It’s Not All About Psychology

“Young Girls By The Water,” Renoir, c. 1893

It’s Not All About Psychology

We were in Phoenix, waiting for the connecting flight to Philadelphia, when we noticed a young couple and their little girl on the seats across the aisle from us.

They were a charming sight.  The child was what in the nineteenth century, would’ve been called “golden-haired.”  With perfectly symmetrical little features and large, solemn eyes, she was clearly going to be a beauty.

Since I have no reason to think of myself as savvy with children, I was gratified to see her frequently turn those blue eyes in my direction, as if she were seeing something of interest to her.

The couple were in their twenties.  The father held her on his lap while the mother spoon-fed her some kind of baby goop from plastic containers, probably brought from home.  The young couple seemed very much on the same wave length.  Their child looked so loved, approved of, and entirely at home in her surroundings, that one watched her with a stifled sigh, thinking, nothing bad has ever happened to her.  

Yet.

Then, while we watched these adoring parents interact with their child-of-sunshine-and-light, something bad did happen.

Since others watching might not have noticed the event, I’ll try to make it as clear as I can.  Here’s what happened.  Lunch had gone on long enough. The child had been fed sufficiently.  But her adoring mother did not want to stop the delicious feeding-time interlude, so she kept on with it, popping what looked like raisins into her daughter’s no-longer-eager small mouth.

I saw what was going on.  This child – so accepted and made-much-of – did not want to spit out the raisins, gag, or make gestures of disgust.  She’d gotten into this dance partnership with her delighted mother and, out of tact, had decided not to break the spell.

For the first time, her smile looked false and was accompanied by little gestures of seemingly arbitrary irritation.

As I perceived it, she was exiting Eden and going to live henceforth in the Land of Nod [or Land of Lies at which We Nod] on the East of Eden.

As it happens, on the flight from Ontario to Phoenix, I’d been reading a book by Jonathan Culler, whose title is Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction.  Published by Oxford Press, what it provides is a short course in post-modernism.  Rather than survey all the theorists with their distinct schools and movements, I can give you the gist right here:

It’s impossible

to get at the truth.

Now let’s go back to the choices faced by our little girl.  Either she disappoints the young parents who’ve been inundating her with their love and care, or she accepts their tokens of care, which are overloading her gut.  

She knows this

in her little gut.

So, she does know the truth.  Sorry, Jonathan Culler!  Sorry, Oxford Press!  And, at least for now, she has made the decision not to disappoint her adoring parents.  There will be others – grownups to begin with, peers later – who’ll be irresistibly attracted to the little beauty but, in exchange for their homage, may exact the following price: that she fit herself into their idea of her.

The post-moderns are wrong.  In many instances, the truth is not particularly hard to get at.  Only, there may be a cost.

Plato is not usually thought of as a psychologist but, in his way, he may be the greatest philosophical psychologist of them all.  The main thing about a person, for Plato, is not introversion, extroversion, sex drive, narcissism, phobias, and so on.  The deciding factor in personal makeup is whether or not the person will seek the truth. 

In dialogue after Platonic dialogue, the speakers who walk away when their favorite ideas are refuted are people who don’t want to know anything nontrivial beyond what they think they already know.  The dialogue itself culls the discussants.  The ones who stay the course are the lovers of wisdom.  For them, truth is the motivating factor — not their desires, fears, phobias, hopes or propensities.  They don’t want to believe what is not true.  And they don’t want to lie.

What does all this have to do with our little girl?  For me, she stands in for All Women and the Dilemmas of Women.  

The desire to attract and please is not a foible and is not found only in those women who suffer from character weakness.  It has to do with women’s biological and cultural situation.  Let me spell this out.

What does a pregnant woman face?  Before that happened, she was already vulnerable relative to men — in terms of musculature, hormones favoring aggression, impregnability, the monthly discharges in blood of unfertilized eggs, always inconvenient, sometimes embarrassing, lasting from puberty to middle age, attended by cramps, ending in middle age with embarrassingly visible hot flashes — and she has already been imprinted by whatever adjustments to this biological situation were approved by the culture.  Of course, once she’s pregnant, her vulnerability multiplies exponentially.

How much leeway does that woman have if she chooses to seek some further truth – much less to be a seeker of truth primarily – seeking it at the risk of alienating any of her present protectors?

The degree of truth-seeking that one does is the deciding factor in a human life.  This is as much the case in a woman’s life as in a man’s.  But the risks, for a woman, even in the most favorable circumstances, are so much higher than for a man!  

And the feasible stratagems — 

for coping effectively with those obstacles —

so much more subtle!

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Book Matters

“Young Girl Reading”
Seymour Joseph Guy, 1877

Book Matters

Not God’s Type: An Atheist Academic Lays Down Her Arms

By Holly Ordway

This book was first brought to my attention by the writer Johan Herrenberg, who wondered whether it was another book by a woman in the “confession” genre of Augustine or Jean-Jacques Rousseau.  Having now read it, I think it belongs to a different genre: the conversion or paradigm-shift genre.  It describes the author’s mental/spiritual journey from one view of reality to its contradictory — with just two opposing views on offer.  Having myself shifted paradigms more than once, I read conversion stories – if they seem honest — with rapt attention.  This is an honest book.

As sympathetic witness to Ordway’s journey, I’d like to go through Ordway’s mental milestones, numbering them step by step, and then make note of how I might have experienced that same milestone.

1. Starting her journey as an intelligent atheist, Ordway must think that Life has no inherent meaning.  In her, that produces despair. Though some atheists find that they can still carry out meaningful tasks and activities — even if Life Itself is meaningless – she is unable to block off the meaninglessness looming in the background.

