Now You See It, Now You Don’t

“The Falling Angel”
Marc Chagall, 1923

Now You See It, Now You Don’t

Last night I watched Renique Allen being interviewed on C-Span about her book, It Was All a Dream: A New Generation Confronts the Broken Promises to Black Americans

I was utterly riveted by her self-revelations, which felt to me like mine would be if I were black.

She did not allow her tale of obstacles to disappear into modes of discourse currently formulaic.  Her personal situation was presented fresh, though it had its parallels in the 75 or so millennials she interviewed for her book.

First and last, what struck me was the erotic predicament.  For a black woman looking for a suitable relationship with a man, the pool of educated males is relatively small.  The pool of men who have done time in jail is large.  Incarceration being somewhat chancy for our black fellow citizens (one can be sentenced to a fairly long term for being a bystander), some of those men may be well qualified by character.  But still, what do you tell people?

And if they’ve got through the neck of the racial bottle and emerged with similar credentials, many of the eligibles (men and women) come from single parent homes with no models, no parental couple that lasted and learned to work things out together.

There is also the larger context.  The cities of the North are still quite segregated residentially and in terms of social groupings.  Even white liberals and radicals rarely glide effortlessly across the erotic color line.

Some of these young people are moving south.  The weather’s better, the rents give you more space, and … “what the hell, it’s home.”  It’s the black equivalent of the Mayflower: the place of origins in America.  There can be a frankness, even an ease, that goes with that.  The history may not be the greatest, but it’s shared and it’s in the open.

I thought of another woman I once met, descended from a well-known Lakota chief who figures in the history of the American West.  (That means, we killed some of his and he killed some of ours.)  His descendant, a woman I admired on sight, had married three times, but damned if she could find a man of her people who wasn’t demoralized past the point required for a common life.  She was a princess.  The prince wasn’t on his way.

Out of a vast longing to better understand my people and their strange assignment in history, I’ve been reading Halakhah: The Rabbinic Idea of Law.  Its author, Chaim N. Saiman, is praised unreservedly by people whose endorsement puts the book over the top.  I bought it, aware that I understand Biblical Israel better than I do rabbinic Judaism. What happened in the God/Israel relationship, to turn the one into the other?

Biblical Israel is unique among the world’s religious communities in that its models are (or purport to be) real people in locatable cultural and political situations who try at the same time to stay in contact with a God who is more than the world and its parts.  They’ve agreed to relate their lives to this God.  A consequential, even terrifying agreement.  Their God promises them a Land in which to carry out and record what happens next.  A record the world still reads.

The Bible and the rabbis explain their eventual exile from the Land as the consequence of sin.  Less reverently, I’m inclined to see it as inevitable, built into their strategic vulnerability and size relative to the empires surrounding them.  And built into their covenantal refusal to disappear.

However explained, they could not shuffle off the habits, prescribed conducts and memories that tied them to the literal space-and-time conditions of their origin.  Not and stay Jehudim, a tribe in Israel.

So they took with them as much as they could: an Israel-in-the-head.  Rules designed for Israelite geography and temple architecture were retained and discussed “in the Sanhedrin,” that is, ideally – together with rules adapted to later circumstances.  They traveled sheathed in those prescriptions-in-the-head.  It was the most portable part of their origins.  The narratives might grow more distant with time.  Law is, in a manner of speaking, timeless.

Where is the woman, in this Israel-in-the-head?  I’m not sure.  My recent experience as a beleaguered woman suggests that the male co-religionist will try at the outset to find a precept or a prooftext that will preserve the actual, de facto community.  So the woman will be advised to stay within the communal consensus and to keep her head down.  Compromise is preferred.  Except in three cases:

idolatry, murder and sexual immorality.

As I see it, these three “exceptions” cover all the large-scale defacements of the divine image in humankind. The point is to recognize when these defacements loom and to resist them at that time without compromise.  Absolutely.

I take “sexual immorality” to stand for the defacement of a facet of the divine.  That facet is called “Shekinah,” divine Presence, and it is feminine.

I look at the defense of the feminine by Renique Allen, by the now-departed Lakota princess, and also by me recently, at my local temple.  Yesterday a Jewish woman friend said this:

You were defending the Shekinah. 

