A Chosen People?

“La Mariee”

Marc Chagall, 1950

A Chosen People?

These days I have been reading a splendid book in draft by a British analytic philosopher showing the fallacies that make up the new anti-semitism. He shares the broadly secular worldview of those he opposes, which is important if you want to convince people on their own terms.

Dreams are funny things. Last night I had a dream that was, once I began to decode it, not “funny” in the sense of strange. It was hilarious. As I tried to describe it to Jerry at breakfast, I was laughing so hard it was a while before I could talk.

The late Michael Wyschogrod appeared, with a speaking part in the dream. Wyschogrod had been a philosophic colleague and friend. He also happened to be an important theologian with an influence on Christian as well as Jewish thinkers. In my dream, a group approached Michael for political advice and received the following counsel:

“We should abolish Florida!”

As I started to tell Jerry the dream, the last meeting I’d had with Michael came back to me. I’d asked Michael whether he agreed with the rabbis who held that prophecy had died out of Israel — meaning I suppose that God no longer communicates with people in a direct and unfiltered way.

Michael answered me with a question: “Do you mean, ‘has God retired and gone to Florida?’” It was funny and Zen-like. He was showing me the improbability of God’s deciding no longer to be a Player on the real stage of the world.

Shaking with laughter, I now saw what my dream meant. It pertained to the book about anti-semitism that I’m now reading. “Florida” stands for God-in-retirement, or the secular standpoint. The dream was telling me to get rid of that standpoint. What’s missing in the book I’m reading is the God who’s still a Player.

With impeccable intelligence, the author of this book examines every secular explanation for anti-semitism. It’s commonly said, for example, that Jews are hated because they are “different,” “outsiders,” “scapegoats,” “successful,” “communists,” “capitalists,“ “cosmopolitans,“ ”nationalists,” and so on and on.

None of it accounts for anti-semitism: a weird, shape-changing, bitterly burning and explosive entity that takes every imaginable form and doesn’t go away. My explanation is simpler and covers all the cases.

They are hated because God chose them.

Don’t I mean, they are hated because they mistakenly believe God chose them?

Nope. If people thought God hadn’t chosen them, no one would give a damn what they believed. Who cares if so-and-so thinks he’s terrific when he’s not? We pity the guy who thinks he can fly and jumps out the window. We certainly don’t hate him with a deathless intensity. Jews are hated because people think God really did choose them.

One of the first Europeans to write a literary work in which a Jew appears as a character who is actually a good man was Gotthold Ephraim Lessing. He wrote “Nathan the Wise”(1779) and was much criticized for writing that play. (How could a Jew be a good man?) There is an opening scene where a handsome youth saves a pretty Jewish maiden from a fire. When he first meets Nathan, her grateful father, invective pours from him – chiefly the accusation that Nathan is a member of ‘the chosen people.’ Nathan hasn’t said a blessed thing about being chosen. So why is it the first thing the Christian youth thinks of in a context where it’s perfectly irrelevant?

In the time of my first marriage, my then husband had the visit of a collegial friend. He and his wife arrived as guests in the house in Maine that I had inherited. My husband’s colleague astonished me by entering my mother’s home with a volley of remarks nasty toward “Jews” (that is, to me, a real person, not a character in a book he had evidently been reading by Nietzsche). At that time, I had the belief, which I shared with other liberals, that all human discord arises out of some “misunderstanding.” So I kept trying patiently to get to the bottom of his incivility. What was driving him? Why couldn’t he get his mind off Jews? Finally, it burst out of him like steam out of a pressure cooker. “It’s the chosen people!” Just then, my maladroit former husband cut off the discussion. Otherwise I would have wanted to ask him what he meant by that.

I was in Sydney when the massacre of Palestinian refugees at the camps of Sabra and Shatila in Lebanon was widely reported in the Australian press. Although the murderers were not Israelis, the Israel military command had jurisdiction in the area and the commander was later found guilty of culpable negligence by an Israeli Commission of Inquiry. A quarter of the population of Israel was in the street protesting what had happened. As the Jerusalem Post reported, “for a week, no one smiled.” Meanwhile, in a leading Sydney paper, a cartoon was prominently featured showing a bearded God telling a character representing the generic “Jew” that, as of now, the chosen peoplehood (it was some kind of a crown) was being removed.

