The First Thanksgiving

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


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. 

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 “Thankfulness”

  1. Ken Kaplan says:

    Wow Abigail. Much to unpack from a few short paragraphs. I really like your language about “digging down to some original layer of self” and honor your efforts to do so and to assist others in their digging as well. I’m glad you were able to get down close enough to a core to find the genuine thankfulness you were questioning.

    I do question your “If God – then we” line of thinking, however. I contend that the “if” part is a reality but the “then” part is non sequitur. We each have a God given power of free-will and what we choose to do or think or be is ours alone to determine.

    The “Unity” we are each a part of is vast and complex and full of enigmas. This makes the journey more interesting and the need for self awareness ever more urgent. Beware of anyone who can only perceive their own version of right and wrong, good and evil.

    It becomes more difficult to exercise your free will when one perceives it is outside the mainstream, but honest dissent has a reward all its own, as you seem to have experienced. The heck with “The Denouncers” (although I don’t think there are any in the referenced group). They only exercise thought control if we let them. Let’s choose not to!

    • Abigail says:

      Hey, Ken, these are nuanced, steadying words, for which I very much thank you. It’s especially meaningful to me because … you were there. In placing the focus of your Comment on the “original layer of self” as a prerequisite for sincere gratitude, you clearly “got” what I was trying to do. I’ve heard you speak with unusual finesse about the relation of reciprocity and partnership that we have with God and God with us. So I know you don’t homogenize our distinctness from God or from each other. It’s not all cream cheese. I see too how you acknowledge complexities, enigmas and freedom as features of real life, divine & human, from which we ought not to flee into over-simplifications.

      This is all realistic, as I see it, in the best sense. About good and evil, well that’s a story for another day.

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