1a. Though I’ve been an atheist, I don’t recall feeling despair on that account.  For me, atheism didn’t drain the beauty from nature and art, nor take the fascination from friendship and philosophy.  There, she and I differed.

2. As atheist, Ordway still reserves a place of honor for truth and moral values.  She never thinks the latter are merely subjective or relative.

2a. In my atheist days, I also continued to prize truthfulness and trying to do the right thing.  But, for me, these values lived in the context of social, personal, and natural bonds.  They were woven into that web of relationships.  For whatever reason, Ordway writes as if she were making consequential decisions almost in a vacuum.

3.  Ordway gravitates toward (what I would call) zones of refuge from despair.  Thus, she loves poetry that gives spiritual insight, fantasy fiction where good combats evil – and fencing!  Take that, Wicked Knight!

3a.  Ordway herself notes that her zones of refuge enable her to enact a world of meaning.  To truly appreciate a poem, one must feel it anew as the poet felt it.  (When Aristotle describes the acquiring of a virtue, he says character is gained by habituation.  So, it really works to act as if we already had the character trait we want!)  I would say that Ordway is following a reliable method for acquiring the power to detect meaning in experience.

4.  Ordway enters into an intellectual argument with her fencing coach, who is a believing Christian.  He persuades her that the chain of causes in nature must end in an Uncaused Cause.  Otherwise, we get an infinite regress of explanatory principles, which is unacceptable to reason.

4a.  In some domains, an infinite regress is not a problem.  For example, you can always add #1 to a number series and reason will not be offended.  But if we are addressing those natural conditions that depend in turn on further conditions, explanations would hope to reach an unconditioned condition – something that encompasses totality – a “theory of everything.”

5.  At this point in her step-by-step argument, Ordway comes under the sway of an attractive force that feels more-than-intellectual.  Be it noted that the “everything” to be explained by her Unconditioned Condition has to include the beauty of poetry, the chivalric aspirations of fantasy fiction and fencing, and the objective character of righteous deeds.

5a.  I never became an atheist because of an argument nor a theist as a result of a philosophical argument.  

6.  At this point, Jesus steps into the realm of experience she’s entered.  The scholarly books she pours through persuade her that his resurrection is a historical fact.  Not a did-he-or-didn’t-he kind of fact.  Rather, to her, his resurrection meant “he had done something to death itself” (p.112). 

6a.  Years ago, I watched Rabbi Irving Greenberg’s presentation at the Rainbow Group, formed under the creative direction of philosopher/theologian Michael Wyschogrod, for interfaith dialogue between professional religionists.  Greenberg said that, in the case of Jesus, there might have been a real resurrection.  Providence might even have seen to it that such a resurrection would be disbelieved or discounted by his fellow Jews.  Why?  Because God wanted both types of religion: the Jewish type that deals with life here in history, co-partnering with God in situations on the ground, and the Christian type, stressing the vertical dimension, pointing toward transcendence and an unearthly purity.

Under pressure from his peers, it’s been my impression that R. Greenberg eventually retracted most of what he said that afternoon.

But he might have been right.

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Times Best and Worst

WANDERER ABOVE THE SEA OF FOG.
CASPAR DAVID FRIEDRICH, c 1818.

Times Best and Worst

We’re living through what are — like all times — the best and worst of times.  As our calendar wends its way toward the New Year, we can’t help asking ourselves how it is with us and with our world.  I’m no different, so I’ll share my Q & A with you.

It seems to me that I’m continuing to live my own life-adventure, or story.  But is “my story” a true one or am I just making it up?  How can I know?  I think I know, but can I trust my experience?

Let’s take the doubt seriously.  Not every era would have encouraged such a doubt — not the way our time does.  Where did it come from, the doubt?  It’s a question that can be answered in many ways, but I tend to look to philosophy for light on where we get our prevailing opinions.  

To probe the question, it’s still useful to divide philosophic work into two main types: analytic and continental.  

I’ll start with the analysts.  They tend to suppose that objective truth lies with the natural sciences.  Early on, they assigned to philosophy the task of connecting human experience with scientific accounts of the world of fact – the world outside us.  For reasons trackable to the 17th-century, they treated experience as if it were cut into bits called sense data.  However, once experience is cut up like that, they were never going to get to the world of atoms and electrons described by physicists.  Or the world of past reports described by historians.  Or, for that matter, people in real-life conversations, saying “What an awkward pause that was!”  So those attempts failed to go from experience to the sciences, and they failed even to account for how we ordinarily talk about experience.  

Recovering from earlier frustrated hopes, many analysts turned to clarifying how we actually talk, and the assumptions that stand behind what we say.  That kind of work still leaves the open gap between human norms and an outside world of objective fact – a world indifferent to our norms.  

Did our norms rest on any foundations beyond mere convention?  I once put that question to Australian philosopher David Stove.  Promptly and wittily, he told me: “Yes, but no gentleman would ask you what they are!”

Meanwhile, on the continent, I think Sartre was the first to claim that we can make ourselves up however we choose.  He argued that Freud’s account of the unconscious was false because the patient’s ability to dodge the psychoanalyst’s probes shows his awareness of what he’s trying to hide.  So far so good, but Sartre drew the further inference that we are entirely self-transparent, nothing is unconscious, the psyche has no natural structures and is thus free to make and remake itself at every instant.  All of which did not follow from Sartre’s argument against Freud.

Michel Foucault and Antonio Gramsci gave further support to the wider claim that there is no objective truth, only contending ”narratives” and that the latter are really about power struggles.