The Australia I knew was a highly secular society. In the 18th century, the first church to be built there was burned down by the convicts. The cartoonist likely did not believe in God, much less a God who had conferred a special relation to Himself on the Jewish people. None of those supporting beliefs were present when he drew his cartoon. Yet, even without them, “chosenness” still rankled.

To my mind, this is what lies at the bottom of the malicious, eliminationist fury that no argument can cure or even touch. The hatred of the Jew is a burning resentment of the God of Israel. It’s at bottom a spiritual condition of a weird and unique kind.

Is there a cure?

Yes!

  • Be able to give a good account of your own life in its one-thing-after-another and one-choice-after-another specificity, as it unfolds in its real time and real places.
  • Make it a true story and as good a story as you can.

If you do that, you will naturally come to read the Bible with understanding and you won’t need to hate Jews.

(In case you wondered, Jews can hate Jews too. This hatred is an equal opportunity employer.)

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“Jews on the Brain”

From the “Exodus Series Paintings”
by Maria Lago

“Jews on the Brain”

Over time, I have from time to time lost a friend or two – to many forces and factors – but, among them, sudden and insistent incursions of anti-Jewish feeling. Interestingly, I’ve encountered relatively little anti-semitism from strangers.

So the usual diagnosis of “prejudice,” that it is a pre-judgment of the other – whom we do not know and on whom we can therefore project some trait that we’ve repressed in ourselves – that diagnosis has not proved applicable in my experience.   Simply because the people who turned anti-semitic knew me well and loved me with understanding love. How do I know this? I know it the same way anyone knows such things.

I conclude that prejudice against Jews is no ordinary prejudice. What is it, then? As you can imagine, I think a lot (incessantly in fact) so from time to time I’ve come up with some thoughts of my own. But, recently, a writer who is a sort of pen pal, someone for whom I have the highest regard, recommended an unusual book on the topic: Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition by David Nirenberg. Although I’ve read a fair number of weighty tomes on this theme, what Nirenberg has here pulled together, in its detail and overview, seems new to me.

Identified by Nirenberg with “the Western tradition” are cultures whose notion of the divine originates in Hebrew Scripture and Jewish practice. That would take in Christian and Islamic cultures in all their heterogeneity. These cultures have had the double-edged task of hugging the Jewish influence close enough to extract the divine juice from it, but pushing it far enough away to avoid blending into it and thereby ceasing to be what each claims it is: a new revelation.

You might say, “I don’t see a problem. At least in the ideal case, we acknowledge our parents and teachers with reverence and affection. Doing that doesn’t make us feel threatened in our very identity! Why can’t Christianity and Islam do the same? What’s so hard about it?”

Well well well. What’s true “in principle” doesn’t always hold in the push and pull of religious struggles for authority and dominance. What I call “the ideal case” was not found to be politic. Instead, each religious culture and subculture, sect and sub-sect, defined itself by the emphatic proclamation:

I Am Not A Jew.

In the early centuries of Christianity, some patristic writers wanted to ditch Hebrew Scripture altogether. The stories in that scripture occur on the plane of history, where families live, wars are fought and empires rise and fall. Those who wanted to get rid of the “Old Testament” risked confusing the new religion of Jesus with gnostic rejections of the everyday world as metaphysically unreal. On the other side of the dispute, any writer who held out for retaining Hebrew Scripture, in whole or in part, risked being accused of “Judaizing” or actually being a “Jew”!

The term “Jew” was not taken to designate a member of the surviving tribe of Jehudah (into which Benjamin was absorbed when the other tribes were either “lost” or else lost their distinctiveness as political entities).   It was given a particular meaning (not a good one). In Christian polemic, “Jew” stood for “literalism,” “carnality,” “bestiality,” “hypocrisy,” “rigid legalism,” “arrogance” and “pitiless condemnation,” or “murderer of God when he incarnated as a man” and “hater of humanity”!