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The Feminine Honor

The Adams Memorial
Augustus Saint-Gaudens, 1891

The Feminine Honor

My recent “Me Too” experience now appears to be winding to its close with the moral fundamentals suitably restored.

Since I’m a city kid, with street smarts, who had reason to believe that her life skills were more than sufficient to steer her clear of the “Me Too” experience, what have I now learned that could be of use to other women?

est-ce que vous ne plaignez pas le sort des femmes?

(Do you not pity the destiny of women?)

Years ago I heard a French actress voice her famous question, in the beautiful accents of the Theatre national populaire.

What is the destiny of women?

Edmund Burke, writing his Reflections on the Revolution in France, laments that a thousand swords were not raised to defend the person of Marie Antoinette.  The English didn’t much like the French in those days, and he was derided for the sentiment of thwarted chivalry he voiced.

But I will never ridicule chivalry.  It’s clear water for the thirsty.  It mitigates, as nothing else can, the destiny of women.

Why do women who’ve suffered disrespect related to their sex hesitate to come forward?  I’ve learned enough about the answer to understand now why my feminist friends were reluctant to utter any words of encouragement as they realized what field of combat I was preparing to enter.

It has to do with the stakes here.  In no other fight I ever entered have I felt so lacerated — at the start and at the finish.  To change the metaphor: this is by no means my first rodeo.  In my life, I’ve won some and lost some and been badly thrown before.

Why is this one different?  It’s the only one where my right to be treated appropriately as a woman was jeopardized.

The world does not come right,

manliness does not come right,

unless feminine honor

is valued at its just price.

A woman, like a man, can fight for a cause without regard to her sex.  She can fight for the Spanish Republic, fight for the Free French, fight in the Haganah as my cousins did, fight against slavery worldwide, fight for a woman’s right to vote, to drive, to get equal pay for equal work, fight to save wild nature – get into any fight that she thinks has her name on it.

She should never have to fight for the cause of herself as a woman.

Of any circumstance, any combat, that fails to respect this invisible constraint, one can only say,

C’est indigne!

(It’s ignoble!)

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It’s Personal

"The Song and the Space," Arthur Polonsky

“The Song and the Space,” Arthur Polonsky

It’s Personal

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been confronting a shift of mood that’s quite rare for me.  The name of this mood is

Despair.

As a person who’s talked two women friends out of suicide – don’t worry, I’m not there – I should know a fair deal about the feeling that a situation is hopeless.  So one of the factors I found most disturbing personally was that I couldn’t find a ready remedy in my own case.

Lately, I’ve often been in tears.  This too is rare.  I can cry readily at the death of someone dear to me, or even confronting a situation that presents a tragic face for others, if I am able to see what they are seeing.

But these tears were tears of helplessness, hopelessness, seeming loss of the power and the motivation to go on.

We are talking bitter tears.

Normally, I do my best to keep hope alive.  However, by the same token, I don’t like to keep the candle of phony hope lit.  If there’s one thing more unpleasant than despair, it’s pretended good cheer.  Pu-leese!  Take your horrible scratchy-throat cheerfulness away!  Has someone broken your heart?  Don’t jog it out of your system.  The heart has its reasons that your jogging knows not of.  Take your heart with you!

So far as I could determine, talking it out over many days, with my friend and husband Jerry, my despair has had three sources.  Each one alone might have been surmounted with the tools I’ve learned over the trials and errors of my life.  But coming all at once, the three overwhelmed my toolbox.  Accordingly, it went into free fall.  And the cascades of tears followed.

Here are the three sources of my despair: Jerry heart’s surgery in late August, the apparent failure of my last realistic expectation of a cure for neuropathy, the betrayal of trust at the temple to which I belong.  Hard to say which was more undermining, so I’ll review them one at a time.

  1. Jerry’s surgery. Beyond the rigors of the ordeal itself, for Jerry and for me, a further question loomed for us both. When you set sail on the blue waters of true love, you aren’t likely to finish the journey simultaneously.  One of you will be left to steer the ship without the other.  How – practically, and in terms of sincere motivation to go on — do you do that?