Foucault wrote two books reviewing the history of insanity and its treatment (Madness and Civilization, 1960 and Birth of the Clinic, 1963). There he argued that people confined as mad were classified for the purpose of exerting the power of society and its norms over those who did not conform.  The diagnosis of insanity was an assertion of the diagnostician’s power.

For analogous reasons, Antonio Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks (1929-35) discounted criticism from disciplines like economics and political science since, he held, such criticism was effectively an exercise of power, serving the interests of the establishment that revolutionaries like him were morally bound to overthrow.

A moment for evaluation: Let’s compare Foucault on madness to Phyllis Chesler’s Women and Madness (1972).  Chesler used her training as a psychologist to expose the confinement of women to asylums by tyrannical husbands and their exploitation– sexually and as housemaids – by tyrannical psychiatrists.  She was able to effect reforms in her profession.  But she did not suggest that there was no such thing as insanity or that only power disparities were involved.  From the fact of abuse of power, that inference did not follow.

As for Gramsci: he and his fellow revolutionaries were following directives from a Soviet regime now thought responsible for tens of millions of deaths – as well as the coarsening of art, language, and the environment.  So Gramsci was mistaken about where his moral obligation lay.  The truth-seeking disciplines he discounted might have helped him to find that out and make a better use of his talents.

In sum: the intellectual supports for the view that we and our environment are constructs – things made up – turn out fairly flimsy! 

Meanwhile, new scientific disciplines are finally coming to the support of ordinary human experience.  Currently, the disciplines of “computational perceptual psychology” and “ecological psychology” are minutely tracking what actually happens in human perceptual experience.  They are finding that we perceive external reality directly, not via inferences from sense data.  We see the world.  We take in the world.  And our perception is closely bound up with intellectual processes as well as with our purposive acts in the world.  There’s a world out there.  We encounter it in the round.  We are entitled to trust our experience with its powers to act and self-correct.  What they are finding is quietly momentous.

On the subject of better times ahead, I’ve written previously about the growing body of empirical evidence that we do survive physical death.  Among experiences typically reported by those who come back from clinical death is “the life review.” When we review our lives after we die, we will actually feel the harms we’ve inflicted on others – feel them as they felt them.  Alas, the life review is unlikely to be unvarnished fun.  

That said, I can’t help looking forward to the life review in store for the latest brand of bully, the Woke bully.  The Woke bully can get a Chinese professor fired for innocently using a term in Chinese that happens to have the same sound as a bigoted epithet in English.  For the Wokester, everything’s about power; intentions don’t count.  What I want to imagine, as empathically as I can, is that Wokerster perp directly experiencing the suffering he inflicted on an innocent prof.  What’s that going to be like?

Why it’ll be positively redemptive!  For the weary, wayward, wandering Wokester – all at sea as he is — it’ll be Land ho!  The Woke perp will find that there’s a moral reality out there!  He’ll make the great discovery:

I’m not alone.

I’ve not been set adrift to make up … everything!

I’m a member of a living human community!

For that sad perp, it’ll be the equivalent of a resurrection!

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Dear Reader…

Dear Reader:

I recently had the opportunity to be interviewed by Scott Langdon, the creator of “God: An Autobiography,” the podcast based on the book by Jerry L. Martin (my husband) God: An Autobiography As Told to A Philosopher.

Scott asks me about what Jerry’s experience of divine encounter was like for me, his wife, in these episodes:

Episode 51: Where Scott interviews Abigail Rosenthal: a philosopher, teacher, author, and Jerry’s wife (Part 1)

Episode 52: Where Scott interviews Abigail about her spiritual experience (Part 2)

In this episode, Jerry and I talk about what it was like for the two of us as a couple.

Episode 53: Where Scott interviews Abigail and Jerry as a couple

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Stand on the Rock

Abbie in a previous identity, Philosophy Staff Room
Photo by Elmer Sprague, colleague and friend

Stand on the Rock

If I could, I surely would

Stand on the rock where Moses stood …

I don’t know which rock the singer had in mind.  The great rocky crags of Sinai?  Some low-lying monadnock near the Burning Bush?  A promontory extending into what the scholars now name the Reed Sea?  Mere reading won’t suffice to identify it.

I do stand right now on a rock that, were I to see another in that configuration – rock underfoot, feet firmly on it, figure upright — I would have to envy.  Just writing that line, I get a mental picture of arrows winging by my head.  All the same, I’m not inclined to duck.

What’s happened?  What’s changed?  Well, I’m now preparing Confessions of A Young Philosopher for publication.  Previously, it was turned down by every plausible publisher in the world accessible to me.  Plus all the agents who handle memoirs.  (Hey, move over Moses!  I’d like a hand up.)  Two well-regarded, highly experienced, well-connected figures in publishing — each in a position of unique influence at desirable imprints of university presses — have lent their good names to backing Confessions at their imprints, and been unexpectedly thwarted.

Have I got you interested?

Anyway, this resounding chorus of rejections has set me free to get the book illustrated.  That has long seemed to me important to do.  I should explain why.

Confessions of A Young Philosopher is the tale of a spiritual and philosophical pilgrimage.  It’s also a tale of desire, but not the way such stories are told nowadays.  The model for this kind of book is still St. Augustine’s Confessions.  It was Augustine’s autobiography, a story of his long search for something to believe in – a solid rock where his uneasy soul could find attachment and rest.  His search for spiritual safety took him, and us along with him, through the belief systems of his late classical times (354-430 C.E.).  So his personal quest afforded later readers a tour of the thought-worlds of his day — and what he found wrong with each except the final one.

