"Their Eyes Were Watching God," Cover Art, Penguin Classics

“Their Eyes Were Watching God,” Cover Art, Penguin Classics


There is a southern black woman, about two generations after slavery, who figures as the heroine in a novel by Zora Neale Hurston. In the scene from which the lines below are taken, she has met a man who captures her interest, although prudence might warn her against him.

She even ridiculed him in her mind and was a little ashamed of the association. But every hour or two the battle had to be fought all over again. She couldn’t make him look just like any other man to her. He looked like the love thoughts of women. He could be a bee to a blossom – a pear tree blossom in the spring. He seemed to be crushing scent out of the world with his footsteps. Crushing aromatic herbs with every step he took. Spices hung about him. He was a glance from God.

Isn’t this just how it feels to be a woman? Thinking about a possible love that maybe you shouldn’t be thinking about? But you don’t know that yet. Usually we learn eventually which it was: safe or unsafe, true love or false.

When we come out of our former quandary, we forget how it felt. To hold that uncertain moment in memory is too scary. But Zora Neale Hurston stands back to allow her heroine her moment.

This is tenderness.

Long ago Leo Bronstein, my friend and mentor, composed a parable with an incident in a Zen monastery in Japan where a young apprentice asks his Master how to approach “the great Truth.” In standard Zen fashion, the Master’s answer consists in a great slap of the face. However, instead of taking a step toward enlightenment, the shocked neophyte instinctively slaps back, so hard that the Master dies instantly. The culprit is executed and spends the afterlife searching in vain for his Master, to thank him for the unusual pathway to enlightenment that the Master kindly provided.

Leo had in mind here the muddy ways in which the detachment from phenomena became, in the real-life politics of Zen, a cover story excusing attacks against people and property. If none of it matters, Leo asks through his ghost person, why should it matter who gets slapped? But who gets slapped is exactly what matters.

Every misplaced injury is, to him or her who suffers it, almost incurable.

To stand still for this awareness –

to let it occur to one –

is tenderness.

Most of us feel that we can’t allow tenderness to visit us for more than a few moments at a time. After that, we let it translate into diatribe and counter-diatribe, or into that longing for transcendant purity whose real theme is, Get me out of here!

Most of us feel we can’t afford tenderness.

 We’re not that tough.

Last week, something happened at my temple that called for such a pause. In our sabbath study group, we’d been discussing Maimonides. He says that anyone who fails to observe the seven days of Passover is cut off from his people. Observing the seven days includes eating unleavened bread the whole week, in memory of the haste with which the Israelites were told to leave Egypt, before there was time even to let the bread rise. When it came my turn to speak, I said that I did not observe the seven days of unleavened bread.

I wasn’t trying to upset the apple cart. I just felt that one thing we owed this religious setting was truthfulness. After this reluctant disclosure, it seemed to me that people around the circle were averting their eyes. Shunning is not a custom among Reform Jews. Nevertheless, that’s what it looked like to me and I was not happy.

A few days later, my unhappiness was compounded. Our temple’s observance of Yom ha Shoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) includes an April 15th evening ceremony in which neighborly Christian clergy take part. The ceremony turned out much more painful than I’d anticipated – and in a way I had never anticipated.

In a peculiar way, I’d recently felt as if, in a past life, I had been a victim of the Nazi genocide. Instead of attending a ceremony that commemorated wrongs done to other people at other times, the evening suddenly condensed into a vivified, first-person awareness of something happening to me and happening now! The world I sensed was dark; it filled the horizon; it shut off hope and it was terribly sad.

I have no empirical evidence that the experience was veridical. I only know that it felt compelling and authentic. Compounding it was the ongoing sense that fellow congregants were looking away when they crossed my path.

Whether or not the apparent shunning was deliberate or “accidental,” finally I decided not to roll over for it. Before the next sabbath meeting, I met with two friends from the study group, of whose good will and good sense I felt sure.

One of them said that, among people who live in proximity with each other, there are bound to be moments when they rub each other the wrong way. It happens between married couples. There is nothing to do but talk it out.

Another friend said that Jewry is a complex endeavor in which people have different roles and can be considered specialists in the parts they play. I may not be highly observant, but I play a part that only I can play.

Finally I talked it out, in as much depth as possible, with the Rabbi. Though he is deeply observant and I am not, we both believe that there is a God and that the covenant God made with the Jews is still on. The Rabbi offered to say to our little group that it would be good to bear in mind that we cannot judge the adequacy of another person’s observance of the 613 commandments, which no one fully observes to the letter. He did what he promised and I think it was helpful.

To my mind, there are thousands of commandments, not just 613, and it’s all I can do to try to stay in touch with the One from whom they flow continuously.

Afterward, one friend commented, about the advice to talk it out as married couples have to do:

  • He “is right but it’s so hard. Matrimony requires it if there’s any chance of succeeding but it’s much harder in more distant connections. So much easier, to let it float into some ‘resolution’: i.e., buried in the belly to make worms.”

As I thought about the whole incident, especially in the light of my friend’s remark that it would have been so much easier to let it sink unrepaired, it seemed to me that I had paused — to take in the moment in all its reverberations – and acted to repair the moment.

This pause,

 this full stop, 

this moment of fathomed experience,

this is tenderness.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” (www.dearabbie-nonadvice.com) where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at https://brooklyn-cuny.academia.edu/AbigailMartin . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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2 Responses to “Tenderness”

  1. Nancy says:

    Dear Abigail,
    The following was an interesting comment, “One of them said that, among people who live in proximity with each other, there are bound to be moments when they rub each other the wrong way. It happens between married couples. There is nothing to do but talk it out.”

    As an extension of this comment, if persons “are bound to be moments when they rub each other the wrong way”, if the the two are a long way from each other and have difficulty in spans of communication, to “talk it out” also means to “write it out” in the best possible way. I’ve had children, husbands and friends at a long distance, on submarines, in the woods, in transit communicating by e-mail, letter, long distance telephone, radio, etc. An addition to the above comment is that I have had to “prethink” what I sent in order to keep up the “chain” of communication. I hope you address some of the ways we are bound to communicate, because I think that the computer, e-mail, etc., is going to complicate our interchange of thoughts and ideas.

    • Abigail says:

      Thanks Nancy! My thought with regard to all the complicated ways people communicate nowadays? There used to be a belief, based I think in Marshall Mcluhan’s book, that “the medium is the message.” Thus, TV was supposed to be a “cool” medium, and people were advised not to emote like film actors when they appeared on TV. And acting for film had been less exaggerated in facial expressions, voice and gesture, than classical acting for the stage used to be.

      Now social media like FB or Twitter requires even more short cuts. Yikes. What comes next? On the techie side I have to leave it to heads more wired than mine. But I like the very latest development, from a book on communication by Roger Aisles: “You are the Message.” I haven’t read it but I think he is saying that what comes across (whether through air or water or cyberspace) is the person. Since you are a pretty straight shooter, who doesn’t beat around the bush, I think you do fine in any medium.

      One example of “communication” — without a phone or text or computer — comes to mind from a horse owned by Terry, Shirley’s daughter who lives on Back Bay Road, whom you may remember. The horse was losing weight, turning into skin and bones and there was nothing they could do about it. Finally they called in a horse psychic who told them that the weight loss was deliberate. The horse didn’t want to be sold and was making himself unsaleable! Terry took it to heart, told the animal not to worry, that they wouldn’t sell him after all and right away he began to gain the weight back. So there you are. There was NO “medium,” but the message got delivered anyway!

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