The Death of a Friend

Shirley and Little Red Music

The Death of a Friend

This week word came that my friend Shirley Kennedy had died.  On the one hand, I was relieved for her.  It was like hearing that a friend, unfairly imprisoned, had been set free.  On the other hand … such a sweep of memories!

When I first began to write this “Non-Advice Column” it was with the idea that there’s an art – or a skill – to being a woman.  One could be an expert on many things but a dope at the woman thing.

I had three models in mind, very different women: one Russian, one French and my mother, all born on other shores.  Whatever each of these women knew, it was not to be found in how-to books or political manifestos.  I didn’t know how they knew what they knew, but it was obviously worth knowing.  I admired them.

Shirley Kennedy was a completely different sort of woman, but one I also very much admired.  In her own sphere, she was a great woman and a great friend to me.

She was among the last of the breed of Old School Mainers.  Her babies had been born at home where the midwife didn’t like you to fuss about pain.  She had the home skills women used to have before you could buy butter and milk and soap at the store.  Back when people had fewer time-saving devices, it seemed that everyone had more time, Shirley said.

There wasn’t much that had happened in Milbridge for the last 75 years that she didn’t know.  In the memoir she had begun to script (which the local historical society might do well to acquire) she knew what to tell and what to gloss over.  She spoke with the accents of Washington County that the new generation is sloughing off.

She won many ribbons in rodeos across the nation but, more to the point, I never saw anyone sit a horse with more mastery than Shirley.  She understood horses and rode with grace and ease.

That wasn’t all she understood.  I had a woman friend in town who’d been born and raised in wartime Germany and came to the U.S. as a G.I. bride, after the War.  Over the time I knew her, Hilda began turning toward political extremism.  My efforts couldn’t stem the tide.  She could have chosen either extreme, Left or Right, but a final visit made clear that she’d become a Neo-Nazi.

The very afternoon of my last conversation with Hilda, I was to ride with Shirley.  As we went down Back Bay Road at a walk, I shared with Shirley what had just occurred, adding that I was less upset for myself (have I mentioned that I’m Jewish?) than for Hilda.

“I know,” Shirley said, not losing a beat.

She did know.  I didn’t have to explain — as I might have had to with a city friend.

When it was time to sell the antebellum home I’d inherited on Bayview Street, I learned that my parents hadn’t owned a saleable half-acre of the ground on which the house stood.  Only Shirley would have known who did own the shore strip and the right-of-way and how to find them.  I’d be tracking them down still if she hadn’t led me to them on horseback.

In the last years, when the body she had tuned to the highest level began to fail her, and she was caged in its crumbling functions, a gentler side emerged.  She seemed humbly grateful for the helps she needed and received.  I’m not saying that those virtues compensated for what she described as “existing, not living,” but they were not insignificant.

You could call it

part of the glory of her.

 As I realize that she has gone, one other awareness comes through now.  Improbably, considering the surface differences that might have been expected to separate us, she and I had been very close.  My blood sister and I have been thoroughly estranged for many years.  In consequence, I don’t usually think of friendship between women in terms of a feeling that’s specifically sisterly.

This week, quite unexpectedly, it’s come to me with sudden force that Shirley and I

had been sisters!

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It’s August and My Shrink is in the Hamptons!

Sigmund Freud in his study at Berggasse 19 in Vienna, 1934.
Freud Museum London

It’s August and My Shrink is in the Hamptons!

There was a time in Manhattan when virtually everyone I knew was in Freud-based therapy.  So people would have trouble getting through August, because that was when their shrinks were vacationing on the beaches of Long Island.  During the whole month, people couldn’t get their lives validated!

Though I’d read a little Freud in college, I shied away from deeper study because I knew I might find his portrayal of women demoralizing.

It was not till I was putting together the reading list for a course I introduced at Stony Brook, “Philosophic Foundations of Feminism,” that I first read one of Freud’s case studies.  Since I’d listed Dora: An Analysis of a Case of Hysteria as required reading, of course I had to read it too.

