“Presence”

"The Concert", Titian 1510

“The Concert,” Titian, 1510

“Presence” 

Our rabbi, whom our temple can no longer afford to employ, will be gone in a few more weeks. This Friday, the temple is holding a service in his honor and I am one of those in the lineup to give a three-minute hail and farewell.

Rabbi Delcau was a little late to Torah Study this past Saturday. He’s been busy packing up stuff, had some books to give away when he appeared – each gift of a book seeming customized to fit the interests of its recipient – and then he led us in a class.

There won’t be many more and I would have expected him to be only half present to us.   You know, the way someone about to embark on a trip is already half gone, even if still there physically?

He was one hundred percent present!

I have never seen the like. Most people are not fully present even when they’re not going anywhere. He was there the way my mother used to be! After my mother died, people who wrote us condolence notes about her wrote as if she had been their mommy and they had been about to climb on her lap. This though she wasn’t their mommy and had recently died and gone wherever the good go.

Rabbi Delcau was so easily and confidingly present that it almost brought tears to my eyes. Tears of chagrin, frustration, loss, of missing him already.

What is this gift of presence? One of the aspects of God in rabbinic Judaism is named Presence:

Shekinah.

It’s the “feminine” aspect, the mothering side of God.

Among the spiritual fashions of the day, nowadays we see an emphasis on “being here now.” It sounds like pop psychology and I forget who introduced it, but it emphasizes “living in the now,” as opposed to the past or the future. Since eternity visits all the tenses, it is thought that focusing on the here-and-now pole of experience will permit us to vault directly into that eternal dimension – sailing over the heads of the poor drudges who are still stuck in clock time.

Whenever I try to meditate on the here-and-now exclusively, I immediately start thinking of what I still have to do and whatever concerns me in the past or the future — and I’ve already flunked the pop psychology version of Meditation 101!

That said, and whatever the virtues of being-here-now, they don’t include what I mean by presence. The Jewish scholar/theologian Jon D. Levenson gets closer to it with a revealing account of the sense of presence as Jews got it from their Biblical experience.

  • “The past is a preparation for the present moment of destiny; the present is the consummation of the past, the assurance that it can continue. History is not simply one’s personal past. It has a collective dimension. …‘Each man is obligated to see himself as if he came out of Egypt.’ … History is not only rendered contemporary; it is internalized. One’s people’s history becomes one’s personal history.”

So, in the type of presence that my mother had, and that the rabbi showed last Saturday, the “here and now” is thickened by memory. What gives memory its imperative urgency – the sense that you must remember! – is that the present is charged with an

obligation to find significance

equal to

worthy of

commensurate with

the high worth of the past.

It’s not so antiquated, exotic or eccentric as it sounds. In 1776 the “forefathers” of our American covenant declared the independence of what would become

“a Republic if we can keep it.”

Let’s try.

Happy 4th of July!

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, soon to appear in a revised second edition. 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, 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. Her next book project will be Conversations with My Father. 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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4 Responses to “Presence”

  1. Abigail says:

    Judy! It’s a joy to see your active mind playing over the terrain of these columns. Thanks for the thinking!

    Like

  2. gailpedrick@comcast.net says:

    Amen! Abigail

    Like

  3. M&JD says:

    We talked about so much else, I didn’t include that these posts of yours are so provocative, making me see things broader, more nuanced, and in new ways.

    So “being present” has come to mean in Ram Dass’s (tripping from Harvard to India and influential for many of others’ trips) sense..being in the now. But you are talking about presence as bringing one’s whole self to the moment, or situation. A very qualitative distinction. The first is more passive than the second, though presence isn’t “active” in the normal sense. (Lucky you’re the philosopher who has to communicate through words, not me!!)

    And….your suggestion that a sin can be, for instance, using words to further one’s particular point of view, rather than pointing to truth, is a very broadening concept for me. Getting sin out of just the “breaking the 10 commandments” type definition). Tho Hitchens probably viewed his words as pointing to truth.

    The making pictures you find for the blogs are greatly appreciated. Am feeling somewhat better having had such a restful day. Hopefully whatever bug I’m hosting is being blasted by my immune system as I write! Ahimsa has its limits. Love!

    Like

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