Heavy heavy,

as we used to say in the counter-culture.

When the European world discovered the uses of modern economic practices, like lending at interest, the law that protected contracts carried with it these fabled dangers of “Judaizing,” which are played out in Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice”.

Hebrew Scripture does not forbid lending at interest, only lending at exorbitant interest. Most professions were forbidden to Jews, but medieval kings extended special protections to Jewish money-lenders, allowing them to lend at higher rates. That permitted a fine regal division of labor: most of the proceeds raked off by the royal “protectors” and popular resentments kindly allotted to the king’s Jews. Shakespeare’s Jew lived in Venice because, in the playwright’s time, Jews had been long expelled and there were virtually none in England.

The Protestant Reformers championed the authority of Scripture (as opposed to clerical authority). Chairs of Hebrew were established in universities, rabbinic experts were consulted in the work of translation, Hebrew was even considered the ur-language spoken by God in heaven and yet, with a few exceptions, real Jews were still viewed as beneath contempt and the rival readings of Scripture were routinely denounced as Judaizing.

When the philosophers of Enlightenment found that religious hatred could be dissolved in the new solvent of Reason, Jews were still discovered by them to be the people least capable of reason!

And that’s as far as I’ve gotten in Nirenberg’s book. I’ll omit the chapter on Islam, though I did find – when I worked my own way through the Al-Azar-authorized translation of 9 volumes of hadiths – that not once does a Jew appear there as a good guy.

Hell, I like happy endings. Does this story contain one? Oh sure. When the messiah comes, or comes back if you prefer, we’re all gonna go to our happy place. But within the terms of our present discussion? Any happy ending here and now? Let me lay down some postulates that might conceivably help.

  1. Jewish history began as sacred history – and it still is that. Sacred history’s task is to provide a generally useful metric for profane history.
  2. Sacred history puts terrific pressure on the people who live within it. Human nature being what it is, those whose history it is are naturally and continuously tempted to profane it.
  3. With God’s help, some Jews resist this temptation in outstanding measure. Others, not so much.
  4. Bystanders have been, and will be, tempted to cope with the pressure of sacred history by caricaturing, despising and profaning the prototypical case, and the actors in it. They do that because the Jewish actors in it stand in for themselves.
  5. Jews are God’s pilot project, a representative model of what happens – for good or ill – in the divine/human partnership. When they did it — or do it — right, they provide illustrative material for the question, how did they do that? When they get it wrong, for the question, what’s the lesson here?   Whether we are Jews or Gentiles, we read the Bible – not to confirm our dogmas – but because real life is still like that.

Does all this mean that (as Jews sometimes complain) they/we are not being treated “normally”? Not being treated the way other men and women are treated?

Yes.

Living in sacred history is — or can be seen to be – the generic human task. If this is the real task of a fully human life, none of us should “normalize” it.

Let’s face it.

Real life ain’t normal.

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“Believe You Me”

A detail from “Moses with the Ten Commandments”
Rembrandt, 1659

“Believe You Me”

In “Treachery and Transcendence,” last week’s column, I wrote about the disappointing “new treatment” for my walking handicap. Despite all, I decided to continue it for another week or two, just to see if it could be of some benefit even where I no longer trusted the people administering it. By today, seeing that I was no better than when I’d started (only poorer and out two months of precious time), I realized it was time to quit – the experience was demoralizing me — even before the paid-for sessions had run out.

I woke this morning still riven by thoughts of trying again to “explain” to the facility’s administrators why I could no longer trust them and why I was dropping their treatment.

In meditation, Guidance was cutting. The desire to repair the breach, teach the trespasser, is itself a temptation, it said to me. Evil has magnetic force and the desire to “help” keeps one within its gravitational field. Emmanuel Levinas is rightly admired as a philosopher, but he is mistaken when he makes us all morally responsible for the Other. The Other, like the self, is responsible for herself. Otherwise, freedom stops and instead we’re bound together in a skein woven of the chain links of previous conditions going back and back without end. Nobody can ever be reproached or praised. Everybody can only be “understood” in terms of what was driving her.