So what was Dora’s problem, and how was the great man going to cure it?  Dora was a young girl who confided to Sigmund Freud, her doctor, that one of her father’s bearded, middle-aged friends had tried to force a bristly kiss on her, from which she had felt nauseated.

Freud’s diagnosis?  He wrote that the displacement of sexual feeling from the genitals to the throat was a clear symptom of hysteria.

Of hysteria?  Holy moly!  It was a clear symptom of good taste, I thought, as I repressed my own impulse to toss my cookies.

This topic is on my mind because I’ve been reading Norman Lebrecht’s Genius and Anxiety, a book that includes the author’s candid summary of recent research on Freud’s life and work.  I’ll just mention a few of the items described by Lebrecht.

Early in his career, Freud was treating patients who had leaky bladders or difficulties in sexual performance by inserting a generator wire into their urethras, producing electric shocks there when he threw a switch.  It did not cure his hapless patients but … what the heck!  Worth a shot, he must have thought.

To relieve another patient’s premenstrual tension and tendency to masturbate overmuch, Freud referred her to a quack doctor in Berlin who treated this kind of thing by operating on the nose.  The doctor inadvertently left a piece of gauze in the patient’s nose.  It led to infection and permanently disfigured her face.  (Boy, that’ll cure the tendency to masturbate!)

Another of his patients (whom Freud nicknamed the “Wolf Man” in his report of the case) said, in after years: “If Freud was so great … why do I still feel so rotten?”

At that time, my colleague at Stony Brook, philosopher Edward Erwin, had already done a fair bit of investigating of the Freud claims.  He shared an essay with me, summarizing the rigorous studies of Freud’s results that were then available.  The summary claimed that the results of psychoanalysis were not superior to effects gained by other treatments or by no treatment at all.

It wasn’t August, so I could take Ed Erwin’s essay to my shrink right away, fully expecting him to expose the methodological flaws of that study.

As it turned out, my shrink was well aware of such objections and seemed quite prepared to counter them.

What he laid out by way of counter-argument was a pastiche of evasions.  It happens that I can tell a bad argument when I hear one.

Accordingly, I quit him.

Years later, Ed Erwin told me that I was one of the few philosophers he knew who had actually changed her assumptions  — and the actions based on them — when the evidence did not support them!

A few days before reading Ed’s article, I had dropped in on some friends from the counter-culture.  In the group was a long-haired poet named Peter who was totally laid back and nonjudgmental.  You could do your thing.  It didn’t matter.  Whatever.  He was like a man without bones.  That flexible.

On impulse, I described the sessions with my shrink to the poet.  Peter listened, nodding in his totally accepting way, till I mentioned one detail that shocked him visibly.  Just to make sure he’d heard me aright, he said, leaning forward with a look of disbelief,

You mean you’re PAYING him?”

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A Remarkable Evening

“The Night Watch”
Rembrandt, 1642

A Remarkable Evening

Jerry and I belong to a Christian/Jewish dialogue group that celebrated its 25th year last week, though we haven’t been in it that long.  The discussion topic was not so celebratory: anti-semitism and how to destroy it.  (Privately I thought, yeah, I should live so long, but didn’t say that, not wanting to dampen hopes.)

Dinner is served cafeteria-style before the discussion.  Jerry and I took a small table with a river view.  We were soon joined by an attractive blond lady named Krista Bard who was, it turned out, Honorary Counsel General from Lithuania to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

Had my family retained memories of Lithuania, they would not have been good ones.  Trying for a sociable note, I remarked to Krista:

“I have an ancestor from Vilna: the Vilna Gaon.”

Though that 18th-century rabbi is reputed one of the foremost Talmudists, few nonJews would have heard of him.  So I did not expect Krista’s response, which was that commemoration of the Vilna Gaon was now an official event in Lithuania.

“How is that possible?” I asked.

After the Second World War was over, she said, there was wide awareness that Lithuanians had not conducted themselves well during the Holocaust.  A general realization ensued, that the country had better wake up, so that its people would not do this anymore.  What followed was a public acknowledgment of moral failure plus regret and admiration for the Jewish/Lithuanian heritage that had been allowed to perish on its soil or been driven beyond the borders to its doom.

