When the Jewish Review of Books arrived a few days ago, I noticed with pleasure the cover article,
Good! I thought. Michael is being attended to and treated as timely, for some reason. Then I read Leora Batnitsky’s opening lines:
Michael Wyschogrod, perhaps the boldest Jewish theologian
of twentieth century America, died at the age of 87 this past
It hit me like a kick in the chest from a horse. Hard. I was literally knocked backward. Michael is dead! And nobody told me! I didn’t even get to go to the funeral!
There is no way to describe all that Michael was and meant in my life. He was a philosopher, the first to make Heidegger known in the English-speaking world. He was a theologian, studied by two popes, John Paul II and Benedict. When they lived in Texas, his wife Edith (also a philosopher and one-time president of the American Academy of Religion) told me that, by invitation, he spoke more often in Protestant churches than in synagogues. His view of God, as personal – even anthropomorphic – influenced me very much. It’s similar to what Jerry records in God: An Autobiography, as told to a philosopher. Though turned toward the Biblical God, more than the one mediated through rabbinic commentary, Michael was also a traditional, fully observant Jew.
I met him first when he was a young man, probably teaching in my father’s philosophy department. Mother had him to lunch. I still remember the lace on the tablecloth. He was totally unassuming and unpretentious, Studious-Jewish, did not affect to be more worldly and universal than he was, and perhaps for that reason he made no impression on me at that long ago luncheon.
Although he and my father had decent enough relations, they were never close and seldom met socially. During the years of my job struggle, when Michael chaired a department in the City University system, he testified on my behalf as a philosopher. At the hearing, the lawyer for the city asked him whether he came to my defense because of his closeness to my father. By way of rejoinder, Michael merely mentioned exactly when, where and how few were the social encounters between the two men.
“Michael,” I marveled afterward, “you did not even change color when the lawyer asked his insinuating question!”
I am a professional witness.”
So he was. It began during Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, which he witnessed as a boy of about ten, from the upstairs window of his parents’ Berlin apartment. The Nazis were smashing and looting Jewish shops and Jewish gathering places. The German police, till then symbols for him of law and order, stood by and did nothing.
He took away the lesson. You have to organize. You can’t be taken unawares. You have to have friends. You can’t be alone and defenseless.
He did not merely do that, however. It would have been so easy for him to become a man of public causes with a cohort of allies and followers. When I was alone, lying in New York Hospital after an excisional biopsy to remove a breast cancer, waking up I saw Michael in my hospital room. I had no mind to ask why an orthodox Jew was alone with a woman in a room furnished only by a hospital bed. That was not on my mind. Instead I said to him, in worried tones, that I hurt and felt nauseated and really scared.
Reasonably, Michael explained to me that anyone would feel like that, a few hours after surgery. The way I felt then didn’t mean that the operation had failed.
Weeks before, hours after receiving the diagnosis, I had been scheduled to meet Michael and Edith at a French café in my neighborhood. “It’s cancer,” I told them. They said to treat it like any other campaign, the way I had treated my job fight. Be active. Get second opinions. Do everything you can in your own cause.
In fact, I did all that later. Just then, however, I turned to the theologian at our café table.
“Michael, I know worse things have happened to better people, but would you mind telling me,
“Our people are working on it,“ Michael smiled, “and we should have something ready for publication soon.”
He went on, more seriously:
“For unmerited suffering, the rabbis ask three questions. First, have you committed any sins?”
“No big ones lately.”
“Second, have you studied Torah?”
“We’ll let philosophy stand in for that.”
“Third, they say, there is the suffering of love. It could be that God wants to get closer to you.”
“I don’t want to get any closer. I’m close enough.”
“When God wants to cuddle, He doesn’t ask what’s on your agenda.”