Men Worth Remembering
Michael Wyschogrod was a theologian, philosopher and doer of quiet deeds of rescue for many, me included. Last Monday night, his colleagues organized a memorial meeting for him at Baruch College of The City University of New York. For me to make that 6:00 p.m. event involved a drive to Trenton to get the train to Penn Station and a drive back in the dark from Trenton – which is scary for me. That said, there was no way I could not go.
The people who spoke knew varied sides of the man. There was much more to Michael than even I had guessed. For example: I knew he had been instrumental in initiating Jewish/Christian dialogue on the high theological plane, negotiating with Popes and Presbyterians to help lift from Christendom the curse – as with his loving heart he saw it — of its contempt for Jews and Judaism. Aware that Germany had killed its Jews, and therefore deprived itself of the knowledge of Judaism, he lectured on Jewish thought in the city of Heidelberg and elsewhere in Germany. With his bold “imagination of the heart,” Michael also reached out to the remaining children of The White Rose — the underground, anti-Nazi, intellectual resistance movement whose members had mostly been caught and executed by the Nazis.
The Christian claim that God had incarnated in a man, Jesus of Nazareth, was not an obstacle for Michael. He did not think of that as a thing too hard for God to do. He simply found no accredited Jewish authorization for the belief that God had done it. However – as he reached out to Christians — he did not try to drive a wedge between Jesus the Jew and traditional Christian theology. Jews are particularly allergic to “Jews for Jesus,” but Michael was not, only reminding them not to “convert” to a position of disaffiliation from God’s covenant with the people of Israel. The only thing that he thought would bar Christians from direct touch with the God of Israel was a refusal to share God’s love for the Jewish people. That would lay down a big barrier.
What animated Michael? What was his calling? For clearly he had one, and it was not typical. He did not share the view of modern Jewish rationalists that Jews were a people distinct for a belief: their ethical monotheism. He thought, rather, that God had “fallen in love” with Abraham and still saw in his descendants (fleshly or by conversion) the same face He first loved four thousand years ago. Michael saw that love is particular and personal, not merely generic.
In childhood, Michael and his immediate family had barely escaped from Nazi Berlin. His gift was — not to shoulder and tell the burden of this great evil, which so many survivors felt as their assignment in life – but, more simply, to mirror God’s love for the Jewish people. As fully and freely as if we were safe and had always been safe! As if the 2,000 years of being hated and persecuted had never happened! He combined a kind of dry and amusing realism about particular concrete obstacles with the innocence of a child who has never known the hard side of life. It was that kind of love.
Later in the week, I met with two women whom I know in connection with my father, the late Henry M. Rosenthal. One, an old family friend, had been his philosophy student at Hunter College and still loves and reveres him. Another, whom I met recently, is writing a biography of the critic, essayist and twentieth-century opinion-shaper, Lionel Trilling. She came into my life because Trilling, in his younger days, had shared a friendship of the closest kind with my father. Trilling’s biographer had “fallen in love” with my father, not from anything I said, but from reading the youthful correspondence between the two men, now archived in Columbia University’s Butler Library. Our meeting gave me a chance to talk of my father, as did a telephone interview I’m scheduled to have tomorrow with an archivist at the 92nd Street Y, a cultural center where my father once worked.
In preparation for tomorrow’s call to the archivist, I looked today at sections of my father’s journals from the “Y” years, also from earlier years, when he and Trilling were close and when he first met and courted Rachelle, my future mother.
Since I’d publicly promised to produce an intellectual memoir of my father, I’d long felt tardy, in that, as yet, I had not done it. Looking again at my father’s journals, two quite new things occurred:
(1) for the first time, I saw and understood what he was;
(2) I also saw and understood why, as yet, I had not produced the memoir.
About the first insight: my father had always been quite mysterious to me. I’d gone into philosophy partly to try and understand him. Now at last, it seems, I get what he was: an incandescent, x-ray-vision, human presence in the world. A man of burning intensity and equally burning truthfulness. There was nobody like him.
About the second insight: I saw why I had not yet done the book about him, the one drawing on the vast trove of longhand materials waiting for me. To date, I have not been able to do it and also get my own life tasks done.
He’s too much.
I can’t be swallowed up by my father. He wouldn’t want me to be. It wouldn’t honor my father if I were.
He was almost too much for himself. His genius didn’t fit inside the boxes available at his time. Whether or not he quite realized his particular assignment in life, what he did do was live truthfully, in the deepest spiritual way, with full authentic humanity and a lively sense of God’s reality. He did that more than anyone else I’ve known.
Explain it how you will, my present feeling is that my father now thinks I will have time to do justice to him. I don’t think he’s pressing me.
By now …
he’s got the time.