“It Is No Secret”

The Western Wall

The Western Wall

“It Is No Secret”

Years ago, when I was first in Jerusalem, I put a note in the Western Wall.

“Did you pray at the Wall?” my Israeli cousins asked me, with their native-born, knowing irony.

“Of course,” I rejoined. “Do you think I’m going to spend hundreds of dollars on an El Al ticket and not pray at the Wall?”

Pilgrims and tourists put private notes in the crevices of the Herodian stonework (of the outermost retaining wall of the Second Temple), with the petitions of their inmost hearts. What was written on mine?

Lord, help me to meet and marry

the right husband for me.

You might think, “Hey, that’s not liberated!” But look, it was my personal and private note. I wasn’t putting it out for inspection by anyone except the One to whom it was addressed. And “husband” is what I wrote. Not “significant other.”

Within a very few years, he showed up, the man I would want to marry. We fell in love. The fit wasn’t obvious and eventually would be outweighed by the misfit — which at that time was obvious to most of my friends and to my mother, but not to me. Be that as it may, I married him, my first husband, for love and not because I thought there’d be any special personal benefit in it for me. But recently, many years later, it’s hit me that the tally of benefits was remarkable.

Before we met, I’d been involved in a long job struggle from which I would emerge victorious but exhausted and carrying battle scars. Had I been able to form any wish at that point, mine might have been to fly to a far-off land, preferably a land on the other side of the world, where no one would think of me as a victim, where I could talk philosophy with brilliant colleagues and give papers in fresh and untainted settings.

My new husband was out of a job when we met (budget retrenchment – no fault of his) but he soon found a job at a very good philosophy department in Australia. I was back in my job teaching in New York but we got to spend part of each year together in Australia. There I could give papers to extremely bright philosophers who listened with fresh interest and no unpleasant preconceptions. Their responses greatly helped my own work, since his department and others in the southern hemisphere were then at the cutting edge of work that excited many philosophers in the English-speaking world.

I should explain that, at the time, the field of philosophy divided sharply into the kind done in Europe (Continental) and the kind practiced in the English-speaking world (Analytic).  Without trying to spell out the differences here, Analytic philosophy had never much grabbed me. But in Australia, in love with a man who was an Analytic philosopher, I was naturally curious to know what he found so interesting about it. Staff club luncheons with his intellectually generous colleagues opened opportunities to be guided toward works in Analytic philosophy relevant to the book I was then researching, A Good Look at Evil.   After lunch at the staff club, I’d go off to the library to do the reading.

The interlude in Australia enabled me to step beyond my own biases and reenter the field of philosophy in a way I thought closer to what should ideally be its character: the planet-spanning conversation of the human race with itself about the great questions.

In the book I was writing, I wanted definitions of good and evil that could withstand objections from critics of various kinds. Anybody writing about moral values must face the anthropologists. Their reports from the field have left the impression, widely diffused in our own culture as a result of their work, that notions of good and evil differ drastically from one culture to the next and therefore nothing is good or evil “objectively.” It’s all about taste and preference, group preference or personal preference.

Again, as it happens. I was in exactly the right place at the right time. Turns out that many of the best-known anthropologists departed for their field work on remote Pacific islands from Sydney. A controversy about the field work of one of them was flairing up just then. Margaret Mead, whose report from Samoa had painted a picture of a south sea paradise with no sexual hangups, was being controverted by another anthropologist, Derek Freeman, who’d gone back to Samoa, found her original subjects, interviewed them again, and reported that Mead had overlooked a funny local custom known as Putting On the Anthropologist. They were loaded with sexual hangups, Freeman reported.

It’s not my field, so I’ll stay out of that interesting fight, but talking to people who had worked with some of the pathbreakers in anthropology allowed me to see that the issue of cultural relativism was not an abstract one. Real people had written about real people and drawn their inferences based on the data they found, the methods they used and working assumptions they’d learned elsewhere and brought with them or sometimes revised on the ground. The anthropologists were not above the battle for the truth. They were in the thick of it, like the rest of us.

Where else but Australia could I have seen that so vividly?

Were there any other benefits from my first marriage? Well, now that you ask: I’d inherited an antebellum house in Maine that was perpetually in need of repairs. My then husband had some skill at carpentry and, from time to time, could be persuaded to lend a hand with the house.

There was one more benefit, which I should hesitate to mention, save that it completes the tally and is just as unlikely as the previously-named ones to be found bundled together in a Single Husband Package. My life, prior to the marriage, had included a person who nagged me by day and by night. With the personal resources and skills available to me at the time, I was quite unable to get this person to quit it. However,

Australia was too far to call.

Of course, the divine Matchmaker can — if real life makes the trials and tribulations of a marital mismatch clear enough – make divorces too. When the time came, we separated and divorced with good will on both sides.

I know, I know. All over the world, the innocent suffer torments, the wicked flourish like the green bay tree, and I don’t have the answer. I can’t write a theodicy, a justification of the justice of God in the face of all the lamentations that seem to rise toward the silent blue heavens. I don’t understand the big picture. Maybe you do, but I don’t.

But I will say — in the face of those who maintain that our experiences have been brought into our lives by chance alone — can you imagine

a set of solutions

to the problematic of a life

more customized

than the ones I received in answer

to my note in the Western Wall?


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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4 Responses to “It Is No Secret”

  1. Abigail says:

    Judy, Many thanks for this memorably vivid and collegial Comment. You and Mark showed tremendous courage, it seems to me.

  2. Judy Dornstreich says:

    As an anthropologist passing through Australia, on the way to work with people still using stone tools in New Guinea from 1967-69, I much appreciate your mentioning that we were indeed searching for understanding and truths about the human condition. Trying to be as free as we could from the inevitable bounds of own culture. We had many cultural mores in common, and some quite different, but understandable to us observers. But what is appealing to eat, and what isn’t, differed in great extremes. They had never tasted chocolate and the ones we gave a taste to loved it. But on the last night there I forced myself to taste a sago grub (cooked, not live like were sometimes eaten…even by Mark). I just couldn’t swallow it after taking a bite which was rubbery on the outside, and squishy on the inside. Some people are just too culturally conditioned!!

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