Last Saturday, in Torah Study, we read Numbers 16, the chapter where there’s a rebellion against the leadership of Moses. Korah and his faction of 250 Levite elders give voice to the uprising. Why should Moses continue in the leadership as the holiest Israelite? Isn’t the whole community holy? Who made him the CEO of holiness?

In fact, Moses has not claimed to be at all “holy,” much less to outrank anyone else in that respect. At first he does a bit of negotiating with Korah, pointing out that the rebel faction has already been singled out for special responsibilities with regard to the implements of holiness. However, the main thing Moses does is turn the situation over to the God who gave him his original assignment. God then opens a chasm in the earth, which swallows the insurrectionists alive.

End of episode, but not of the discussion, which went round our study circle. Some commented on the phenomenon of spiritual envy, others puzzled over the egalitarian claims. Finally, my turn came.

“When one wants to evaluate a moral dispute,” I said, “it’s useful to see who is lying. For example: Korah asserts that Moses led the Israelites out of a ‘land of milk and honey’ – only to arrive at this dry desert place. But Egypt wasn’t a land of milk and honey. It was the site of bondage and hard task-masters.

“Also,” I went on, “the story of Moses’ leadership didn’t begin that morning. There is a track record: the ten plagues of which he accurately warned Pharaoh, the night of passover, the parting of the sea waters permitting the Israelites safe passage to the other side, the mountain that shook, the ten commandments Moses took down from the mountain, the manna provided … .”

Here the Discussion Leader interrupted me. These things took place, he said, “on Moses’ watch. But who is to say they could not have happened just as much on Korah’s watch?”

“Moses,” I replied, “wasn’t just ‘watching.’ He was not a bystander. He was the active mediator between God and the human scene.”

“Yes,” said the Discussion Leader. “But I’m playing devil’s advocate. I’m trying to see how it looked from Korah’s viewpoint.”

“I’m not here to see it from Korah’s viewpoint! That’s psychology! I’m not here to do psychology! With psychology, there is never any beginning. Everything is a reaction, and the chain of antecedent causes extends indefinitely back in time. With moral evaluation, there is freedom.

“With freedom

The action begins now.”

I spoke with heat, provided perhaps by my recent encounter with the treatment facility whose supervisor had not acknowledged her broken promise. Instead, she had given me a new definition of the word “promise.” In her usage, it designated a commitment that can hold for a week and a half, after which it lapses unless the recipient applies to have it renewed. Absent such a request to keep the promise current, there’s no need to inform the recipient that it’s now null and void.

The supervisor had not been redefining “promise.” She was lying.   How do I know this? Because I paid for the treatment by check in three installments.  A check is a cashable promise. If, after a week and a half, my checks had bounced, no administrator in that facility would have accepted a “redefinition” of my check such that it could bounce unless the facility had asked me to reaffirm its value. Not asked in a week and a half. Not asked ever.

What is a promise? It’s a commitment we truthfully affirm.

Who are we,

what is the space between us worth,

if we cannot be believed?

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Treachery and Transcendence

Caduceus, emblem of the medical profession,
originally the rod of Asklepios, god of healing

Treachery and Transcendence

In a recent column, I told of a problem that arose during a new treatment for my walking handicap. One of the administering nurses routinely used an expression — always accompanied by a little laugh — that embarrassed me. I didn’t like putting up with another woman’s disrespect for my bodily presence as a woman. And, body and mind being close friends, it might be affecting my treatment. But her demeaning words and laughter seemed so trivial that they slid under the radar of ordinary discourse. Was it too small a thing to protest? Was she even aware of her tactlessness? How could I get her to quit it without either antagonizing her or getting her in trouble?

Then I observed that she did not treat another patient, a nun, with the same disrespect. What is more, when I tried modeling more tactful language, the nurse – let us call her Phoebe – reacted by deviating from the normal protocol, ever-so-slightly, but harmfully. That looked to me like reprisal. It was enough to warrant my taking steps to protect myself.

