The Return of the Well-Tailored Proto-Nazi

“The Chess Players”
Frederich August Moritz Retzsch, 1831

The Return of the Well-Tailored Proto-Nazi

This is about my return encounter with the dapper gentleman who first surfaced last May, when I gave a talk at California’s Claremont School of Theology, based on a chapter from my book, A Good Look at Evil.

Gentle Reader, may I give you some advice in this Non-Advice Column?  Don’t write a book about evil!  Not if you want a quiet, harmonious life.  The title alone alerts the powers of darkness.  They will come calling.

We go to California periodically for an experimental treatment available only at the Loma Linda Neuropathic Therapy Center.  It’s the sole treatment I’ve found that appears to be doing me some good.

Jerry has given several talks at the Claremont School of Theology, on the subfield of theology that he founded, Theology Without Walls.  The talk I gave there last May bore the title, “Evil Is Not Banal.”  In my talk, I disputed the claim of the “banality of evil,” a claim popularized by the political philosopher Hannah Arendt.

The attendees had been few last May, but they listened intelligently and asked good questions.  With one exception.  A dapper gentleman of middle years, wearing something subdued but in the best of taste, whose gestures were modulated, contained and precise, raised his hand.  He had not come to ask a question.  Nor did he say anything remotely related to my talk.  He had come to my talk to present a multi-point justification for the Holocaust.  Not, mind you, a denial.  A justification!

Among the millions whose annihilation he had come, in his own words, to “explain,” was of course this speaker.  I.  He had come to explain why it was okay to murder me.

I try not to get into a fight unless it has my name on it.  But there was no mistaking this one – or my name’s not Abigail L. Rosenthal.

Holy cow!  Speak of the devil! 

What do I do, Lord?

The instruction that came floating down to me was as plain as my name.

Don’t engage.

DENOUNCE.

So that’s what I did.  In absolute terms that I don’t recall ever having used prior to that incident.  Accordingly, the rest of the Q & A went back on track and resumed its normal academic tone.

Anyway, that was back in May.  Now, in July, Jerry was to participate in a Trialogue on Theology Without Walls along with two accomplished young theologians from CST.  The event was notably well attended.  Every seat was filled around and behind the long conference table.

And lo!  There he was again, looking as dapper and civilized as ever, in his well-cut summer outfit, greeting the other attendees left and right, almost like a co-host.

I had been listed as a co-participant, which meant that at some point I would be expected to say something.  The man’s quite-at-ease demeanor disconcerted me.  If I did say something, would he then feel free to attack me?   Not being the speaker this time, I could not easily summon the one-pointed focus from which flowed the tactical skill I had shown last time.  Meanwhile, he looked like a man who was feeling fit and feisty.

As for me, I was scared.  Instinctively I wanted to say, “I pass,” with a demure little smile, when it came my turn to speak.  I wanted to hunker down, to lie low.  Not to give him a target.  But then I thought, oh gee:

doesn’t that leave the adversary

in possession of the field?

There are techniques I learned riding the New York subway.  If there was a guy sitting across from me, with knees apart and one thing on his mind, I would focus on mentally pushing him back into his own skin and his own subway seat.  Don’t ask me to explain it, but it worked more often than not.  You use what you can.

I decided to scan my adversary’s energy field insofar as I could, intuitively.  Holy cow!  He was all over me, from my head to my toes!  As far as I could sense his mode of being present, he had come to the conference with me on the brain, with Jews on the brain, and he was in attack mode.

Okay, I thought, I was right to be scared.  Now let’s try, mentally, to push him back, the way I did on the New York subway, to get him off me and back to his seat at the other end of the conference table.

Push, push, push.

I made all the mental efforts of which I was capable.  But it was no use.  I couldn’t budge him.  He was really dug in.

Hmn.  If I can’t do it, with all my will and mental focus, maybe God can do it for me?  I decided to ask God to lift the dapper guy’s energy off me and put it back in his well-tailored body, where he was seated, at the far end of the table.