  2. Neuropathy, and my crash landing. There are many people who deal with worse conditions than the one I now face, which is the permanent inability to walk normally. Those heroes have my admiration.  But I am talking about me.  For me, who can live happily without a box at the opera, expensive vacations in warm climates, exotic travel or fancy clothes, the one thing I really can’t see myself doing without is strolling.  Strolling through woods.  Through museums.  Through city streets.  Navigating the world of people and natural things with my bodily self.  Sending the message with my big city walk: don’t mess with me.  Harkening to tall woodland silences.  Walking as the best way to talk privately with a friend.  Walking to collect myself.  Have I made myself clear?

  3. Moral chaos at my temple. In a previous column, “At a Loss,” I’ve described the particular backstory. There is, of course, the deeper backstory: God, for reasons best known to Himself, decided to cut out a certain people from the rest, the way a herder cuts out cattle to put His brand on them.  They were to live in an intimate relation with Him.  Provided they would consciously agree to do that.  Which, perhaps imprudently, they did.  They were to remember and record what happened next.  They did that too.  They were to become famously hated.  Okay, what’s next?  They remain a touchstone of people’s ability to acknowledge a unique sacrifice and to acknowledge the God who still asks for that sacrifice.  It’s a responsibility.  When it’s shirked, that counts.

At present, how am I coping with these three separate currents of despair?  Well, in three ways.

  1. Jerry’s surgery and its question for the sooner-or-later lone survivor: Dying first is easy, or anyway it looks that way.  Dying last is not.  What can we do now for the one who will stand alone?  What Jerry and I agreed to do was think it through, as best we can, with respect to property and its disposal, and with regard to each one’s reasons for living.   It’s not that we can foresee the actual situation.  It would be arrogant to think we could.  But every story has its ending.  Subliminally, we already picture that in some way.  Can we share the picture with each other?  Is it open to improvement?

  2. Neuropathy’s non-cure: Whatever turns out to be the outcome of my two-year treatments at the Loma Linda Hospital in California, the present outlook is less hopeful than the one I was led to expect.  I’m not blaming the people there.  I think they are honest and have helped many others.  They even remedied the worst of the condition I presented at the outset. And they may yet improve things.  Or they might not.  But, as the situation stands today, I teeter and totter around.  If I step down from a curb, I have to find a lamppost or a car to lean on.  If I walk in the woods, it’s not a walk: it’s a hazardous stagger from foot to foot.  Who am I kidding?  To get anywhere alone, I’ll need to use a walking stick!

  3. My chaotic temple, about which I feel so very …

Forlorn! The very word is like a bell

To toll me back … to my sole self!

Having wrestled with it for some days, I can give you an interim report on my efforts to fathom the contours of that despair.

I thought to myself, well look, don’t try to get above it and don’t try to get beyond it.  Try to get inside it.  Try to enter this cavern.  Trace out its concavities, if you can.  It looked to me as if the precipitating cause of despair might be the attempt to dodge it.  After all, the great, nineteenth-century, Danish proto-existentialist philosopher Soren Kierkegaard thinks very highly of despair.  He sure doesn’t run from it.  He sees it as an eventual source of light.

So, first of all, I tried not to dodge it.  Tried instead to get congruent with it.  To be at one with my despair.  As I traced it and tracked it, the despair began to take on human contours.

One despairs of something.  Despair refutes hope.  But hope, after all, is specific.   Tracing it out, holding on to it like Ariadne’s thread that she gave Theseus to take him out of the labyrinth, I come to … somebody.  A person.  Well, whaddya know!

It’s personal.

My touchstone of hope was personal.  Who?  Of whom did I first entertain hope and then discover hopelessness?  There was someone I trusted, the person to whom I first brought my complaint of harassment.  I thought him the epitome of a straight arrow individual.  I placed moral reliance on him.  My disappointment – that he had gone over to the side of my harasser — was personal.

What of the harasser himself?  There, my reaction was less personal.  It was more like moral shock.  I had looked for the familiar tokens of respect for the norms.  Tokens we all live by, because ordinarily they are there.   Besides,

we have to live as if the norms are there.

But outlaws seem energized by their defiance of the social norms.  They even gather adherents by that inverted method.  To many, they look like what the late Osama Bin Laden called “the strong horse.”  They do have a certain force: the force of their brazenness.