My steps were minimal. The facility employs two nurses. I would just ask to be helped exclusively by the other nurse. If any explanation were requested, my plan was to say, “personal preference.”

When, however, the person in charge asked whether there had been a problem, telling me that her role in the facility was that of a trouble shooter who wanted only to improve the services and would handle any information I gave her in a responsible and harmless fashion, I felt a moral obligation to provide her with the back story.

The supervisor listened with sympathy, agreed that healing was less likely if the patient’s trust was eroded, also that diminishing a patient’s sense of dignity was harmful and finally that the Hippocratic oath included the most basic principle of medicine:

Above all, do no harm.

We parted with her promise to cure the wrong at its source without letting the correction be traceable to me and to allow only the second nurse to administer the facility’s treatment. No more Phoebe.

One half of the treatments had already been given without noticeable effect. I hoped that, with trust and transparency now restored, at least the remaining treatment might prove more helpful. The supervisor told me that testing showed some restoration of function and strength, and I did not think she was making that up. But these modest improvements had yet to show themselves in my walk or quality of life.

After that, in the shared treatment rooms, where Phoebe dealt with other patients while my nurse assisted me, Phoebe seemed to be acting up a bit. She was noisier and a bit more obtrusive than she had been before. Thinking this could be her reaction to being taken off my case, I decided to ask for a private room. Patients had that option. I thought it best to reduce to the minimum any further interaction between us.

About a week and a half passed quietly, with three more treatment sessions.   At the end of the fourth session, to my great astonishment, Phoebe slipped into my private room, shutting the door behind her and took over the end-of-treatment steps! Here I was, entangled in wires, having agreed with the supervisor that one-on-one confrontations with Phoebe were to be avoided, and unable – because of the nearly-shut door – to see outside my room or to be seen by anyone else!

I did manage to say to Phoebe that I’d expected her colleague. She replied that my nurse was detained by a different task and that, in such cases, they covered for each other. This explanation was clearly false in the present instance since my nurse returned within a few minutes and started to open the door, immediately withdrawing when she perceived Phoebe. As soon as I was unplugged from the wires, I cut short the other usual ministrations and went to the nurses’ station to complete my report to my nurse. The two nurses were seated together. Seeing my approach, Phoebe quickly scampered out of sight.

In my whole life, I have never been so angry.

Passing through the reception room as I was leaving, I saw the supervisor with whom I’d had the earlier talk, the one I had supposed would repair the situation. Assuming that the sneaking into my room had been Phoebe’s own idea, I tried to draw the supervisor aside to alert her privately to what had occurred. Shockingly, the supervisor interrupted me to say that Phoebe’s trespass had been authorized by her! Her promise to me had lapsed, she said, since I hadn’t explicitly asked that it be renewed after three sessions!

I did not sleep well that night. At Jerry’s suggestion, I telephoned the supervisor in the morning to make clear that the trust she had repaired was now quite lost. To my further amazement, the supervisor now backed Phoebe to the point of suggesting that the entire episode had occurred only in my mind.   Here I must abridge, but the supervisor went through the backstory I had provided at her request, rewriting it so that I ended up the one accused! First my body had been demeaned. Now my mind was.

In the cool of the day, I had time to review her exculpating version of these recent events. Her version had several parts to it. I went through it, part by part. Just as a promise does not lapse just because it hasn’t been reiterated after a week and a half, so also the rest of her story was not even remotely plausible. She was lying — probably to cover for an errant employee and for the facility that had hired her.

The most curious part of the whole episode was what happened to me when I prayed about it. Usually, I get some consolation or insight when I pray. This time, not. It was as if every prayer sent heavenward on its paper arrow fell back in my lap stamped

Return to Sender.

I was looking for calm, for the still center, the way when you dive into the middle of a wave, there is a place where no crest breaks over you and you discover calm. I wanted to witness the whole scene with detachment, to get to some meta-level where you see the pattern from above.

The following night I had a dream, this one prompted by the episode. A certain scene played itself out where I was in a building seated across from a character I was dealing with who disavowed a sacred commitment that we shared. After this dream scene was over, still dreaming, I found myself on a lawn outside the building where I spoke aloud this one word:

Treachery!