That’s exactly the genre of book I’ve written, which is why I titled it Confessions, in acknowledgment of its classical prototype.  Among its novel features is this: so far as I know, no book in that genre has yet been written by a woman.  If it has, I haven’t come across it.

All that prefaces the answer to the question of why I thought this book needed illustrations.  Contemporary readers are unfamiliar with confession as a genre.  The idea of an open-ended search for understanding, through the thought-worlds of the day, with that search motivating the seeker’s real-life choices, would not be a familiar motivation to find in books.  

Despite what today’s novels and memoirs typically show, I would contend that most people are still actually motivated by the desire to know what is true and real.  That’s as much the case for truck drivers as for academics.  I’m not that peculiar, not that different.  My readers of this blog don’t have trouble seeing their own experiences in mine.  It doesn’t take specialized academic training to see and feel what I’m talking about.  What’s rare is to read about it.

Reading matter today (as I saw from this weekend’s weary scanning of recent issues of the NY Times Book Review and the New York Review of Books), recognizes just a few things as humanly motivating: power or the lack of it and sexual fulfillment or, in its absence, the hunger for that.  Oh yes, and “identity.”  But identity also presented in terms of degrees of social or institutional power or gratification.  

In current formulations, identities are not tied primarily to belief systems.  In this, however, the current formulations are mistaken.  Group identities, religious or ethnic, are ordinarily maintained by practices authorized and justified by beliefs.  Let me say that again.  

Group identities are

typically maintained by

what the group thinks is true.

Evidently, if you presented identity questions that way, a challenge would arise. The challenge of detecting and discerning truth.  Which would render the identity question more subtle and complex than fashionable opinion-shapers are prepared to admit.

That’s why contemporary memoirists don’t write confessions on the Augustinian model.   Since I did write such a book, illustrations are essential.  They remind readers that what’s unfolding here is not a succession of abstract concepts, but a life adventure with a plotline!  It’s a true story, about real people in their real places, seen through the eyes and delineated with the explanations worked out by a real young woman.

What’s “the rock” that I referred to earlier, the one I’m now standing on?  Recently, in connection with preparing the book for publication, I’ve reread the whole manuscript.  It had been a long time since I’d read it through, from beginning to end.

I was almost stunned.  It felt as if I’d been struck by lightning.  In my judgment, it’s a book of the highest quality.  It addresses some of the shaping features of the culture, with intellectual and moral precision, and tells a woman’s true story, undeflected by the groupthink and ideological wrappings of the day.

I think that

on the lives we live

it sheds light.

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How I Got My Philosophic Theme

"The Song and the Space," Arthur Polonsky
“The Song and the Space,” Arthur Polonsky

How I Got My Philosophic Theme

As far as I can recall, it was a specific event, leading to a particular experience, that gave me the defining theme of the work I’ve done since then in philosophy.

I’d gone uptown to Columbia University to hear a paper presented by a colleague of my late father.  The speaker was a tall man, with a pleasing mane of white hair — an appearance that bespoke maturity and benignity.  My father had been instrumental in bringing him to Hunter College of The City University of New York, aware that he wanted to get out of the rather narrowly snobbish, upstate college where he’d taught philosophy previously.  Over the next few years, he and his wife had become family friends.  They’d visited us in Maine.  It never occurred to me not to trust him.

His talk, presented in a seminar setting, was well attended.  I knew or recognized a number of the scholars, philosophers and religionists, seated around the long table.  I no longer remember the title of his lecture, but I was looking forward to learning whatever he’d come there to teach his audience.

Slowly, as his talk unfolded and gathered steam, it became evident that it had one consistent message: the religion of Biblical Israel was bad and the Judaism based upon it is bad too.

I was quite amazed.  In those days, you didn’t talk like that in the big city.  Some of the attendees were Jewish scholars, who offered their sputteringly indignant counter-arguments.  Their anger did not seem to affect the speaker at all.  He maintained an aura of imperturbable and naïve simplicity.  Since then, I’ve seen that aura on similar occasions.  But that was the first time I saw it in an academic setting.

“Roy,” I finally said, “you knew my parents.  You met and esteemed [art historian] Leo Bronstein, our longtime family friend.  Leo used to say, ‘Purity is loyalty to origins.’  I feel that what you are saying affects my purity.”

The speaker didn’t seem particularly affected by my input.  In fact, in the years that followed, Roy would go on to give more talks, along the same lines, all over town.  He became known for it.

As the discussion at Columbia continued, privately I had another thought:  You would never have dared to talk that way if my parents were still alive.  The cat’s away, you think, so the mice can play.  Although there were some follow-up communications between Roy and me, our friendship essentially ended that afternoon.

I rode the subway home.  Midway, I stopped at one station to change to an eastside-going train.  Standing on the dark platform, in the vast, cavernous shadows, I asked the following heartfelt question:

“Lord, what is a Jew?”  

Here’s the thought (not one that had occurred to me before) that came to my mind, seemingly in answer:

A Jew is someone who has a passion for God.

“Lord, what is an anti-semite?”

What came into my mind was rather complicated.  Not words.  It was visual.  On that dark subway platform, what I discerned had several features: first, a God situated above the human scene.  Below that, the plane of human actors and their actions.  The God of that scene was not any sort of impersonal, homogeneous substance.  Not “the God of the philosophers.”  As a Presence on this scene, God was a Person, or at least personal.  The spatial distance between divinity and ourselves was essential to our relationship.  The distance was precisely what enabled this God to see what was happening at our level.  

To the God of Israel, we are visible.

Inwardly and outwardly.

Visible and accountable.

Here then was the answer to my last question.

An anti-semite is someone who hates the God of Israel.