Waddya know!  That did work!  A large, cooling distance opened between him and me.  At the same time, the participant seated on my left put a thermos of coffee on the table, to the right of her arm.  Listing just a little to my left, I could place my face behind the thermos, out of the Holocaust-justifier’s line of sight.

By the time I was called on to join the discussion, I could speak about how I had discovered that I was essentially Jewish (hint: in a good way) – without any spirit of defensiveness or inhibition.  My words and my attitude gave the adversary no openings.

After the discussion, Jerry and I had dinner with a lovely couple, who added one more detail to this story.  One member of the couple had been attentively watching the man who justified the Holocaust.  It seems that the man came with a pen and pad and, as the discussion went forward, he was scribbling furiously.  Until suddenly his pen ran out of ink and he could scribble no more.

He seemed extremely disconcerted and frustrated by this, as if some project for which his scribbled notes furnished the needed fuel had been unaccountably thwarted.

And some folks say

there ain’t a God.

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Book Matters

“Young Girl Reading”
Seymour Joseph Guy, 1877

Book Matters

 These are some of the books I’ve been reading lately – that I can recommend.

A History of the American People

by Paul Johnson.

This book started out so fact-crammed and deadpan that I thought it would be a painful climb through the 976 pages before we get to the Notes and the Index.  (It’s 1088 pages all told.  I’m on page 475 now.)  By now, however, I’m fascinated.

I was reading Johnson partly to compare a British Conservative historian with Jill Lepore’s These Truths: a History of the United States, which describes roughly the same events from the vantage point of an American Liberal.  Neither history is factually inaccurate, so far as I can tell.  They just foreground different facts, each leaving in shadow the data that don’t fit his or her narrative.  Historians seem to be rather like lawyers.  The good ones don’t lie, but they tell whatever part of the truth will help their client!

Whereas Jill Lepore has a striking gift for story-telling, getting the color into the anecdote and just writing well — Johnson writes in grey tones, without trying to be eloquent.  At first, it seems a rather dogged business, even to keep going with him.  He fills in the economic part of the story without moralizing: what life held out for those who weathered the trip and what you could expect if you stayed home in Britain or Continental Europe.  The economics of the human race is its inflow and outgo, its metabolism; so it’s informative to view it plain.

As for slavery, our great original sin, although at first Johnson appears to put it dismissively in the background while he sets up the rest of his story, fact by fact,  I learned more about its actual villainy from him than I did from Jill Lepore.  To me, the deepest horror of slavery lies in an aspect of which I did not know: the breeding of human beings for sale.

To treat the human eros that way is blasphemy.  It’s a crime against God.

As a proud Englishman, Johnson occasionally betrays just a smidgeon of British contempt for us that is interesting.  I had no idea we had put up such a poor show in the War of 1812.  Not so bad on the water, from which Francis Scott Key wrote our National Anthem, but pretty sorry on land.

All this compiling of fact, economic, legal, and political, suddenly is seen to provide the groundwork for a part of the story that I didn’t see coming.  Among the “facts” of the American story is the verbal blossoming of New England.  Suddenly, our raw country springs into literature!  An American voice, a new sound, is heard.  First, there is Emerson.  He works, consciously and deliberately, to create, embody and justify the American character.  No longer cringing before its more mature and cultivated European models, the American is his own man or woman, shaped by original experiences — not a hand-me-down copy of long-established beliefs and attitudes.  Then we find Thoreau, paring his life down to essentials, trying to pay as he goes, in real sympathy with the woods around Walden pond.  There is Longfellow.  Nobody talks of an upright, unproblematic fellow like Longfellow any more, but Johnson makes clear his poetic reach and power.  And then there is Longfellow’s opposite, Edgar Allen Poe, who inhabits the other side of our vast, seemingly vacant spaces: the scary side.  There is Walt Whitman — gay and in the closet — the first American literary self-promoter.  He collected photographs of himself and designed his own tomb, anticipating the genius for self-invention of “Papa” Hemingway a century later.  Finally, outselling them all, is Harriet Beecher Stowe and her Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  It was translated and read all over the world.  As a girl, my mother must have read it in French.  Or in Russian.  It was her favorite novel.  It kept Britain from taking the Southern side.  It excited the first world-wide wave of anti-Americanism.  As Lincoln said, when he met Mrs. Stowe, it “started this great war.”