I was nearly as astonished as

 the Vilna Gaon would have been!

At the discussion, each Jewish or Christian participant was invited to share personal encounters with anti-semitism.  The Reader might not know how exceptional a happening this was.

Jews do not get together to share war stories.

The topic might get touched upon in a wider context, say of other crises: humanitarian, ecological, literary, scientific, theological or political – including inflation, the national debt, ice at the antipodes and the Mueller Report.  I have never heard any gathering of Jews discuss “anti-semitism and me.”  Never.

My goodness, I thought.  First, the Gaon of Vilna raised to the status of Lithuanian national treasure.  And now this.  I am going to get the vapors!

Here is one of the war stories.  When one participant was a 23-year-old student, enrolled (for reasons I did not catch) in the graduate department of a Christian university, before the first class began, students stood to repeat the Lord’s Prayer.  Our Jewish student stood with his head politely bowed, but silent.

After the Amens, the professor, who was also a priest, came and stood in front of our youth asking why he had remained silent.

“I’m Jewish,” came the reply.  “I don’t say the Lord’s Prayer.”

“Ah,” said the priest.  “Don’t Jews pray?”

“All your prayers are derived from Jewish prayers!  And I think you knew the answer to both your questions before you asked them.   Your purpose was to embarrass me in front of my classmates.  I am leaving your course.”

Some days later, our young man was stopped in the hallway by a senior cleric who asked whether there was anything he could do to repair the situation.

“No,” replied our young man.  “It’s too bad the professor never learned the love that his religion is supposed to teach.”

Wow, I thought, what a story!  Usually, the targeted person spends his or her next two or three decades trying to figure out what he or she should have said.  Instead here it was in a single package:

the right answer

to the right man (or men)

at the right time.

Among the Christian speakers was a woman who was first shown photos of Holocaust survivors as a young girl, perhaps in a high school textbook.  For some reason, though the world holds many horrors, those photos left a burning imprint.  As she entered young womanhood, she began to track the reappearances, infrequent at first, but becoming more familiar, and coming finally from higher up and a wider demographic.  The fashionable new pretexts did not befog her awareness of the spiritual abyss that they overlay, like brush that the hunter will put over a pit to conceal it.  As she saw it, no human fighter could defeat this thing unaided.  It needs fighters but also needs prayer.

My story came at the end.  I told of successive efforts to alert fellow congregants to the new anti-semitism, inviting speakers and also responding to local instances.  We won some and made a dent in others.  There was however one problem that seemed to resist every effort to cure it.

Once a week, for years on end, a certain group conducted a “vigil” (as they called it) right in the center of town, holding up placards that denounced the Jewish state for evils unspecified but (the implication was) worse than anything else on the planet.  Else why would the vigilers be there?

My sense was that this was not just one-sided and unfair, but an actual danger.  Public insults that go unanswered invite further attacks, first social but finally physical.

One morning, I was having brunch with two Christian friends and going over the failure of my every counter-move, episode by tedious episode.  Nothing had worked.  The final effort had only led to everyone blaming me.

My friends offered a suggestion.   Why not meet at the café adjoining the square where the placard people held their “vigils”?   Not to interact with them, just to talk among ourselves about matters of the spirit and to pray together.

We did just that, the two Christian friends plus Jerry and me.  I don’t know if the placard people recognized me or not.  In any case, we didn’t look their way, only chatted with each other and sometimes read a psalm very quietly.

I didn’t have any hope of making a difference, but at the end of that hour I suggested we join hands while I said my own prayer aloud.

Father, I’ve tried everything I know

 [here I listed each failed effort]

 and nothing has worked.

 They are there each week punctually,

defaming Your people

and putting us at risk.

I have been totally unable to change this situation.

Please touch and soften their hearts.”

When we broke hands and looked up, to our amazement, they had disappeared!  In less time than it takes to pack up one’s placards and remove oneself from the town square.  Poof!  They were gone – as if vaporized!