What, in all our visible doings, particularly merits God’s attention?   The answer came: we live stories.  Not just shoot-em-up action flicks or soap operas juiced with back-fence gossip.  That sort of thing is boring to God.  Our serious stories concern the struggles we get in, where good is pitted against evil.  Within ourselves, we struggle to discern the difference between the better and the worse alternatives.  And, in our situations, it’s a struggle to get on the better side of our possibilities for action. 

The life one lives is a true story.

A story with grip isn’t about accidental happenings.

It has a plotline.

It’s about the struggle between good and evil.  That’s the plotline interesting to God.

You don’t want to bore God. 

Of course, this wasn’t the sole motivator, but it would not surprise me if much that I’ve done since then in philosophy was inspired by that vision in the darkness of a New York subway station.  For me, it was a primary datum of experience.  It set a theme.  

A theme-setting primary datum doesn’t replace the work of discovering where, in the relevant disciplines — philosophy? psychology? political theory? history? anthropology? theology? – the informed discussion stands now.  It doesn’t dispose of the requirement to understand the competing views.  One still must see whether one’s own view fits inside some extant view, or else modifies it.  There is always the possibility that one’s own view must refute some or all of its rivals — or else be refuted by them.  

The further task will be to discover which concrete cases are explainable by one’s own view, and where that explanation falls short.  If it falls short, is it nevertheless better than its rivals?  Or do its competitors shed more light than it does?  

It may be that many seekers start with some primary datum of experience that informs their work as its motivating theme.  The work cannot end there.

But that is where it starts.

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Bad Faith at Sartre’s Cafe

Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir

Bad Faith at Sartre’s Café

It may be of interest to note that post-World War II feminism (the “second wave”) was written-into-being by Simone de Beauvoir, a gifted French philosopher, in The Second Sex (1949).  It was conscientiously researched and replete with examples that showed how unfair and arbitrary were the predicaments it cited.  Beyond its vivid illustrations, the book had a theoretical framework taken over from Jean-Paul Sartre.  Sartre was the man she loved till his death and beyond.  From the start, their relationship was conceived as nonmonogamous.  How they got through that is not something I want to deal with here.

Sartre’s magnum opus was Being and Nothingness (1943), where he developed his own version of existentialism.  His was a theory of how to live a truthful life — how not to be a phony.  To phoniness, he gave the name of “bad faith” (mauvaise foi).

That turns out a rather tricky concept to get hold of, so Sartre explains it with several illustrative types of bad faith.  The first type is shown by an imaginary young woman who has agreed to meet a young man for the first time.  At a café.  

The fictional young people set out to get acquainted.  Their conversation starts on a fairly lofty level.  Sartre doesn’t say what they are talking about but perhaps it’s some ideals they share.  Of the young woman, Sartre says, “she does not quite know what she wants.”  Respect?  “She would find no charm in a respect which would be only respect.”  On the other hand, sexual desire, candid and unadorned, “would humiliate and horrify her.”  

Suddenly the young man takes her hand between both of his.  Now she has to decide what to do about that.  Sartre describes her as dodging the decision.   She continues to talk about high-level topics, meanwhile treating her hand as a passive physical object, disconnected from her high-sounding words.

In his bad faith museum, she is Sartre’s exhibit A, though I don’t think he explains what he’d like her to do instead.  There’s an implication that she should own up to her own frank desires and let her new acquaintance lead her down the garden path to his place.  It seems to me that one thing she would desire is that he not spoil their first date.  There’s a rhythm in getting to know someone.  He’s getting pretty far ahead of that rhythm. 

Be that as it may, his courtship blunders are not what Sartre is spotlighting here.  The focus will be on hers.  It’s dishonest, in Sartre’s view, to treat oneself (or one’s hand) as an object that is merely physical.  Why is that?  Because, while we do have bodies and do live surrounded by physical things of all kinds, the attitudes we take toward such things lie within our power.  We are metaphysically free.  Our consciousness is devoid of infrastructures that could narrow or shape our freedom to interpret ourselves and our situations.  On the other hand, it’s equally dishonest to treat oneself as wholly extra-physical – as pure spirit — since social and material contexts can’t be dodged.  They are the occasions for our freely choosing how to relate to the contexts that we’re in.

So the young woman is wrong to treat her hand in his on the table as a thing for which she bears no responsibility – but equally dishonest to treat her consciousness as capable of soaring above its circumstances — as if uncontaminated by them.

Okay, got it?  She’s in “bad faith.”  Now, mind if I join the table?  Let’s suppose our young man is Sartre himself (actually not an unrealistic supposition).  He’s a formidable talker and intricate cogitator – a Walking Intellect, it would seem.  Let’s imagine that, by the time the waiter has brought three coffees, he’s been able to convey his notions of “bad faith” to the girl.  

Nobody asked me, but here I might chime in that it’s quite an old-fashioned womanly trait to want to gain approval from a powerfully influential man.  No girl would want to be dismissed as Exhibit A for this philosopher’s concept of bad faith.  Lord, he might even portray her in a book!

As long as I’m at the table, I might also remark that there was a time when women didn’t go out alone to meet young men at cafés.  The youth came to call and be vetted by her parents and guardians.  In those days, an uninvited hand at a garden table would be pushed away unceremoniously.  A woman would have to do that, so as not to forfeit social approval.  Whereas nowadays, she might feel equally obligated to leave her hand clasped in his two hands, for the same reason.

How many situations like Sartre’s case study of “bad faith,” orchestrated by theories-convenient-for-predators, have made their way into women’s short secret history of embarrassments?