And now — what I am reading now — the extraordinary American epic: the Civil War.  It was bound to come.  Everything in our contradictory history explained and incentivized it.  Johnson’s picture of Lincoln is utterly riveting and stunning.  He thought long and deeply about the morally corrupting realities of slavery.  He had the mind of a good logician, the rough and ready, variegated, first-hand experiences of life that Emerson and Thoreau found marking the American Character.  He had a wide-angled view of the political forces in play, military good judgment, the tragic sense and the humor – above all the freedom from ego – to fit him for the task of leading America through it.

And that’s as far as I’ve gotten.


Love in the Western World

by Denis de Rougemont

This is another book that I started out disliking, but have come to find fascinating. (In quite a different way of course.)

D de R begins by making clear his opposition to Romantic Love as he understands it.  His purpose, stated at the outset, is to discourage readers from nourishing romantic delusions.  D de R wants us to get a job, get married, settle down, raise a family and not make trouble dreaming wild dreams of great love.  He associates the romance delusion with what Freud called the Death Wish, which is an erotic yearning capable of breaking through all the bonds that hold society together.  He holds, reasonably enough, that pursuing such a course can only end in self-destruction.

Since I am not a great fan of Sigmund Freud – neither his ego, his id, nor his Death Wish — I was finding D de R tiresome before he even got going.

It was a while before I began to see that he was pointing out something real.

When I lived in Paris, I couldn’t help noticing – none of us Americans could help noticing – that the couples strolling in the streets, the statues decorating the public squares, the artistic films, the popular songs, the classics of French literature, all described a type of romantic intertwining that we Americans had never seen.   Purportedly, it was irresistible, enveloping, complete in its choreography – and yet self-terminating.  That is, everyone agreed that l’amour was all in all, a world of its own and at the same time, doomed to end.  As one famous song, Les feuilles mortes, had it,

 the sea erases on the sand

 the footsteps of disunited lovers.

There were many such songs.

I did not know where and how this strange thought-form originated.  I thought it was mistaken — not because romantic love is delusive — but because the idea that it has to end is false.  Why should it end?  And yet, the citizens of France seemed to think it did.  It shaped their youth.  It reshaped their later years.  Where did they get such an idea?

D de R tells us.  At least, he makes out a persuasive case that it originated in a certain gnostic heresy that spread like wildfire through Europe from about the 10th century through the 13th: the Cathar heresy.

This heresy was brutally stamped out by Christian orthodoxy, its adherents killed and its attitudes driven underground.

What makes it “gnostic” and what does that mean?  Gnosticism has many varieties and is found in all kinds of circumstances around the globe.  It may represent a universal human tendency:

the desire to get the hell out of this world.

Typically, gnostic religions or cults have held that the empirical world is bad, a fallen or delusive realm, and its established divinities must be bad too.  The aim of the gnostic is to rise into a higher, purer, “more truly real” sphere by renouncing the world’s practices and acquiring – by some secret method – the knowledge (gnosis) that forever frees one from the world’s fetters.

For the Cathars who were “Pure” – the ones at the “Perfect” level — that meant renouncing marriage.  For Believers who could not attain the highest level, marriage was permitted but disvalued.

As de Rougemont tells it, underground Cathari ideals influenced the medieval troubadours and the ideal of courtly love that their lyric songs and poems championed.  At its inception, the idealized “Lady” of courtly love was code for the gnostic ideal.  She was to be adored but not carnally embraced, because she represented the hidden realm of pure Spirit.  The medieval romances, above all the story of Tristan and Iseult, should be read in this light: as encoded representations of the Cathari message.  As secret Cathars must do, Tristan and Iseult violate all the official protocols and obligations: Iseult’s arranged marriage to King Mark, Tristan’s required fealty to Mark, his feudal lord.  Their love has no means of actualizing itself in the empirical world.  For that reason, the fabled romance has “Death” inbuilt, as its telos or goal.

