitted a cookie or two and looked puzzled at Cali.  She wanted something and I doubted it was another cookie.

“She wants to tell you something,” opined Serena, my trainer.  “I’ll leave you two alone.  Just stand beside her, put your hand on her, and see what comes into your mind.”

I have no trouble with that kind of command.  It belongs to a world I understand.  I stood next to the big Skewbald mare, placing a hand against her side.  My mind went very silent and still.  Two thoughts came to me.

First, “the world of Gentiles is not empty of friendship, not without help, not without allies.  Nor is the Jewish world everywhere safe. Trustworthiness and untrustworthiness are about evenly distributed … over the two worlds.”

Second, (I seemed to be hearing) “there is in you another spirit, not only the animating spirit of history, which is, you believe, Jewish.  There is also the side of you that thinks, ‘God must be a cowboy, at heart.’  That’s country.  That loves horses and silence.”  I leaned my head on Cali’s shoulder.  “You haven’t outlived that side of you.”

It too can have its hour. 

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The Baiter and the Baited

“Stag at Bay on a Rocky Shore”
Thomas Blinks, 1860-1912

The Baiter and the Baited

We are back from a week of my neuropathy treatments at the Loma Linda clinic in California.  The main progress this time has been in locating more precisely the regions of the body – ahem, my body – where inflammation blocks the flow of blood to the micro-vessels and the neurons they feed.  Symptoms are not yet improved, so far as I can tell, though sonograms do register progress at the micro-level.  If we had six weeks to spend consecutively, we are told that we might see substantial symptomatic improvements.  But we don’t have six weeks to spend at one time.  At most, at intervals, we will have a single week at a time.

I wonder: what IS this handicap?   I mean, really.  Was there something my body would have once wanted to tell me, but the physical medium has become the message and meanwhile the original message has got obscured?

One of the friends who joined us at brunch was Jerry’s attorney in California.  He reads eclectically and brought this bit of news from his polymathic researches: genes are no longer seen as programming the body.  The latest view is that genes are the data base from which the single cell selects certain data and rejects others in designing the future human body.   As to what determines (or rather, influences) the cell when it makes its choices, that’s an open question – but probably no single thing.

If this view sticks, it will be bad news for philosophic determinists, materialists and functionalists, but for me it’s just interesting.  (Long ago, I told my students not to invest their talents in philosophic materialism because it’s going belly up.)

What’s interesting about this view is its implication that intelligence – or something equivalent to intelligence – goes all the way down to the single cell.  Actually, it’s not all that surprising.  The last time I read a respected tome in ethology, I learned that even the lowly worm has memory.  What is more, if you cut him in half, each half will crawl away, still remembering …

Jerry’s attorney friend drew the moral that we need to “talk to our bodies” more than we do.  If we talk to our bodies, they might answer back and actually tell us how they feel.  Maybe we get sick because they find no other way to be heard.

We had made a dinner appointment for one of our nights in Riverside.  It was with a philosophic colleague of Jerry’s whom he did not know well, their paths having crossed briefly some years back.  I was looking forward to meeting a colleague whom Jerry was disposed to like.  His wife, who was in another profession, would be joining as well.

We were not far into the evening when the colleague turned, looking directly into my face, to tell me the following: he had attended a lecture by a Princeton historian who described an eleventh-century incident from the First Crusade.  A contingent of German Crusaders had paused in their trajectory to the Holy Land, turning aside to butcher a Jewish population encountered along their way.   The massacre, according to the Princeton historian, was grasped in Jewish memory so tenaciously that it had worked its way into the Jewish prayer book, the siddur.  The wax [not his word] of Jewish memory was so deeply grooved by this particular pogrom that – to this very day – Jews will never trust a Christian!  (And of course, gosh, the Holocaust only made it worse!)

When I write down this preposterous nonsense, from here it’s easy to see that I was being baited.  But when you are expecting a pleasant social hour with a collegial couple and you’ve put on something pretty, you’re not all suited up for combat.

I made the cardinal mistake of trying to correct a good faith “misunderstanding.”  Of course, it was no such thing.  It was baiting.  Let me break that down into its components.

  1. Apart from my obvious Jewishness, there was no reason for a philosophic colleague to tell me such a story.  We had not been discussing the Crusades.

  2. In the historical record of anti-Jewish acts, there has been such a cascade of defamations masked as theology, despoilations, expulsions and massacres, before and since the eleventh century, that it’s unreasonable to imagine pre-twentieth-century Jewish minds affected by that one pogrom alone.