In his great poem, “Shine, Perishing Republic,” Robinson Jeffers says,

… corruption

Never has been compulsory.

He’s right about that.  Corruption is not compulsory.

But it sure is contagious.

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Read Any More Good Books?

 

“Young Girl Reading”
Seymour Joseph Guy, 1877

Read Any More Good Books?

As we share the current holidays, in whatever way and spirit seems best, I’ll share some of my recent reading experiences with you.

Victoria: The Queen

by Julia Baird.

Here is a royal gossip fest, by an intelligent woman biographer who’s had hard-to-get access to well-guarded royal archives.  Victoria managed to combine in one life a mother-daughter struggle for power, a romantic passion for her German husband Albert, the labor of producing nine children in an age before modern obstetrics or birth control, the steadiness to survive multiple attempts on her life, the will and intelligence to prevent certain European conflicts and keep England out of others, and the canniness to uphold “Victorian” values of submissive femininity in public while defying them (where she could) in private.

What a life!  What a tour de force of a book!


The Grammar of God

by Aviya Kushner

I’m still reading this book.  The writer speaks Hebrew natively and has produced a study of how the Hebrew Bible is interpreted differently in different English translations – what is lost from the original and what is emphasized by the translators.  Sometimes, she will line up the transliterated Hebrew words followed by a succession of “readings” of the same words by different translators, from the King James to American Bible Society, Jewish Publication Society, Robert Alter, Everett Fox and so on.  (Speaking for myself, the King James remains the most inspired.  But of course, you can’t always understand it, so it helps to consult the others.)  She has looked at the lives of the translators, some of whom suffered greatly for their efforts to put the good Book in the hands of ordinary people.  She herself has suffered greatly.   It’s quite an epic, really.  Breathtaking.


These Truths: A History of the United States

By Jill Lepore

This one’s encyclopedic in its scope.  It goes to 789 pages, even before you get to the endnotes.  I’m only up to 1840.  It’s the America they didn’t tell you about (or anyway didn’t tell me about) in fourth grade.  All the facts, with the deplorable ones front and center.  Since I’m always interested in what I call “unofficial history,” I thought it time for me to look at the hidden side without blinking.  She’s given the panorama, taking in every major period: the centuries of exploration, the early settlements, the pre-revolutionary era, and (so far as I’ve gotten) the first decades of the new nation.  Though she foregrounds the sickening moral shortfalls, shrinks the traditional heroes and fails to acknowledge the dialectical nature of human experience – first you lay out a principle in your own compromised context, then over time, by trial and error, you learn to pay the price of what you professed – there is a wealth of entertaining detail about the American experience that’s worth the price of her journey.


When Christians Were Jews: The First Generation

By Paula Fredriksen

This one’s a detective story, or reads like one.  The author tries to piece together the most likely chronology of the Jesus story and the incidents recorded in the Book of Acts and Paul’s Epistles.  These records are not consistent.  There are other records from the same era, Philo of Alexandria, the Dead Sea Scrolls, Josephus on The Jewish Wars, which she consults to fill in the gaps or support a hypothesis.  What happened?  When did it happen?  What did the first followers who initiated the Jesus movement think they were doing?  What were their disagreements about?  The author’s point of view is more secular than mine but not in a nasty or disrespectful way.  As I was telling Jerry one incident in her description of the destruction of the Second Temple, I began to cry.  That says something for her detective work.

 

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At a Loss

 

“Pathless” Michael Whelan, 1999
“the sad heart of Ruth, when sick for home/she stood in tears amid the alien corn”

At a Loss

Friends and readers of this column, I am really at a loss.  I don’t know what to say as a woman, and I don’t know what to do as a woman.

Let me at least tell you why.  What I call a good life is one lived chronologically.  It doesn’t try to pole vault out of its time into a projected, perfect future, or slip back into a lost, longed-for past time.  It doesn’t evade the present but faces the day, in its time.

That said, a day-in-time requires a place.  Time as lived is spatial as well as temporal.

Nowadays, all of us feel the loss of the old stabilities of place.  We live partly in virtual spaces — and do whatever we can to find the equivalent of a space that can ground our lived time.

