“The Suffering of the Situation”

Crocus blossom peeking through snow spring portrait

“The Suffering of the Situation”

While the record snowfall piled up, higher than my shoulders where it touched the house in some corners, I was not thinking how beautiful it all was. I was not breaking out the marshmallows to roast by the cheerful hearth fire. I was thinking, I really hope we don’t get a power outage because the front door is banked in snow so high it will be a trick to get out the door, our cars are white hills walled in by side peaks of snow from the first street clearing, and this is potentially a survival situation, not a hallmark card. 

Maybe that’s just me, but why pretend?

While the blizzard was roaring, I did however stop other tasks to curl up with an absorbing book. The book is titled, Flower of God: A Jewish Family’s 3,000-year Journey from Spice to Medicine, by Herbert Ausubel, M.D. The author had the audacious project of tracing his family history back to Biblical times. Because the family specialized in providing one of the purifying ritual items used in temple worship (an herb called azuv derived from the hyssop plant) and continued to be called by the name (Azubel) of that plant, Ausubel claims that his family line maintained some prominence as herbalists and doctors and is traceable.

I read the genealogical account with considerable interest for one reason. It has never been clear to me what Jews did with their covenant once the Second Temple was destroyed. I mean, I know they studied the Biblical narrative and its layers of commentators and that the study is worth pursuing in its own right. I have glimpsed enough of Talmudics to see that there is a penetrating intelligence to be uncovered there, with the aid of a teacher who knows his way in the labyrinth. But it is not my calling, and more interesting to me is to find the answer to the question,

What happened to the Biblical people after the Bible?

I’ve never been satisfied with the official answers to that question. From the Jewish side, one tack has been to say that the prophetic spirit departed from Israel somewhere in the third century B.C.E. I once asked Michael Wyschogrod, philosopher/theologian friend, what to make of this claim. He echoed its absurdity with a counter question,

“You mean, did God retire and move to Florida?”

So the official rabbinic answer doesn’t sound like God to me. And of course, until recently, the official Christian answer was that God retired from the Jewish people and instead God went to live inside the Church. The Jewish people, still trying to recover from what nineteenth-century British Prime Minister Disraeli ironically called “1900 years of Christian love,” doubt that God was feeling quite well inside the Church.

My own experience tells me that the Biblical period is not exactly over. By that I mean that things still happen, between us and God, somewhat like the things that happened in the Bible. It’s not over, kids. It’s still going on. I’ve even written an article explaining why, in philosophical terms, I think this. My article is called “God and the Care for One’s Story.” It’s gotten amazing raves from referees who keep turning it down for publication! If I can ever get it published, I’d like it to appear along with all the hand-wringing, so-reluctant-to-turn-it-down-but referee reports. Meanwhile, let’s just say that I think the Biblical story isn’t over, and I can advance an argument to support my view. Anyway that’s why I’ve been reading this family history, unbroken since Biblical times, with attention.

I don’t know what exactly I was expecting to find, in this long genealogical tracking effort, but what the book provided was all too familiar. A lot of what some of the historians who mention Jews call “wandering.” As my father wrote somewhere,

“Jews don’t ‘wander.’ They are forced out.”

It’s one long lament. The so-called “migrations” are of course expulsions. The zigzags from Moorish/Spanish Ladino to the Germanic medieval dialect that becomes Yiddish, the linguistic and cultural emulsions from the merging of disparate populations setting up shop, setting up homes and facing massacre or flight because – no matter what they’d been or done before — they were suddenly “Jews” again.

The Azubels maintain their purity, in the author’s reconstruction of his lineage. They keep refusing to name some innocent co-religionist as a scapegoat (that the local prince, countess, or KGB officer can throw to the mob or the higher-ups). They do this even at the risk — or the actual cost — of their lives. This motif plays and replays itself.

But why? What’s it all about, all this suffering?

Oddly enough, while I was reading (sometimes skimming) this long narrative, three other approaches to history also presented themselves to me — as alternatives. There was the approach of former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, of financier, billionaire and world market player, George Soros, and of economist and political philosopher Thomas Sowell. Kissinger is hated on the Left, Soros on the Right, and Sowell, as a prodigiously intelligent black conservative, is not widely beloved either, though I wouldn’t advise tangling with him intellectually.

I came across an account of Kissinger’s attempt to shape the politics of the Middle East in a marvelous book by the Irish diplomat Conor Cruise O’Brien. As for Soros, I’ve just finished reading an interview with him in this week’s New York Review of Books. Thomas Sowell I’d never read before, but have just begun his impressive book about the cultural interplay between conquerors and conquered in four key instances in human history.

Kissinger and Soros are very different men, but they have one thing in common. Each man approaches the world’s problems as if he were a chess master looking at the board and planning to move the pieces in order to get to checkmate. Each thinks of himself as an idealist, and it is not for me to say that in this he is mistaken. How do I know what angels and demons have play in the human heart? The problem with each, as I see it, is that the “pieces” he wants to play have their own aims, ambitions, crookedness and even views of divinity.   In the Kissinger case, as described by O’Brien, the actual outcome of the Kissinger Middle East strategy was almost the reverse of the one that the chess master had intended. In the case of today’s interview with Soros on the fate of Europe, I am no political theorist, but neither am I wedded to a particular ideology or clear definite bias. Perhaps for that reason, it is easy even for me to foresee difficulties that would hopelessly overturn the aims pictured by Soros.

As I see it, the problem with these political chess masters is hubris: pride. There may be genius in the game plan, but the world doesn’t conform to any individual’s blueprint, however intelligent the design might appear. There’s more to a world than there is to a genius.

I haven’t got far enough into Sowell’s book to be sure where he is going, but what he seems to want to show is that the colonized are in some cases better off for having been conquered, in other cases worse off, and therefore the political strategy that pulls moral rank on “hegemonic” civilizations in the name of their victims is at least over-simplified. The main benefit to a reader like me will be the amount of information he intelligently collects for further evaluation.

I come back to my earlier question, prompted by the family history of the Azuvels. What’s it all about, all this suffering? 

Gandhi advised his followers to “take the suffering of the situation on yourself.” What does it mean? We know that turning the other cheek is not always literally advisable. I’ve learned by experience that there is such thing as “enabling.” One can meekly and even lovingly accept abuse in the hope that the abuser will feel what Gandhi called “waves of love.” Despite one’s best hopes, generally speaking it doesn’t work out that way. Instead, the abuser gets encouraged to become a worse abuser and a worse person. One has not done him or her any favors by tolerating behavior in another person that one would not tolerate in oneself.

So again, there is still the question, has all the suffering any possible purpose? And what (if anything) can it mean to “take the suffering of the situation on oneself”?

I do not think suffering as such should be sought. For one’s own sake, out of proper self-love and self-respect — and even to protect wrong-doers from their own worst instincts — one should make every reasonable effort to avoid suffering. But on the other hand, if the suffering is a byproduct of one’s effort to preserve the right, then it becomes a kind of proof-in-the-flesh of how the world should have been conducted. If no one suffered from the wrong, how would one know that it was wrong? By standing fast, one can make it possible to see how the story should have gone.

The rabbis say that, for the sake of thirty-six righteous men, creation is allowed to endure. Not to get better. To endure, that is to say, to remain a world right side up.   What the thirty six do is make the world


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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