And we never saw them again.

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The Coziness of Louisa May Alcott

Little Women Illustrated by Louis Jambor

The Coziness of Louisa May Alcott

“Coziness” is not a word in the highest repute.  In the 17th century, when the philosophers called “modern” were allowing the new physics to define reality, the features they deemed objectively-out-there were measurable: like size, weight and velocity.

In contrast, qualities like “blue” or (say) “right and wrong” were considered merely subjective.  And of course, no modern philosopher I know of would have deigned to discuss “coziness.”  If he had, he would have given it a double dose of dismissal — as really unreal.

I think somewhat differently.  For me, coziness is at least as real as velocity.

Of all the attempts to represent coziness in fiction, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, depicting her home life when she and her sisters were young, is surely the immortal one.  Girls ever since have identified with these sisters as they make their way to adulthood through the hazards of poverty and social rejection – but under the never-failing gentle guidance of their father and mother.

In the end, all the sisters find love and happiness, even the rambunctious Jo, who wants to be a writer and stands in for Alcott herself.  That is, they all find personal fulfillment except for Beth, who dies.

I still cry when Beth dies.

So does everyone I know.

It might be that the different ideals of girlhood foregrounded in the successive film versions of Little Women mirror generational changes in the cultural ideal.  A thesis topic, anyone?

The latest version, directed by Greta Gerwig, has been playing at our local theater.  Jerry and I went to see it recently.

Not being an expert on the different film versions, I’ll just compare this movie to the book.  It was pretty faithful, but I was struck by a few omissions and changes in emphasis.

In the novel, the sisters quarrel occasionally.  In the film, they actually pummel each other.  Right.  Why repress any of your modern feelings?

In the film, Marmee (the mother) admits to Jo that she must incessantly repress her anger.  A different depth view of the maternal nature suffuses the novel.  For example, here is Marmee just back from nursing their father at the (Civil War) front.  As she comes in, she is greeted by Meg and Jo who are exhausted from nursing their sister Beth.

A Sabbath stillness reigned through the house

                   … Meg and Jo closed their weary eyes, 

and lay at rest,

 like storm-beaten boats, 

 safe at anchor in a quiet harbor.

In the film, as in the novel, the fictional Jo eventually marries, but it’s depicted as the somewhat disreputable device of Alcott, Jo’s author, catering to the popular taste.

Since the real Jo [Alcott] never married, one could say that getting her fictional counterpart married off was a popularized simplification of the truth.  But to depict Alcott, as the film does, wanting only to be autonomous — free to live her talent — is itself an over-simplification, catering to the popular taste of today.

As a young woman, the real Alcott returned from a nursing stint in the Civil War with her young body blasted by typhoid and possible mercury poisoning.  She wrote because she had a gift for writing but also to make money, of which her Transcendentalist family was always in need.  From youth, she came in contact with some of the most important thinkers of the day: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Margaret Fuller, Julia Ward Howe, Frederick Douglas.  Hers was a life that had to process influences of the highest order.

Like it or not, Alcott’s was also a life of filial piety.  It’s not a virtue highly honored today.  She cared for a father who could not adequately care for himself – to the point that her death in mid-life came two days after his.  Bronson Alcott was gone.  Louisa could stand down at last.

Real life is not so metallically hard-edged as the modern view takes it to be.  Left out is the softness, the homelikeness, the assurance that coziness is real.

I conclude with these lines from the poem Jo writes when Beth is dying.

Henceforth, safe across the river,

 I shall see forevermore

 A beloved, household spirit

Waiting for me on the shore.

 Hope and faith, born of my sorrow,

Guardian angels shall become, 

And the sister gone before me

By their hands shall lead me home.

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It’s Our Twentieth!

Abbie and Jerry
January 20th, 1999

It’s Our Twentieth!

January 20th, 2020, is our twentieth anniversary and, over the past few days, we’ve been talking about what it all means.