For me, such community as I now have has been furnished by the local temple, scene of many human and even spiritual dramas, highlights of which I’ve sometimes replayed here.  It’s afforded me footing, in combats with local outbreaks of anti-semitism.  It’s been a place to struggle to define and refine my sense of the Jewish assignment in the world.  I devoted much care and effort to it, within an otherwise more-than-busy life.  And my most natural place within the temple has been its weekly Bible study.

When I suffered a knee injury last March, and mentioned that, en passant in an email, one of the temple personalities to whom my email went replied that he had particular gifts as a healer.  He offered me a spiritual healing.  I saw no reason to object.  There is empirical evidence that prayer does heal.

I won’t go into what he actually said to me in the phone call that purported to be the “spiritual healing.”  Jerry, to whom I reported the words right after I’d hung up the phone, commented,

“This sounds like a guy who likes phone sex!”

Since I happen to know what a distance healing is and isn’t, I was not vulnerable – as some women might be – to his claim that this was a perfectly okay example of the genre.  Nor was I open to his suggestion that I allow him to follow up with a house call, with a confederate who was very good at manipulative laying on of hands.  Don’t know where the hands were to be laid, but had they gone anywhere near the injured knee, a stress fracture could have turned into a compound fracture.

The email that I sent the next morning asked him to stop his therapeutic efforts. When he wanted to know why, I merely said I was satisfied with my present medical care.  His reaction was to continue his emails for months thereafter.

He began by pretending that it would take a fair amount of time for his psyche to disconnect from mine (hah!) and then continued to send beams of “love and light” in spite of my having earlier asked him to quit his efforts.

How did it happen that a woman’s clear request to a man not to bother her isn’t simply honored?

I deliberately delayed returning to the Biblical study group till I was less physically vulnerable.  The day I did return, mister telephone healer dogged my footsteps all the way to my car demanding that I tell him why I didn’t want to interact with him.  He had the nerve to claim that I had a religious duty to explain to him what exactly he had done wrong so that he could apologize accurately.

Oh yeah.

Give mister-phone-sex-man more jollies?

I don’t think so.

Back home, I told Jerry that it was looking more difficult than I’d expected to get this fellow out of my space.  I suggested that — liberated woman though I am — Jerry might send an email message to leave me alone to mister-healer.  Jerry gallantly did that.

In the most brazen response I ever heard of, my harasser emailed back a page and a half of single-space counter-accusations (though no one had accused him of anything)!  His email wound up by recommending a particular treatment for traumatic brain injury and severe migraines – attributing to me (on the basis of what?) conditions I did not have.

(As I learned in my professorial years, the good kids feel guilty, even when they’re not.  The bad kids counter-accuse.)

Mister-healer did, however, promise to leave me alone, his promise explicitly including the Jewish Day of Atonement.  And he did say in his note, that he could trace my disaffection to his “spiritual healing,” which some people just don’t know how to take.

I’ll abridge the story at this point, save to say that, near the Day of Atonment, he managed to convince one of the best men in the temple to carry a promise-breaking message to our doorstep, again pleading with me to spell out exactly what he had done.  This, a week or so after Jerry’s heart surgery, when our home should have been a sanctuary for Jerry’s recovery.

When I showed Jerry the note, he said, shaking his head, “Look what one trouble-maker can do!”

The trouble-making part was that the purported healer’s note to me came attached to another note – this one addressed to the note’s deliverer!  That note accused me of preventing his proper Atonement and injuring the spiritual integrity of the class and the synagogue.

Go fight an octopus from dry ground.

Self-defense now required me to meet with the innocent note-bearer and lay out the evidence before him.  The main evidence was in the harasser’s own emails.  It was a documentary paper trail.  I expected to have no difficulty showing my respected co-congregant where the truth lay.

To my vast astonishment, my co-religionist heard me out, gathered up the documents, and … pronounced my harasser  … “a good man”!  In the weeks that followed, it became clear that I was the one now regarded as a false accuser and my victimizer as the real victim.

Jerry and I discussed the possibility of the two of us sharing with other opinion-leaders in the temple the evidence I had shown his current defender.  The trouble with doing that is that, when you bring a complaint, you have to suggest some way your hearer could act to satisfy your complaint.  I don’t know what to suggest.