D de R shows – to my mind, persuasively – how this version of the romantic ideal is carried forward into post-medieval times, forgetting its origin but reappearing in attenuated form in many of the great classics of literature, in France and elsewhere.

Look at Romeo and Juliette, Dante and Beatrice – none of them can live together in the real world!  There are people who believe that these idealized couples must cover the whole spectrum of romantic possibilities.  Such is the entrancing power of ideas – even false ones – when they are beautifully expressed!

Though he has persuaded me that this gnostic thought-form, carried through the centuries, can still distort the lives of modern people, Denis de Rougemont’s conclusion — that romance itself is fatally misguided — does not follow from the evidence he traces.

In my experience, romantic love can give courage and sustenance for life within the real world.

You don’t have to die

to find something desirable

that you can trust.

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Acting the Part

“The Embarkation of Cythera”
Antoine Watteau, 1717

Acting the Part

 When I was newly arrived in Paris as a young Fulbright Scholar, I was invited to have lunch at the home of the Israeli ambassador to France.  He was my mother’s first cousin.  Hence the invitation.  We had already met at the embassy.  Before we could exchange a cousinly kiss on both cheeks in the French style, I walked down a long red carpet to where he waited, standing in front of his desk.

I was eager for lunch, having not yet received the student card that would admit us Fulbrights to the student restaurants.  As a result, during that time, my midday meals were restricted to eggs, the cheapest item you could order at the cafes of the Latin Quarter.  It was a bit monotonous, but better than feeling pangs of hunger during our first weeks of orientation.

At the residence, I greeted him again and then turned to meet Mme. Ambassador and their daughter, my second cousin.  The exchange of courtesies completed, we convened at what turned out to be the Ceremony of Lunch.

I believe it was Stendahl who wrote that — if you’re unable to survive the pitiless gaze of the servants in Paris – then you can’t pass inspection in Paris.  Since the question is simply whether to be or not to be – socially, you won’t be.  You’ll be a zero.

Unfortunately, since I was the guest at the luncheon, I would be the first one served, for every course.  Before long the servant (whom I’ll call the footman, having never learned his proper title in French), appeared noiselessly at my left, bearing the first course on a silver platter.  It was a white pyramid.   I had never seen anything like it.  Feeling more flustered than I ever had in my life, before or since, I attempted to attack it from the bottom.  Had I succeeded, the whole edifice might have toppled catastrophically.  My efforts went on for a while before Mme. Ambassador suggested quietly that I start at the apex.  Following her advice, I finally managed to secure a portion – of something, I knew not what.

It was eggs, cleverly disguised.  By the time the footman had circumnavigated the long table, I had figured that out.  I was eating the very thing I’d hoped to escape.

After an interval, the footman appeared at my left once again.  By this time, I’d learned what was comme il faut.  I knew how to behave.  I secured it, whatever it was, at the apex and got it safely to my plate.

Cracky!  It was eggs again.  A second helping!  I’d been too flustered to look.

In the Annals of Contempt, secretly kept by the servants of Paris, there must be an entire page reserved for Abigail alone.

Jean-Paul Sartre has a discussion of the French waiter in Being and Nothingness, his major philosophic work.  Sociological note: the French waiter is not an actor between gigs or a college student working his way through.  He is so quintessentially a French waiter that it’s impossible to imagine him being anything else.

This being the phenomenon that presents itself, you can see that Sartre was breaking new ground in France when he contended that the waiter who brought the philosopher his coffee at Les Deux Magots — the café where he hung out at the corner of Saint Germain des Pres – that waiter was not really the role that he played.  Rather, he was acting the part of a waiter.  Sartre portrayed him as a person pretending to be the role that he played in society.  For the philosopher, he illustrated what Sartre called “bad faith,” mauvaise foi.

Sartre’s point is that none of us is the role he or she plays.  To pretend otherwise is bad faith.

Maybe so, but I sure would’ve liked to be better at the role I was invited to play, in one of the beaux quartiers of Paris,

so long ago,

on that bright afternoon,

at the ambassadorial residence,

under the watchful gaze of the footman. 