  3. If one were to assume that there exists a boundaried array of “Jewish attitudes” to be parsed at our dinner table, then I – not the Gentile Princeton historian – would be the one to advise about them.

  4. In the alleged conglomerate of Jewish attitudes, there was underlying insult, to wit: the surface good behavior of any Jew masks implacable bigotry — a prejudice dating back to one bad incident in the eleventh century – but now applied to all Christians regardless of their character, whether just or unjust.  So Christians are herewith forewarned to be wary of Jews, no matter how nice they might seem.  Jews are out to get you.  They want vengeance for the First Crusade.

Does that about cover it?  Maybe.  I hope so.

Although from here it seems obvious that the colleague was actually baiting me, I didn’t quite get it in time.  Jerry, who’s usually pretty good at gauging the forces in the room, didn’t get it either till we both had time to revisit it later.  My real concern isn’t this particular case of l’esprit de l’escalier (the witty riposte that we only think of as we descend the stair to the exit).

I want to know why I have this neuropathy.

I would like to understand my body.  Is it trying to tell me something?  If so, it must have tried in other ways.  To what am I not listening?

On our flights to and from California, I had a chance to reread the initial chapters of A Good Look at Evil.  The book struck me as, if you’ll forgive me, profound.  That is, it’s the product of thinking that is not borrowed, not second hand, not done to make a splash or vindicate an established consensus.  It’s a quest for truth about good and evil, conducted at the frontier of that quest.  It’s quite exhaustive, detailed and often surprising.  Whenever, since its publication, I’ve given talks based on the book, reactions have been dramatic and real.

In the years leading up to its expanded reissue, could I have sensed that I had in hand something that would obligate me to step forward to present it publicly?  Could this walking handicap be my resistance to that summons?

I decided to treat myself more lovingly and ask my legs, in a gentler way,

What ails you?

Now it could be that the recent incident has colored the response from my legs.  Anyway, this is what they replied, so far as I could hear them.

We are terrified to step forward

in a Jewish body. 

It doesn’t matter what medical remedies you find.

We just won’t do it.

Since this reluctance is sufficiently reasonable for the purposes of the body I’m in, it seems to me kinder to concede to my legs the prudential realism of their concern.  Here is how I could answer them.

Hey little legs,

you’re not crazy. 

There really is a pack of dogs

out there.

That said, it’s statistically unlikely that I will be literally murdered by a hater of Jews.  In the meantime, my work summons me to step forward and say what I know.  Only, in the present circumstances, 

a gentle and kindly self-understanding 

is probably appropriate.

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“God and The Care for One’s Story”

This is the talk I gave for the Adult Education program at Temple Judea of Bucks County on April 14th.  The video was taken by Jerry, my husband, from his smartphone.

It includes the Q and A, which shows a very engaged and thoughtful audience. The video starts a little after my talk did.  I’d just been explaining the thesis of A Good Look at Evil, which is that we live nonfiction stories, and evil-doers try to spoil our stories. To explain what I mean by “story,” I start with a Biblical illustration, the Joseph story from the Book of Genesis.  Then I’ll go on to give examples from my own life.

Enjoy!

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Good Philosophy Gets You to the Bathroom in Time

“St. Jerome in His Study”
Albrecht Durer, 1514

Good Philosophy Gets You to the Bathroom in Time

In 1988, the atheist philosopher A. J. Ayer published an article for Britain’s widely read Sunday Telegraph, titled,

“What I Saw When I Was Dead.”

In the atheist circles in which Ayer traveled, if one had an experience while one was deemed clinically dead, one certainly didn’t talk about it!  The philosophers I knew coughed embarrassedly when they alluded to Ayer’s article and agreed that “Freddy had lost his cool.”

I felt differently.  A philosopher had had an experience that contradicted the views he had painstakingly worked out over a professional lifetime and he was making that fact public!  Ayer hoped he wouldn’t lose his membership in the British Humanist Association, the Rationalist Press Association and the South Place Ethical Society.  But he stood prepared to risk it!

Being blackballed is, in some respects, a fate worse than death.  I thought Ayer’s decision to go public with an experience inadmissible in his society, took courage.  Alone among the philosophers I knew, in 2004 I published “What Ayer Saw When He Was Dead,” in Philosophy, the journal of The Royal Institute of Philosophy.  If Ayer was honest enough to risk his professional reputation and social standing, someone should pay attention.