In our first year, when I still lived in New York and Jerry in Washington D.C., we each felt this imperious bond pulling us toward a joint life lived in shared space and time.  I sensed that this relation was not a thing to be contained or shaped to fit my convenience.  We shouldn’t settle for a commuting marriage.  Rather, the marriage and its requirements should shape where and how we lived from here on.

To make this feasible, I felt it would be best for me to take early retirement.  When I floated that idea with colleagues, to a man and a woman, they all (with the exception of one very close woman friend who was also a philosopher) — advised against it.  The Provost, the Director of the Humanities Institute, a woman colleague in Psychology – all described my experience of falling deeply in love as a kind of benign and enjoyable … psychotic episode.  Inevitably, they assured me, remission would set in and I would return to sanity and the real world.

It was not that I had been feeling all that bad about being single.  By then, feminism had bestowed on a woman’s solo life a social dignity that was new but also quite real.  I loved teaching, loved my familiar New York neighborhood and – as much as anyone can say that – I “had it all worked out.”

How did I know I wasn’t – as some colleagues were tactfully hinting – crazy?  Well, I was coping competently with the other challenges in my life.  My character, capacities and relationships hadn’t collapsed.  But you can never know with certainty – if by “know” is meant occupy a vantage point outside the realm of your experience.  I didn’t possess what is called “the view from nowhere.”

Was I so fatally smitten that it had become psychologically impossible for me to step beyond the romantic feeling — into a more neutral and objective space?

No, I could have done that.  Nothing I could see, from the advice of bystanders, or from within myself, or from guidance coming to me in prayer or meditation, authorized a recourse to neutral outsiders.  I didn’t feel that I was nuts and needed to check my desires and beliefs with a credentialed specialist.  But I was also aware that it is possible for the firmest beliefs and the strongest desires to be deluded.

Why then did I take that chance, putting at risk the identity conferred by place, institution, status and role?

By “taking a chance,” I’m not speaking of being in love or even of marrying Jerry.  I’m speaking of reshaping my life so that, henceforth, the requirements of a life together would determine my and our future choices.  Why did I decide to do that?

My whole life long, I had viewed romantic love as the best thing in the world.  By romantic love, I didn’t mean the sort of coupledom that medieval troubadours sang about – like the romance of Tristan and Iseult – where the lovers exist in a bubble of their own, defying the norms of their day, and find untroubled union only in their premature death.

Walking through the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, one comes upon the gravestone of Heloise and Abelard.  In French it reads, “They lived a very Christian life and in death they are together.”  If you don’t already know it, I suggest you look up the story of their “very Christian life.”

No, the couples who modeled romantic love for me came from a different text and tradition:  Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca — Jacob and his Rachel at the Well.  They were each flawed people but, by their union, they moved the story of God and humankind forward.

I saw marriage founded on true love as a thing of tremendous consequence.  My parents’ marriage had been of that order, so I knew it was attainable.  The possibility hadn’t died with the Biblical prototypes.

Anyway, as Charlotte Bronte famously wrote,

Reader, I married him.

Was I right?  How did that work out?

Actually, far better than, in the more extravagant daydreams of my girlhood, I could have pictured.  Because being knowingly loved is reassuring …  profoundly and minutely … recessed parts of me could come out of their concealing shadows and get integrated with the parts already visible in daylight.

Of innumerable results, I can only list a few: unfinished articles could find their ways to completion.  A book previously published could be updated and reissued.  Fights I might have lacked the courage to fight alone, or the know-how to win, could be fought through to the finish.  New projects I never thought to undertake could be set going.  New friendships — and the irreplaceable old ones – could be sustained and supported, from Jerry’s side to mine and mine to his.

We read each other’s work and make suggestions that prove helpful.  We know how to get out of each other’s way and let each one be.  We support each other’s feelings, intuitions and silences.

Let’s face it.

It’s a miracle!

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The Body Problem

“The Birth of Venus”
Botticelli, c. 1484-1486

The Body Problem

Some years back, a path-breaking feminist book was published bearing the title, Our Bodies/Our Selves.  It included black and white photos of stuff that I was not liberated enough to inspect too closely.  I would have titled this column, My Body/My Self, except that it could have infringed on the copyright of that earlier book.