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The Family Laundry

Henry Ossawa Tanner – Sand Dunes at Sunset, Atlantic City. Circa 1885

A cousin just told me that the Israeli branch of the family is putting out a book that she has seen in advance of publication.  It’s about the immediate forebears of that branch, who are people of large consequence in Israel: equivalent to the Adams family in the early decades of America’s political life.

Naturally, I am aware of this high-prestige branch of the family tree.  Some years ago, it fell to me to reprove a transgression of which I learned, hidden at one node in that lineage.  In consequence, I lost access to the whole kit and caboodle, with all its illustriousness, and had to manage my life without whatever joys or privileges might have come my way had I passed the buck on this one.

Of course, I would have been more than happy to pass the buck, had there been anyone to pass it to.  However, as it happened, I was standing there alone and didn’t see anyone within buck-passing range.  So it was left to me to pen the note of condemnation, sent just to the ones I thought needed it — which cut me off from further contact with the illustrious branch.

Now the children of that generation have put out a gorgeous volume commemorating their people and it looks as if I’d be welcomed back.  Or would be if I spoke Hebrew and had plans to visit Israel any time soon.

I don’t have such plans, being very busy with three book projects, this column and the manifold summonses of my present, over-full life.

Like most of the combats of my life that cost more than I ever wanted to pay, what I feel about this one is simple:

even had I known the full cost,

I would do it again.

In the Bible, the Family Laundry has often been washed in public and the cost of that has been high.

The first time I saw Israel, I was on an El Al flight, circling in the air.  Looking down from high above it, a thought came unbidden:

There it is AGAIN. 

How nice!

They’ve put cities down this time!

So it seems the connection runs pretty deep with me.  To illustrate: it’s only when I’m in Israel that I use the objective case competently.  Grammatical security seems a side-effect of being centered.

I do think the medievals were right about Jerusalem.  It is the navel of the world.  There was an energy I felt there that made my home town of New York seem sleepy by contrast.

On one of my visits, I went with Israeli cousins to a wedding on the Jordan.  Once we were inside the kibbutz, we left our car and switched to a jeep driven by a young kibbutznik.  He spoke an Israeli-accented English.  I sat beside him in the front seat.

“Your kibbutz seems very well located.  You’re on the only fertile stretch in this region,” said I.  “When we were coming to the kibbutz, we saw only desert for miles around.”

“It was desert,” shrugged our driver, gesturing laconically at the soil beneath his wheels.

When we arrived at the outdoor wedding, they were playing rock music on a loud speaker under the stars.  Despite my meager Hebrew, even I could make out the refrain.

Lech lecha!

Those words, sung to a rock beat, were the first God spoke, in Ur of the Chaldees, to Abraham.

Get thee up and

get thee out …

to a Land

 that I will show thee.

Some of the outstanding best and some of the deeply flawed are found on my family tree.  Should any of that cause pride?  Is it a cause for shame?  For both?  Both in what mixture?  I suppose it’s not a question of what I should feel.  I do feel both, though not all the time and not in equal measure.

My misgivings have nothing to do with the selectively-edited narrative being woven into now-fashionable “anti-Zionism.”  Still less have they to do with the default-position anti-Semitism that hangs over mankind like a Jungian thought-form, ready-to-wear by anyone who has given up on the effort to live a personal life truthfully.

In what context should my misgivings be viewed, then?  They don’t seem to undermine my sense of identity.  Our identities are, in varying degrees, flexible.  It’s legitimate, I believe, to feel what one great Christian theologian has called “holy envy”: the awareness that no one faith exhausts the spiritual riches available to humankind.  Empathy, imagination, curiosity – intellectual, personal or spiritual – can take us far from home, without suffering corrupt betrayal of our origins.

The betrayers – who join the abuse of their own people – are another matter. They can take us still farther from home.  And that kind of trip is a great temptation: to get in step, to join the parade, to echo the faint – or not so faint – contempt, often the default position when Jews are the topic.  Jews themselves are hardly immune from it.  That’s why I call it the default position.  To avoid it, you have to focus, and watch your footing.