De Beauvoir’s Second Sex, which has continued to define feminism into the current century, is framed by Sartre’s view that femininity is a choice that can be discarded at will.  Hers was one application of the Sartrean view that the psyche itself has no internal structures and can be given its entire aim by acts of free choice.  Also, the Sartrean psyche can be changed, in character and direction, just as freely from one instant to the next.  If you believe that, as they say in Brooklyn, I’ve got a bridge I can sell you.

So, if I’m so smart, how would I handle the encounter?   Let’s picture me as the young woman at the café table, and Sartre as the man I was there to meet.  Between worrying about French grammar, hoping to appear philosophically sophisticated and artfully up-on-the-latest, fearing to be nailed as an exemplar of bad faith but feeling not the faintest tug toward the Walking Intellect with the Hands – how would Abbie manage the situation?  

With the utmost clumsiness, I can assure you.

In the days I was in Paris, when Sartre and de Beauvoir were to be found at their cafe, it wouldn’t have been hard for me to walk a few blocks over to  St Germain des Pres.  I’m beginning to see why I never did. 

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Situated in History

From the “Exodus Series Paintings” by Maria Lago

Situated in History

This might be an unusual trait, but I am someone who has trouble knowing who she is, and what life asks of her, until she gets some clarity about her place in history.

By “place in history” I don’t mean what I’d have after winning my way to top marks in some global competition.  Rather, I’m thinking of what it means to me to be Jewish.  As some historians, religionists and essayists have noted, Jews are a people whose religion requires attaining the right sort of relation to God in history.  That means, in one-thing-after-another datable time.  In what the authors of our Declaration of Independence termed, “the course of human events.”  

So the historical condition is not, for Jews, a fallen or illusory one.  It’s not the suffering vestibule through which we must pass on our way to a Better Place.

History is what happens in this place and this time.  It’s where, as Jacob says to himself out loud, “God was in this place and I knew it not.”  Or maybe I did know it (as Jacob/Israel does on a different occasion) but my knowledge didn’t turn alloy into silver, or chaff into wheat.

What about a post-historical time when the messiah is expected to solve the problematic of human events?  Didn’t the prophets talk about a messiah once they saw the nation conquered and its political independence lost?

Let’s compare Isaiah’s messianic forecast to Plato’s ideal state.  The Republic is less a blueprint for statecraft than an analytic instrument by which we can realize why humankind’s political problematic is insoluble.

History is where we are.

And it’s spiritually incurable.

Whaddya mean incurable?  Are you saying we can’t clean up the planet?  We can’t cure racism?  Who are you to say such a thing, in the midst of all our labors and our combats?  And what do you mean by spiritually incurable?  If we clean up those stains on our conscience, isn’t that spiritual enough?

My text is Genesis 4:1-16.  As we recall, Cain and Abel have inherited the planet earth in pristine condition.  Racially, they are indistinguishable.  Neither brother has inherited privileges at the expense of the other.  Yet, as we are told, Abel’s sacrifice to his Ultimate Witness is accepted.  Cain’s is not accepted.  

We can imagine a case where Cain says to Abel, “Teach me what you’ve got that I haven’t got?  I promise to take careful notes and do my homework.”  Surely there have been instances, later on down the road, when the rejected brother did come up with that commendable response.   

Here however, Cain’s thoughts took a different course: “If I just kill my brother, then the Ultimate Witness will love and vindicate me, me, me!!!”  Sometimes you can take the boy out of the country (here “the land of Nod, east of Eden”), but you can’t take the country out of the boy.

So the spiritual problem of history can be incurable.  Now what?  Aside from plagues, landslides and similar accidents, history is the site of sibling rivalry.  It’s human reality.

We can injure each other and we may need forgiveness.  From one another.  And from the Ultimate Witness.  What to do about it?  I know of two approaches: the Jewish remedy and the Christian one.  Doubtless there are others, but these two offer the cures most familiar to me.

The rabbis say that forgiveness is obligatory if the perpetrator shows that he understands the injury he has done, repairs it where he can, and gives every sign of not repeating it.  

In the gospels, by contrast, Jesus does not seem to make forgiveness conditional in this way.  He recommends it unqualifiedly as the thing to do, whether or not the perpetrator repeats the injury or even repents of it.

Each position comports risks.  In the Jewish situation, where the injured party has no wish for revenge and only wants the perpetrator’s good, she still carries a double burden: her own wound and the perpetrator’s wrong.  She must carry it until such time as her injurer comes to apologize, because he has to have a human place, in linear time and habitable space, to which to bring his apology.  And his apology might never happen.  

In the Christian example, the forgiver might disburden herself of a painful memory, and that might be therapeutic for her personally.  But she still risks enabling the perpetrator by tossing “cheap grace” at a situation that’s been conveniently erased from memory rather than cured.

How do we solve this?  Personally, I’ve tried both – the Jewish approach and the Christian approach — and can testify to the risks of each!  Without laying down an algorithm, a set of specific steps to take, I’ll tell you what did work for me in one case.  Interestingly, it’s a sort of fusion of both approaches.

In fact, I was neither an inventor nor an enactor of this cure.  Rather, I received a vision.  First of all, it informed me of the nature of the wound I had suffered.  The wound pertained to my feminine dignity that – as the vision disclosed – belonged to me as a kind of divine DNA.  I had it insofar as I had been created in God’s image.  

(Here it might be relevant to note that I had never objected to the use of the masculine pronoun nor the habit of imagining the divine as an old man with a white beard.  The pronouns and images just reminded me of a grandfather I had loved.)