The title came to mind in connection with a recent series of problems with my body – problems that shed unexpected light on my self.

I have the background problem of neuropathy.  Jerry and I go periodically to California for an experimental treatment offered only at Loma Linda hospital at a center directed by the creative and dedicated Mark Bussell.  His treatments stopped what looked to be a precipitous decline in my ability to walk and have delivered modest improvements in mobility at the cost of homework exercises and giving up glutens and some other nice things.

These trips to California have also made possible professional activities and human connections that we valued.  But if you asked my opinion, I still would have voted not to have neuropathy.  My walking handicap seems to me consistent with my primordial wariness about moving through life — but I do deplore it.

I like to walk.

There’s an art to walking.

 A teacher at New York’s Art Students’ League once quoted to me

 this Chinese definition of art:

the spirit of life through the rhythm of things.

Anyway, this Fall, when I tripped and fractured my kneecap, we were about to depart for another week of treatments at Loma Linda.  It was to be followed by a second week in San Diego, where Theology Without Walls: The Trans-Religious Imperative, the groundbreaking book that Jerry has edited, was scheduled for presentation at the American Academy of Religion by a distinguished panel drawn from its contributors.

Of course, my part of the trip had to be canceled, both the first week of neuropathy treatments and the TWW second week.  But for the second week, I didn’t think Jerry needed a consort, since this was an occasion in the history of theology — not a social occasion.

So I stayed home alone with a fractured kneecap, in our four-story house, further constrained by a wrap-around leg “immobilizer.”  There were provisions for helpers to keep an eye on me and, at the suggestion of a friend from my temple, I called on the assistance of a committee called Chesed, which stands for Mercy – a divine attribute, alongside Justice, Tzedek.  As readers of this column can recall, my relations with my temple have been betimes storm-tossed, but Chesed showed me a side of the place I’d never encountered:

Jewish compassion: 

gentle, practical,

realistic, tenderly attentive.

Since the injury was quite draining, I didn’t do … anything much.  Well, what can you do, when you can’t … be up and doing?

Be. 

You can be.

I’d quite forgotten how to do that.  You quiet down.  You get very still.  You can watch how a branch catches the sunlight or a last leaf floats downwind.  You get on the same timetable as other things that share existence with you.

I hadn’t done that kind of thing in years.  It was nice.  It had nothing show-off about it.

My knee is close to repaired by now.  The muscles that were weakened by the immobilizer are mostly restored by the rehab drill that I’ve followed pretty faithfully.

Which brings me to the bodily ordeal of the past week: eye muscle surgery to correct a problem of double vision!  (Of course, Abigail, you must be joking!)  For the initial recovery weekend, I’ve been thrown entirely on my Inner Resources.  No books or magazines, no emails, no online life at all.  Just exhausted sleep and whatever you can “see” when your eyes are closed and you’re lying down, with your head elevated on cushions.

Well … what passed vividly in review were some of the major chapters of Abbie’s life.  I saw them one after another in quite a new way.  The visions … insights … recalibrations were too significant to crowd into this column tonight, even if I could.

I feel that I have become a better friend and ally to the life I have.

And perhaps my body

can be on the team too.

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Jews, Christians, and Jesus

“L’âne bleu dans le ciel du village”
Marc Chagall, 1978

Jews, Christians, and Jesus

 I’ve just finished a scholarly book whose conclusion left me head-spinningly dumbfounded. Since I’m supposed to be a philosophe by profession, I’m pretty used to scholarly books, bring some acquired insulation to the reading of them, and they don’t usually leave me in that condition.

The book is The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ by Daniel Boyarin.  The Forward by Jack Miles, author of the well-regarded God: A Biography, cites a “prominent conservative rabbi” who declared privately that Boyarin “is one of the two or three greatest rabbinic scholars in the world … possibly even the greatest.”