The saddest loss to me is Torah Study.  I’ve been disrespected as a feminine being and a wife.  More serious still, my truthful witness has been discounted.  If I should want to speak any words, in the room where we study verses of the Bible, I have no ground to stand on.

I have no honor in that place.

What is femininity? What does it mean to be abused as a woman?  I have gone through years of professional life, student life before that, and always managed to deflect unwanted advances. This problem is new to me.

For the first time in my life,

I found myself crying uncontrollably.

In Hebrew scripture, I can’t think of a case where men defend women.  It’s usually the other way around.  The women defend the men.  They compensate for their blind spots, and fill the gaps between male projects with their living presence.

Sarah plays along with her husband’s “she’s my sister” caper, so as not to jeopardize Abraham’s life.  Rebecca tricks her husband into safeguarding the covenantal lineage – helping the more appropriate son to get the blessing instead of the uncouth first born.  Rachel asks only to add children to the covenantal lineage — not to retrieve her lost wedding night.

I can only support Jerry, if that’s my Biblical assignment, by doing my best

to make sure he’s got a woman – 

not a silenced, maligned, stunted remnant of a former woman.

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My Defense of My Parents

Diana Trilling in her office Courtesy of Bettman Archive
Abbie in her office by Elmer Sprague

My Defense of My Parents

Recently I read the collected letters of Lionel Trilling.  Afterward, curiosity prompted me to look in the file folder I had under that name.  Trilling had been, possibly, the most influential opinion-shaper in mid-twentieth-century America.  In the folder, I found a copy of a long-forgotten letter I had written to his widow, some years after his death.

Diana Trilling was also a public intellectual.  She had just published her memoir of their marriage: The Beginning of the Journey.  It contained 13 indexed references to my parents – all unflattering.

Here is the letter I wrote to the late Diana Trilling.  It registers a daughter’s defense of her parents.

Dear Mrs. Trilling,

I am Abigail Rosenthal, the daughter of Henry and Rachelle.  I have just purchased a copy of your memoir, in which my parents appear, and I hasten to write you – even before having read the book through – about them.

Without preamble: their absoluteness wasn’t arrogance.  His intransigence wasn’t a pose.  It was one reflection of other qualities: a strong sense of self, the good fortune of a true and lasting love – great courage and energy for life – and tremendous humor.  I wish I could reproduce his funniness.  [Clifton] Fadiman spoke of it at his memorial.

What united all these implausible strands – and mother’s natural coquetrie with her untarnished devotion as wife and mother?  Though they seldom used the word, it would not be spoiling the story to say that they both believed in God.  I don’t mean fanatically.  He, after all, had left the rabbinate and eventually shrugged off the outward practices of Judaism.  But his originality was his transparency to the transcendent.  It made him funny because it made him essentially unafraid.  And his relative isolation came from an ability – at least in the years I knew him – to see people with a laser vision, a vision that also pained him.  He saw what they were, with great compassion, and with a love many people felt even if he separated himself from them.

Like most Jewish men of his time, he felt the weight of a tragic reality, the outnumbering weight of the anti-Semitic configurations in the world.  It did not surprise him.  He understood it.  I suppose in a way it frightened him, as it would any thoughtful person.  Yet he and my mother faced into it with all their love and courage.  Among much else that they did, they brought over ten families, total strangers, saving them from the Holocaust – walking through the State Department’s endless paper barriers.

I adored them both.  It was a real friendship, born in adulthood, after they had given up trying to shape me or my life.

He and your husband could not live out the distinct and significant dramas of their respective lives side by side.  Yet I do not think that my father ceased to love Lionel Trilling.  And, once in a while, word would come back to us of your husband’s ongoing regard and concern. …

I thank you for your book, its honesty and its historical effort – of recuperation of precious time and people.  But I ask you to believe their daughter – that my parents were much more than what must have been visible to you then.

Sincerely,

 

[signature]

Mrs. Trilling did not reply to my letter.

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The Devil in the Details 

Dante in a dark wood
Illustration by Gustave Doré, 1857

The Devil in the Details 

Depression is not an attractive word, but it describes my mood in recent days.  Two explanations (or causes?) spring to mind.