Given my previous habits of imagination, this vision contained information that, for me, was novel, unforced, and explanatory.  Since God’s nature includes the feminine, God’s image had been desecrated.  Chilul HaShem.  The desecration of the Name.  Oh, I see.  Hadn’t thought of that.

I did absolutely nothing about this vision.  Confided it to no one.  So it is noteworthy that, the very next time I saw my injurer, he had changed.  Visibly.  He looked amazingly like a younger, more innocent, less defensive version of himself.  No reconciling words were exchanged between us.  

Things were just different.

That’s all.

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“Thankfulness”

The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth, Jennie Augusta Brownscombe (1914).

“Thankfulness” 

The other day, in the Saturday morning Torah Study class at my Reform temple, we were studying the verses on the ancient temple cultus detailed – and I mean detailed – in the Book of Leviticus. My patience with these Memory Layers of My People does not extend quite to the recall of all this ritual punctiliousness – but nobody said being a Jew was going to be joy unalloyed.

Anyway, some of the sacrificial offerings in Leviticus express gratitude or thankfulness. I remarked that thankfulness had always been hard for me. I mean, I can say “thanks!” to my Creator, just as I can thank a hostess for a pleasant evening, even if every minute of it was spent longing for the exits.

But God is not flattered by my politeness.

After the study hour, several co-religionists came up to me to tell what sorts of things they’d been grateful for in their lives and how many blessings I could count in my own.

I can count as well as the next lady, but that wasn’t what I was talking about.

In my remarks, I’d also noted that one could “take it from the bottom,” as it were, and –starting from zero – reckon up the ingredients that go into the lives we get to live. Doing that can give rise to a certain cosmic awe.

That satisfied some of the parishioners but did not get to the quick of the deficiency I was confessing. I was talking about personal sincerity – not awe at things everybody sees and shares. If somebody gives you a present, which he gives to no one else, and your thanks are just generic – the kind the postman deserves for delivering the mail to everyone in your district – there’s something missing in your gratitude.

 The personal stamp.

It seemed to me that, if I were to get to real thankfulness, a kind of archeological dig would be needed, digging down to some original layer of self. The over-layers must be where the “politeness” resides: the person who’s not-really-me offering tribute To Whom It May Concern.

If thankfulness has got to come from the authentic self – well, who am I? Recently I got a clue.

Last Saturday, in Torah Study, I was really teed off about a theme that seemed to be settling like a miasma over the discussion. I was steaming, and the odd thing was, my guidance was for letting the anger show – rather than trying to keep the polish on the façade. Since this sort of prayer guidance seldom leads me astray, when it came my turn to speak, I pretty much said what I’d been thinking. I didn’t say it in a polished way. As recapped below, it sounds like a coherent thesis. But in fact it was fairly raw and broken.

What made me so angry was the seemingly benign theme of oneness and unity. If God is a unity, then the Jewish people – or people in general – should likewise put aside all selfishness and try to meld into a seamless whole. The example given was the kibbutz, the voluntary collective community typical of Israel’s pioneering days.

“I have to dissent from the consensus,” I said. “In the entirety of Hebrew Scripture, nowhere is that kind of collective idealized. What God asks of us is to become ourselves, not dissolve into the One. The uniqueness of the God of Israel calls forth our personal distinctiveness. The unity of the kibbutz — or of the covenant sign-up moment at Mt. Sinai — is freely given but also summoned by exceptional circumstances. There’s great danger in trying to extend such moments by remaking the entire political realm after that pattern. Individuality will keep breaking through and the only way to maintain the ”ideal” of unity is by terrorizing the population. During the French Revolution, any outbreak of personal freedom risked denunciation, generally followed by decapitation — your real head getting chopped off.

“Today, unguarded outbreaks of candor risk social and professional decapitation. Unlike the French prototype, we have no official Committee of Public Safety. But a similar instrument, Political Correctness, does the work of Denunciation – for racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia and whatever other Thought Crimes will be invented tomorrow. The hapless target is ostracized as “insensitive.” What is at work is not sensitivity but the power of The Denouncers to exercise control – over language and therefore over thought.”

Sometimes, when I’ve dissented from a group consensus, people have come over to thank me for my honesty. This time, not so much – though the rabbi’s response was pure grace. With a couple of exceptions, people looked away and stole away.

Lord, I thought, there goes the old popularity!

I felt that what I’d said was truthful and that the other students were grownups, who shared the real world with me and were not in need of soft soap. Still, I felt spooked.

Back home, I took out my tools for psychic “archeology” and dug down through the layers. What really had moved me to talk like that?

All I could see, at the bottom of my anger, was a loving regard for my co-religionists – and a quasi-erotic elan toward the God who had put me in that place and nourished such feelings in my heart till they became full and real.

So that’s who I am?

The thankfulness came in the same cloudburst of discovery. 

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Christians, Jews, and The Great Rift

Rav Tsair and The Apostle Paul, c. 1657 by Rembrandt

Christians, Jews, and The Great Rift

I prefer to think of that world-historical-fault-line as a long, reparable misunderstanding.  Whether or not that’s the right view, personally I want to patch it up. 

Yet I recall a Jewish scholar, speaking at an interfaith event, who voiced a different opinion: the two religions, he said, had distinct, specialized callings.  Their rift might have been Providential. 

Maybe so, but it’s been bloody work.  Recently, the whole sad history became painfully present for me as I read a book purporting to survey the entire Talmud.  

The Talmud is the many-layered commentary on the Hebrew Bible.  It comes in two broad sections, the first in Hebrew, the second in Aramaic.  Originally transmitted orally, the Hebrew part was collected and committed to writing around 200 CE, while the Aramaic layer followed about 400 years later, in two versions: Babylonian and Jerusalemite. 