The dream did not take “a long view” of what had happened. The dream said that the supervisor was in betrayal thrice over. She had betrayed

the truth,

her promise to me

and the Hippocratic oath.

In the face of such triple betrayals, no transcendence is proper or indicated. Treachery stands alone and unmitigated. There is no meta-level.

Treachery is treachery in all the worlds.

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Yom HaShoah

“Laufen”
Josef Nassy (1904-1976), a black ex-patriot of Jewish descent

Yom HaShoah

I really hadn’t wanted to go this time. It’s the night for commemorating/remembering the Shoah, the Holocaust, which my temple observes annually. Christian clergy sit on the raised platform at the front of the sanctuary and read, taking turns with the rabbi, from materials prepared for the occasion. Our acting rabbi officiates, the choir sings songs that were sung by Jewish resisters, or mothers to their doomed children, or by those who had refused to surrender religious hopes even as they walked into the mouth of hell.

Usually, my reason for going is that there ought to be more Jews in the pews than Gentiles on the dais. But, aside from showing the flag, I really didn’t want to be there. What tipped it for me was a card that arrived yesterday, signed by every member of the temple’s Board of Trustees, thanking me for what I’d done to bring Kasim Hafeez, the ex-terrorist, to our temple to speak to us. After that shower of graciousness from the Board, I was fully boxed in. School spirit wins again.

Having here disclosed these preliminaries, I’m in fact awfully glad I was there. Lately I’ve been reading a widely praised book by the historian David Nirenberg, titled Anti-Judaism. You would think I don’t need such a downer but, people in my walk of life need to know such things. Nirenberg is a careful and learned historian who is tracking the way anti-Jewish imagery, theological concepts, intra-mural disputes between early Christian factions, all combined to imprint the consciousness of the Christian West with deep-cut anti-Jewish grooves that must still make their force felt. (The book discusses other influences. This is as far as I’ve got.)

Revered nice guys like Bishop Ambrose defined Jews as enemies of God whose synagogues it’s all right for mobs to burn down.   St. Augustine, whose views came to be mainstream, disagreed with Ambrose. No, don’t destroy the Jews, he said. Keep them alive. For two reasons: as evidence of the historicity of the Hebrew Scriptures (the “Old Testament”) and evidence – because of their dispersion and miserable, homeless condition – of the triumph of Christianity’s new covenant over the old covenant between God and Israel, whose continued validity the Jews still maintained.

My goodness! The opposition to a reconstituted Jewish nation is profoundly (if no doubt unconsciously) theological! If Jews can return to their promised land, where they can speak once again the language in which their covenant was originally written, half the usefulness of Jewish existence is gone. They no longer show by their ruined condition that Christianity is the “new Israel.” And if Jews can be nearly wiped off the face of the earth, the other half of their purpose for Christian theology is gone too. Christian failure to preserve their Jews alive shows that Christians have allowed the evidence of their Bible’s historicity to be jeopardized.

Anyway, it’s all very crazy and very distressing. I can’t “normalize” the past. Yet I’m aware of its insidious presence in our world. It’s true, many people have been persecuted and massacred, for all kinds of reasons — having nothing to do with this theology. But it is the longest hatred, of a single target, in recorded history. I often say that, in my next life, I’m coming back Swedish. But now I’m in this life.

To my surprise and gratification, the pews were well filled. The choir was well drilled, tuneful and conveyed the feeling heart. The sermon was truthful and deep. The participating clergy were serious and sincere. They were not putting on an act. They were themselves. At intervals throughout the service, our acting rabbi asked us to empathize with the experience of the victims, entering it in meditative silence.

This is not hard for me. I’ve mentioned here that, in recent years, I’ve had a sharp sense of having lived through it, and perished in it, in a previous lifetime.

Make of that what you will. The “memories” (if such they are) are too precise and emphatic for me to be able to expunge. The experience is one where – from one edge of the human world to the other – there is no pity. The mercilessness fills all you can see, all the way to the horizon. It’s grey. It’s cold. It’s sad beyond sadness.