By contrast, betrayal comes easy.  It arrives decorated with many social and professional advantages.  People readily approve, mistaking opportunism for moral courage.  Hell, I too coulda been a contender.  I coulda written best sellers, read by all the beautiful people.  It would have been so easy.

That said, I do see one problem with betrayal:

you lose the objective case.

 

 

 

 

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Love Stories

Love Stories

Just now I am reading a book Jerry got me, titled, Love in the Western World.  Translated from the French, it’s by a guy named Denis de Rougement.  With a name like that, and a title like that, who can resist?

Actually, that very same book sat on my parents’ bookshelves where, from time time, I would pluck it off its shelf, in youthful anticipation of the romantic peaks that might be found in a book.  After a time, I would put the book back, never able to figure out what he was talking about.  So here it is again, and now’s my big chance to fathom the depths and scan the heights of what the French call la carte de tendre, the map of love.

Except that it turns out de Rougement is against romantic love.   So it’s like reading a book about religious experience where the author is on hand to explain how unbalanced that experience must be, from a chemical standpoint.

Denis de Rougement is not a chemist.  His case is more literary than that.  I can only tell you what I’ve learned so far.  The Western Tradition is contaminated, he argues, by the legend of Tristan and Iseult.  As the thirteenth-century poets tell the story, Tristan is a knight sent by King Mark of Cornwall to fetch Iseult, the king’s intended bride.  On their way back to Cornwall, they accidentally drink a magic potion meant only for the bride and groom.  The potion causes them to come down with a fatal passion for each other.  Under its influence, they betray their every feudal obligation, till at last only death can claim them for its own.

From this tale, de Rougement infers that, in the unconscious, the force of eros is linked with a death wish; these combined forces tear the web of loyalties and obligations that secure personal and social life.  Only by controlling and sublimating the erotic urges can one achieve good citizenship and marriages that last.

This is Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Freud, unadulterated.  Nowadays, it’s not often served up as neat as this, but the view continues to undergird most modern and post-modern attitudes.

I think it’s hooey.

I see no necessary link — experiential or conceptual — between romantic love and an unconscious death-wish or anti-social behavior.  Neither nature nor history supports this theory.  It’s the opiate of the intellectuals.

There are ways to test whether an animal is acting under unconscious programming or is figuring things out consciously.  The tests are called “deprivation experiments.”  When you take away some feature of the environment on which the animal normally depends, if the animal can’t cope with the change but continues to react as if the missing feature were still present, then his behavior is deemed unconscious or innate.  If, on the other hand, the animal figures out how to attain his objective in the new circumstances, then he’s a conscious actor.

Animals can’t afford the dark urges of nineteen-century German philosophy.  They can’t get professorships.  They have to manage their lives!

Romantic love is not a threat to personal or social survival.  Nor did it arise for the first time in twelfth- and thirteenth-century France.   We find it in the Bible, which is a quite different site, culturally.   Although the theological glosses on the Song of Songs may have their claims, on its face that book is about the longing — the world-enveloping desire — of true lovers for one another.  The way the very landscape is encompassed by their yearning is indicative of the romantic way of being alive.

Its intensities don’t require artificial barriers, as Stendahl thought.  The experience doesn’t depend on bad faith, as Sartre thought.

Ladies, don’t take advice

on personal relations

from bad lovers.

If the presence or absence of romantic love turned out to make the strongest difference in human life, I would not be surprised.

How does that personal force appear in history?  We’ve just finished watching Franz, a film set in Germany and France in the year 1919.  Its protagonists are a young German woman whose fiancé was killed in World War I, and a young Frenchman afflicted by guilt over a German soldier he met in a trench and killed, face to face.

Will these two appealing young people discover their love for each other in time to save it from a past they cannot share and the looming future that, fourteen years hence (in the Nazi era), might present still darker obstacles?

What gives the story its strange grip — its fascination — is not only the near-genius with which Director Francois Ozon has recreated the vanished worlds of Germany and France at that more innocent time.  It’s also the way the tie that binds the lovers allows us to see how tragic was and will be the history that even now threatens their silent yearning.

Perhaps history itself

is a long,

broken,

unspoken romance.

 

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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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