First: I have this neuropathy handicap.  My walking lacks its former, rhythmic life-of-its-own, becoming instead a means to get from one seated place to the next.  The condition has gotten gradually worse over twenty plus years, during which I’ve combatted it with every remedy I could find, from highly-recommended medical specialists to a whole gamut of holistic alternatives.  And yes, I pray a lot, thank you for asking.  The only measurable improvement has come in the last two years from an experimental treatment offered only at Loma Linda Hospital in southern California.

However, my visit last month hit a brick wall.  By every metric they have at Loma Linda, my treatments have succeeded!  To close the gap between my still- limping condition and the full capacity to stroll that I long for, all I’ll need is to do the homework they gave me for a supposedly final course of exercises.

The trouble is, the drill they sent me home to do seems to be making things worse, not better!  Maybe it will work if I do it for longer.  Maybe it can be adjusted to make it work better.  I’ll call them to see what they think.

For myself, I have no idea.

The New Age-niks believe that all our reverses of fortune originate in our bad attitudes.  It’s all in our minds.  I’ve tried that approach.  The dentist I had in New York was plenty thankful for the New Age.  It gave him lots of expensive cavities to fill.

Second: One of the platforms of my life here in the country, post New York, has been the local Reform temple that I joined, having stumbled into it because it was offering a concert that Jerry wanted to attend for his birthday. The part of temple life that I best relate to is its weekly, verse-by-verse study of the first Five Books, the Torah or Pentateuch of the Hebrew Bible.  I might not know The Practices of my people, but I do know how thoughtfully to discuss a text.  In the last nine or so months, this part of my local life has come under an Undeniable Shadow.

I don’t know quite how to describe The Shadow, without getting lurid.  Let’s just say it’s a feature I deem corrupt and insidious, which I have been unable to offset by any effort I’ve made.  It’s not that my life at the temple has been all sweetness and light up till now.  It’s included many combats that were, I think, fair fights.  I won some and lost some.  Some of us thought differently than others on matters that arose.  We felt differently.  There were hard feelings and bruised hearts.  But for none of these combats did the terms “corrupt and insidious” come to mind.  This one is different.  Let’s leave it at that.

For me, it’s become a question of footing, physical and spiritual, with both kinds of footing apparently giving way at the same time.

I’ve just set out these two explanations for my recent, decentered mood, but at first, I was unable to account for it.  Ordinarily, my moods will zigzag from high to low and back again in response to the incidents of the day.  But a feeling that stays low, stretching over a number of days, is not a common one for me.  It was only after much talking it out with Jerry that I was able to track it.

Until I finally tracked it, my whole universe appeared formless and void.  “Abigail” seemed just a two-dimensional placeholder for projects I had earlier set in motion.  She no longer seemed to have desires of her own.  The writer who had, in A Good Look at Evil, tracked the stratagems of evil – as the deliberate thwarting of one’s ideal life story – and had, in Confessions of a Young Philosopher, shown the actualities of such a story in our time, seemed to have quit the field.  All that remained was the author’s name, on the published book and on the manuscript awaiting publication.  The person whose hard-bought wisdom was shared in these books had left.  No one here now but the shell.

Is there a real devil or devils – a species of malevolent spirit not made of earthly stuff?  How should I know?  Jewish reflection on this subject is not dogmatic.  It is found in the form of stories, midrashim, where the listeners pull out the lessons for themselves.  Only The Practices have the force of law (Halakah).  The Practices are subject to argument that records majority and minority opinion, but tends to avoid speculative theology.

So, is the devil, or are the devils, real?  I have to say …

I wouldn’t know.

They’re not in my recently-published book, in any case.  I only write about what I do know.

But if, as a thought experiment say, I were a devil, and wanted to put Abigail out of the action, I could hardly do better than to dishearten her long quest for competence in strolling and, at the same time, her institutional link to her all-too-beleaguered people.  Both mischances undermine

the place to stand and

feet with which to stand on that place.

I don’t know if there’s a real devil or not.  But sometimes it helps to assume there is one –

the better to rally one’s forces

to beat the devil down.

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