However, tonight, as – obedient to the rabbi’s request – I entered into a state of empathy with these victims, the feeling changed. This time, I also tried to picture God’s Witnessing Presence – the Shekinah – as close as I was to this evil as it unfolded.

What I saw – this is hard to describe – was a victory. The very act of keeping alive the golden thread of memory – of raising aloft the norms of decency that shed so bright a daylight over cruelty’s shrouded greyness – this act and others like it keep God’s world in being.

It is a great victory.

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Microaggression: Woman on Woman

“Tamatora Pursued by a Dragon”

Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1798-1861)

Microaggression: Woman on Woman

As anyone knows who knows me, I detest the very word “microaggression.” To me, it’s part of a newly weaponized jargon that allows any accuser to put on the mantle of victimhood and leave the accused to fight her own way back to social safety. That said, I can’t think of another title for the story I’m about to share with you.

In these columns, I’ve sometimes written about my walking handicap: the near-endless series of remedies I’ve tried, my unresigned attitude and how I fervently wish it would get cured. I’ve mentioned some recent remedies: a terrific physical therapist and a wise and skilled acupuncturist. They have helped somewhat, but at a pace so slow that I’ll have to live to be 135 before I begin to feel a difference in real life.

So, when a new treatment came to my attention, I thought I’d try it. Hell, all I risk is time, money and hope.

Unlike a lot of medical interventions, this one is not embarrassing. Patients can be in the same room with each other without feeling their privacy compromised. Patients report improvements and they’re obviously not lying or making it up. The staff have reason to believe they can help and that may be why the atmosphere in the facility is gentle and considerate. So I was startled when the staff person who was applying some instruments to my lower back said, with a little laugh, “Pull your pants down!” and again, when the instruments were in place, “Pull your pants up!” again with a titter.

Her titter and choice of words embarrassed me, but it wasn’t clear whether she had the faintest awareness of that. It seemed too trivial to make a fuss over. Maybe the embarrassment was the fault of my thin skin and another woman, more endowed with robust common sense, would not have felt a thing. Also any protest was risky. It could antagonize her, especially if my tone was wrong. And I wasn’t sure that I could find the right tone. If I tried to communicate the problem to her supervisor I could get her in trouble unfairly and meanwhile get myself typed as a troublemaker.

There are women, and men, whose instinctive defenses are such that nobody messes with them. Or if they do, the messers soon learn better. All I can say about that happy breed is that I’m not one of them.

The staffer’s choice of words did not change and my sense of being torn one way and torn the other was leading me to dread each trip to the treatment facility. At the same time, the problem seemed both trivial and embarrassing, to the point where I did not even share it with Jerry. I simply did not know how to understand this situation.

Let me make clear what the stakes were, in my mind. I believe that erotic self-defense is vital and nonnegotiable. If someone whom you cannot get away from is compromising your sense of feminine dignity, that’s not trivial. It’s serious and you ought to try to handle it. On the other hand, perhaps she’s just socially awkward, doesn’t quite know how to talk, and had no such intent? If I protested, and was clumsy about it, I might injure her sense of social ease and professional competence.

As long as I had no evidence one way or the other, I waited. Then it came: the first clear bit of evidence.

My helper had the task of applying the same instruments to another patient in the same room. This one was a nun. To the nun, the staffer’s words were, “FIX your pants.” Not “pull ‘em up.” Not “pull ‘em down.” And no damn titter.

So! She knows the nun would be offended. Which means, she knows I’d be, too.

This meant, she’s not acting unawares. Hey! Thank you Jesus! Light on the path.

Since you don’t roll over for abuse, I am now morally obligated to stop her. But how? What came to me, just a second or two before the next time she was to apply the instruments to my back, was to say aloud preemptively – before she could say anything — “So I’ll loosen my slacks and, when you’re ready, you’ll let me know and I’ll zip them up again.”