Talmudic commentary has been ongoing since then, not closed like the Biblical canon.  Though considered imbued with divine inspiration, it preserves minority as well as majority opinions.  It is thus an invitation to inspired argument – its interpretations necessarily flexible as Jewish life adapted itself to changing situations different from the Biblical ones.  This plasticity avoided a break with the past and made Jewish continuity possible.

The author of the book I read is a public intellectual who has done outstanding work, but not a Talmud scholar.  He had completed the Daf Yomi or ”daily page” program, whose followers read one page of Talmud daily.  At that pace, it takes seven and a half years to get through it in the approved English translation.  Coincidentally, I’d recently read a book by a different public intellectual for whom I also had high regard.  Both of these opinion-shapers came up with a similar estimate of Talmud:

not much to see here

They didn’t say it like that, but to me it seemed obvious.

Now I know that a text originally meant to be transmitted orally, and only with insider guidance, is an esoteric work.  The meanings aren’t evident on its face, but require decoding.  Some of that decoding one finds in a philosopher like Levinas and I have also read fragments of it elsewhere.  Sitting in on study sessions with insiders, I’ve felt like I died and went to heaven.  What I gleaned in such conversations was dense, nuanced and illuminated.  All the same, I emerged from my recent, brief, outsider tour of Talmud feeling pretty decentered.

However, there are such things as providential interventions.  They come silently, like silk lining on the underside of rough-textured experience.  One came a day or so later, when I happened to watch a video of an Arab Israeli speaking in defense of his country.  His country?  Upwards of 70% of the Arab population of Israel deems itself Israeli, not Palestinian, the speaker reported.  The derisive term “apartheid” is fiction, he said, without bearing on their lives.  Arab enrollment in universities and achievement in the professions is equivalent to that of Israeli Jews.  And it compares favorably with that of Muslim co-religionists outside of Israel. 

Though army service isn’t compulsory for Israeli Arabs, the speaker had volunteered for the IDF.  He’d been wounded in combat, fainting after a horrified glimpse of his shattered right leg and missing right foot.  When he woke in hospital, he looked fearfully down under the blanket only to see – his foot there!  The soldiers in his unit had saved it and the surgeons had managed to reattach it!  It’s now a working foot.  He can walk on it.  What combat surgeon will do that — or can?

Why did this video feel like silk against abraded skin for me?  For two thousand years of exile, Jews had put their covenantal assignment through the conduits of Talmudic commentary on the Bible.  Reports like those of the Arab Israeli suggested to me that that way of preserving the Jewish assignment hadn’t been deluded or contrived.  Spiritual reality was perpetuated by passing it through the Talmudic pipeline.

A day or two later, another piece of silk lining slid into place in the form of an email from a young scholar named Yair Rosenberg.  He was giving me a heads up.  An article of his, titled “Why Did Einstein Promote the Talmud When He Couldn’t Read It?” was about to appear in his online column for The Atlantic magazine.  It concerned the consequential relations between my grandfather, Chaim Tchernowitz, known by his pen name of Rav Tsair (‘the young rabbi”), and Einstein.  They’d met in Berlin, when my grandfather was taking his German doctorate in Judaica.  Did I by any chance have a photo of the two men?  I did in fact.  It’s now featured in the article. 

In the course of their long friendship, Einstein endorsed a Talmudic project of my grandfather’s in a public letter which closely paraphrased an earlier letter to him from Rav Tsair.  Here’s a bit of my grandfather’s first communication:

A scientific knowledge of the Talmud is needed, especially by us Jews, because we are dealing here with our national cultural treasure; the sages of the Talmud were the spiritual heirs of the biblical world … .”

The article in the online Atlantic is carefully researched, clearly written and brings their relationship fully to light in detail for the first time.  Reading it, I learned of aspects of my grandfather that I’d not known, and refreshed my understanding of him, as a large figure, capable of bringing spiritual and scholarly resources to the support of the nascent Jewish state.  He died at the end of my childhood.  I loved him and he remained an imprinting influence in my life.

Had Providence looked for a balm to heal my abraded sense of past-to-future direction, it could have found none so effective and precisely targeted as this.

Meanwhile, as it happens, to get my mind off personal anomie, I’d been reading a book titled The Early Christians: In Their Own Words by Eberhard Arnold.  It’s a compilation of communications from the followers of Jesus in the first two centuries of the common era, when Christianity was a capital crime under Roman law. 

These people took the Sermon on the Mount literally.  They would actually give their cloak to a thief who’d just grabbed their coat and really turn the other cheek to someone who’d slapped them on the first side of the face.  They took meals in common.  Widowed people did not remarry.  Sexual intercourse was for procreation only.  Lifelong virginity was prized.  Unchaste thoughts were held equivalent to adultery.  They were pacifists.  They regarded pagan gods as demons and pagan vices as the outcome of worshipping demons.  Socrates they respected as a proto-Christian, martyred for repudiating pagan worship. 

So far, I’ve seen no mention of Original Sin, redemption of it through Christ’s crucifixion, or the Trinity, but they confidently expected Christ to take them to heaven directly, once the lions in the colosseum had finished making a dinner of them.

This was no technicolor Bible movie!  I do feel a connection to Jesus but I wasn’t at all sure that I would’ve liked these people.  That said, they are an impressive lot — fitted like guided missiles to pierce and bring down the classical world – not necessarily its remarkable achievements – mainly the cruel coarseness of its daily life. 

“Christianity,” a colleague once remarked, “is Judaism for export.” 

Oh well.  Someone had to do it.

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