What kind of experience did Ayer describe?  It wasn’t the by-now familiar one of leaving one’s body, going through a tunnel toward The Light, meeting dead relatives and so on.  The experience he reported was a painful one.  To me, it looked as if Ayer was being forced to live inside the philosophical worldview he had espoused, and was finding that worldview untenable.

To explain briefly: Ayer belonged to a philosophical school of thought that held all knowledge to depend on “sense data,” the perceptions we get from sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell.   For such philosophers, the problem to solve is how to get from mere perceptions, which are private and subjective, to the world of physical objects that exist in space and time whether or not we perceive them.  If a philosopher can’t bridge that gap between the subjective and the objective domains, then he or she can’t account for the space/time world that the natural sciences describe.

Ayer made a number of attempts to show that it would be possible for philosophers to start with subjective sense data and get from there to the world of physical bodies in objective space and time.  However, his own honesty prompted him to admit that each of his arguments depended on some sleight of hand or other.  Even so, he was not yet ready to give up the attempt.  It was at this point that he “died” in a hospital bed and had the vision he reported in the Telegraph.

In his vision, “the laws of nature had ceased to function as they should … space, like a badly fitted jigsaw puzzle, was slightly out of joint … was awry … .”  Since time and space are treated “by Einstein’s theory or relativity … as a single whole,” Ayer decides in his vision to cure the problem of space by “operating upon time.”  Trying to warn the “ministers of time,” he waves his watch at them, but – as with the ministers of space –- fails to get their attention!

The world that Ayer experienced, where space and time were out of joint and “the laws of nature had ceased to function as they should” was an uncomfortable one for the philosopher.  It was lit by a bright, red, painful light.  It was not a world Ayer could live in with any sense of ease.   Yet – and this is the amazing part – it was the very world that his own philosophical arguments had constructed.  It was as if sent to the philosopher as a warning that his favorite views were false.  False because one couldn’t live inside them.

I don’t know if the annals of philosophy contain any other experience of that kind.  Ayer was honest enough to receive a vision that refuted his views and had the still-greater honesty to make it public.  Wow!  Doesn’t happen every day.

Is it only philosophers, and the most honest ones at that, who are open to seeing that their favorite views – if they tried to live inside them — would be like a jigsaw puzzle whose pieces don’t fit together?

Let me supply an example of an ill-fitting jigsaw puzzle that we can all recognize.  Let’s take the … uh … French, or Italian, or anyway Continental … philosophical view (it has several provenances) that the seemingly objectively external world is actually a societal construct.  Now let’s proceed to take this fashionable view to the public bathroom, as I did on two recent occasions.

A few weeks ago, Jerry and I stopped in New York’s Metropolitan Museum before going to a memorial meeting being held in midtown for a deceased friend.  It happened that we both needed a bathroom.  The Met, a place I once knew like the back of my hand, had its rooms divided differently from the way they used to be.  I didn’t know where I was.  I couldn’t find the bathrooms.  This wasn’t good.  Like many women, that’s the first thing I look for in a new place.

A guard directed us.  There’s no Men’s Room or Women’s Room any more.   There was only one “Family All-Gender” bathroom.  The line for it was very long.

In an earlier world, the processing of guys was much faster because a row of urinals took care of them in most cases.  Women can’t deal with urinals without damage to their clothes, modesty and hygiene.  Guys can.

In the Family All-Gender room, there were only about six booths.  Each had doors extending to floor level, possibly to thwart voyeurs with smart phones.

In sum, wait times were longer and convenience reduced.  But the philosophical postulates were safe from challenge, dieu merci.

Last Thursday, Jerry and I drove at my behest to a mall where a new, fashionable and dirt-cheap line of clothing is sold.  At bathroom time, we again found the expected All-Gender bathrooms.  There were two of them.  Each held one booth with a door that closed and one sit-down toilet with no door to hide it.

Out of long habit, Jerry and I separated, each going through a different All-Gender door.  Jerry is not shameless but he is practical.  Seeing the open toilet, he used it, turning his back to whoever might enter.

A woman did enter and, seeing the back of a man standing there, gasped and quickly withdrew.

I do not know why these All-Gender bathrooms can’t include a row of urinals for the convenience of the row of male backs that ornamented bathrooms in my Fulbright days in Paris.  Is it because the presence of urinals would be an acknowledgment that males possess an appendage that makes urinals practical for them – but not for females?

Even if architects won’t admit the existence of these appendages,

all the same

they do exist.

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