I’d prevented the indignity that time. But I still didn’t know that she knew that I had. I didn’t know how conscious her woman-on-woman aggression had been. Was it just a reflex, like a cat scratching at a person without thinking about it? Or did she know? Again, I lacked evidence.

That is, I lacked evidence till she obligingly provided it. Departing from standard procedure, this time she set the instruments without telling me that she had done so, or at what level they’d been set, and – again unprecedentedly – she did not return to check on me until the half time.

It’s not courtroom evidence, but in real life, at a certain point, you have to trust your hunches. To me it looked like her reprisal for having been caught. Which meant:

She knew.

She knew that I knew.

And she wasn’t sorry.

At that point, for the first time, I felt that I understood the situation and could tell Jerry.

One of the great things about Jerry is that he doesn’t go in for Denial in the service of making things nice when they’re not. He advised me to request another helper. That allowed the situation to be cauterized where I was concerned. As it turns out, though I hadn’t complained, the change was noticed, and the problem subsequently addressed, both responsibly and harmlessly.

Is there a lesson to draw here? Probably it goes like this: if you can squelch aggression reflexively, without thinking about it, be my guest. Do that. But if you’re like me, and you’re not sure but you think you’re being victimized, don’t react on a mere suspicion. Wait till you have sufficient evidence. Just because the surroundings are peaceful and the purposes officially benign is not a reason to forget the dictum of the American sage, Ralph Waldo Emerson:

Social life is war.

Just because you’ve done nothing to provoke it, doesn’t mean you’re imagining it. But don’t get ahead of the story. Wait till the situation clarifies itself sufficiently to take the shape of —

a handle you can grip.

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“I, A Happy Woman?”

“I, A Happy Woman?”

Every morning I begin the day with a few moments – as long as seems required – for meditation. This is a Two Step process. First, I try to get as much of me as I can into a focus centered in my heart. This is not a questioning process. It’s more like what a runner might do to get entirely inside the body that must run the race. She can pause to tie her shoe laces. She can’t pause to ask the Great Questions like, who am I, really? or what do I look like, viewed from the cosmic standpoint? I just notice how it is with me so that I can get on to the Second Step.

In the Second Step, I ask for divine input. Where today is concerned, what does God want me to know? When I get a sense of the answer (as clear an answer as comes through to me) I try to plug into it, when I can remember to, in the course of the day. Revisitings are intermittent. Hours can pass without any recollection of what I was told in the quiet of the morning.

How do I know it’s God and not just “me”? I don’t over-worry that question. If it wasn’t God – only me in some lower sense of me – there will generally be a flower pot to fall on my head and advise me that I am stepping where I shouldn’t step. Anyway, one does one’s best in the day. We all do what we can to keep significance alive in our day. Missteps will happen.

So what message did I get this morning? What came to me was merely this:

I am happy.

Ugh! you might say. How shallow! How yucky. How unworthy of a soul with inner depth in it, much less awareness of the world we live in!

Jerry and I were at an American Academy of Religion conference at Boston University this weekend. Jerry chaired a panel on Theology Without Walls, a subfield within theology that he has founded, which is drawing considerable interest from talented people in the religion field. We also attended one other panel that we had time for. The presenter talked about Martin Luther and Paul Tillich, two theologians of world consequence. Both men were so preoccupied with sin and death that I got scared just hearing about them. But if either theologian had just written about his happiness, nobody would have heard of him or wanted to.

What did it mean, my morning’s message? After all, the day held its usual buffetings. I’m a pretty high anxiety person, so any discord is amplified in my sensorium. I won’t iterate the discordant notes, struck from within and without, in the course of the day. Nor will I try to communicate how loud they sounded in my inward ears of the spirit. Nevertheless, reviewing the day, reviewing the week leading up to the day when I received this message, I do have a sense of what was meant.

Don’t hate me but … I feel that I understand what role I play in the script whose most telling contributors are this writer plus the Great Author. To be able to say that, with sincerity, is to be happy in the sense that counts. It’s not a static condition. It’s not a state that comes with guarantees. I don’t even know that I feel particularly safe in feeling or in saying this.

It’s a way of moving through one’s time.

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