Here’s what, if asked, I would have said I believed about Jesus before Boyarin’s book left me speechless.  I took no publicly declared position on Jesus … though I’d always felt a muffled attraction.  This attraction stayed muffled because of the history of Christianity vis a vis its Jewish origin – the long record of vilification and persecution whose last realization was the Holocaust.  At least, one would have hoped that was the last of it – save that, since then, this ancient fratricide seems to have rediscovered its voices, updated rationales and lethal weapons.

There was another reason for my discourse about Jesus remaining a guarded one.  I did not want to offend friends who were believing Christians.  Like many who are recognized scholars, I too had drawn a distinction between “the historical Jesus” and the Jesus of Christian doctrine, whose attributes were officially approved in 381 A.D. at the Council of Nicea.  I assumed that Christianity’s key doctrines, the Nicene Creed, were superadded to the Jesus story although he himself would not have held them.  (That Council also ruled that the Jewish followers of Jesus were to be excommunicated if they kept up with any of their Jewish observances.)

So what were the major doctrines adopted at Nicea?

  1. Jesus was divine as well as human.

  2. The people of Israel expected a messiah who would be both human and divine.

  3. The suffering and death of Jesus on the cross expiated the sins of his people and human sin generally.

I assumed that none of these doctrines were part of the belief system of mainstream Israelites, whether at the time of Jesus or later.  The split with the Jesus movement I attributed to the above three doctrines – but also to the refusal of the Jesus followers to join Bar Kochba’s last rebellion against Rome in 135 A.D.  They refused, as I thought, because of Bar Kochba’s messianic pretensions.  After his revolt failed catastrophically, those who had doubted its leader were of course vindicated, but the whole episode must have left hard feelings in its wake.

What does Boyarin offer to shake my earlier convictions?

Re doctrines #1 and #2: Boyarin writes that the assumption about the messiah as a divine being in human form was widely and popularly shared in Jesus’s time.  When Jesus calls himself “the Son of Man,” he is referencing the verses in Daniel 7 on which this commonly held view was based.

Re doctrine # 3: according to Boyarin, the verses in Isaiah 53 that refer to a            Suffering Servant who “poured out himself to death, and was numbered with the transgressors … bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors” were also folded into the messianic expectations of  Jesus’s time — widely shared and also referenced by Jesus in the gospels.

I won’t cite more scholarly buttressing.  If it interests you, the book isn’t long and it’s an easy read.  Boyarin is a very good writer.

There’s one more point he brings out and it may be the most important one.  Before the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 A.D., which was followed by the Second Exile, the people of Israel didn’t agree as a body to interpret their covenant with God by means of a single, coherent set of concepts.  They weren’t yet what is called a “religion.”  They were certainly a people, with a roughly shared array of memories – of a dramatic history of interaction with God — with many darks and lights, in the land their God had promised them, where most of that story had been lived and recorded.

The competing views and interpretations of their shared history spanned a wide spectrum.  Rabbinic Judaism won out in the competition, probably because the study-based form developed during the Babylonian First Exile turned out the most portable after the Second Exile.

I have nothing against Rabbinic Judaism and in fact think it the best of the choices then available.  It kept memory continuous, kept the ancient language readable and revivable, and kept intellectual and spiritual energy alive.  From what I’ve read, in philosophers like Emmanuel Levinas and other creative Jewish thinkers, that tradition remains an important source of Jewish identity plus moral and spiritual insight.

That the compressed intensities of Rabbinic Judaism could see daylight again as updated Hebrew, colloquial and literary, and could animate the recovery of the land (when life in exile had really failed) is witness to the vitality and truth of the vehicle.

My grandfather, Rav Tsair, who, as I’ve written here, was a Talmudist of stature — and to me an almost legendary figure — worked to demonstrate the purposive continuities that stretched from Biblical Israel to the Israel reborn after World War II.  His name is on a street in Jerusalem.

But where does all this leave me – leave us – today?

Can the long, fratricidal history be overcome?

Can we ever find the roots of reconcilement?

To be continued … .

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