Getting a Grip

"The Hand of God" Rodin, 1907

“The Hand of God” Rodin, 1907

Getting a Grip

Our temple had the guest visit of a kabbalist over the weekend. It was very creative on the part of our leadership to invite him, so I hate to say this but – everybody liked it but me.

He seemed to think that God hadn’t spoken to Moses. Just made some open-to-wide-interpretation sounds (grunts? hisses?) on the mountain top, which were then construed by Moses (or whoever purported to have heard it from him) to mean something definite, say one of the 613 commandments.

Similarly, prophetic utterances were read back into origin stories to give some kind of high authorization to what in fact happened later.

Finally, it doesn’t matter if the Jewish people survive or not as Jews: what matters is people’s growing ability, through meditation, to have a relation to the divine, whatever their tradition.

When I left, everybody looked happy as a clam. Except me.

When I was back home, after breakfast, I picked up my email. A British philosopher with whom I’ve been in contact is writing a book about the new anti-semitism. He may be the only Analytic philosopher I know who is actually devoting his finely-honed skills to the alleviation of a world-wide problem.

There are philosophers who give prestigious lectures (the presidential address to the American Philosophical Association, for one example) in the course of which they pride themselves on having allied with some political cause or other. I can’t recall any instance where the cause was other than fully fashionable in academe, among elite opinion. The amount of courage it would take to come out publicly in favor of that cause was zilch, nada, zero.

More to the point, none of the philosophers who’ve announced that they are against racism, for feminism, or against war, have done anything I know of to teach others how to reason better about the issue in question. They just line up on the approved side of the issue, and identify with the congealed mass (mess?) of thought-shards that give it the appearance of intellectual thickness.

By contrast, my British philosopher friend goes – with great specificity and clarity – into the mistakes in reasoning that pile into the new anti-semitism. He’s really done some work.

What he wrote, in the opening pages shared with me, laid out the extent of the problem. It left me scared out of my wits. I knew it was bad. I had no clear idea how bad it had gotten, how proud elite opinion has become of holding the Jewish state in unique contempt. It’s no longer the case that the memory of Holocaust inhibits public disparagement of Jews. Fashionable opinion has found a way to immunize itself against that memory. The Holocaust too is now treated as a Jewish plot.

I have read enough about the run-up to genocide, in various cases that have been studied around the world, to understand that genocidaires require the rationale to be firmly in place before they act. The rationale is being put in place right now. Before the deed comes the thought, in our species at least.

The biologist Rupert Sheldrake writes of a phenomenon he names “morphic fields.” These are thought forms that enable ideas and modes of consciousness to travel. He describes lab rats trained in America to do some trick that colleagues in Australia find their lab rats able to do, without having been trained to do it. The lab rats learn the trick the way Newton and Leibniz discovered the calculus at the same time “independently.”

Explain it how you will. Thought travels. It seems that when groups of people have thought a certain way over time, the thought-form they’ve shared hangs in social space waiting to be picked up by anyone with a weakness for it, or an affinity.

Suppose that The Longest Hatred in Recorded History, which is the hatred of the Jew, is such a thought-form, hanging in the air and waiting to be picked up whenever opportunity allows. What would be the use of fighting it? Wouldn’t fighting it simply energize and give it motivation? What is the use of the necessary and courageous book my British philosopher friend is writing?

What’s the use of any of it? Why should there be Jews at all? If there were no one to hate, maybe the hatred itself would dissipate.

Imagine that the Jewish people, the people of Israel, had never been, that their vivid and particular experiences with God in real time and space had never occurred and never been recorded in the Bible. What happens? The history of the world loses its narrative tension and direction. It becomes a collection of loosely assorted anecdotes. It lacks plot. There’s less traceable traction.

The kabbalist was fine but he said it’s all right if there’s no traction. Or rather, paradoxically, traction is both necessary and also not necessary.   Plot lines are both traceable and nontraceable. Getting a grip is both required and not required. It’s paradoxical.

Hey guys! Check your paradoxes. We’ve got a world to deal with. It’s already here and there are people already at work, some doing their best and some doing their worst, in the world we’ve already got.

Get a grip!

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” ( 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 . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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4 Responses to Getting a Grip

  1. Ken Kaplan says:

    Words are funny things. I participated in the same service and discussion, heard the same words, but came away with an entirely different understanding.

    The guest speaker is a highly committed Jew who’s spent decades studying Torah and Kabbalah. Clearly, Judaism and Torah matter deeply to him.

    He unambiguously shared that his understanding of Torah does not include it being written by the hand of God and warned against reading it as a historical document with accurate and specific transcripts of conversations (God to Moses) or literal representations of “magical” events like a talking snake in the Garden of Eden.

    The reference to Jewish survival to my ears was an acknowledgement that our religion is and has always been in a state of flux where old forms and practices changes such that the meaning and essence of them can be expressed in new but equally relevant ways. The message, meaning and hope of our sacred Torah, to the speaker, transcends a narrow interpretation. Still his interpretation was respectful, nuanced and learned.

    He packed decades of learning into two short sessions and his language fell short, clearly susceptible to wide interpretation. We need to distinguish very carefully between the vital Truths of our faith and the crystallized form of rituals and practice many of us are accustomed to.

    To the extent that such kabbalistic thought forms do manifest, I’d predict a strong Jewish community thriving with new and deeply personal relationships with God. Different than before for sure, but not watered down or diluted.

    We’re Israel, right?…our strength came from our willingness to wrestle with God. Our practices and understandings have changed through the ages but our peoplehood has, will and must survive intact. No ambiguity here and I suspect the speaker would agree.

    (None of this relates to the very serious issue of anti semitism or the serious attention that threat demands. I’m just not convinced the paradoxes noted work against a secure Jewish future.)

    • Abigail says:

      Ken, Your ability to pull sense and inner harmony out of almost any raw material you encounter is itself a divine gift, if I may say so. A talk that provokes thought and counter-thought is a big success, so far as I am concerned. Nobody said a speaker has to be agreed with by every listener. I’ve given talks in Australia, in U.K. and at philosophy departments from east to west in the USA & I’m certain that not everybody who heard me agreed with everything I said. Why should they?

  2. Abigail says:

    Thank you Jerel for registering your honest observations. It takes moral courage to do that, and it’s important.

  3. Jerel Wohl says:

    Abigail, I hear your words and feel similarly. I was not at that service, but do sense a weaning of Judaism. I feel it in our Temple, where services are typically held each week now only when there’s a bar mitzvah rather than celebrating each Shabbat, and our religious school is cut to one day per week to allow for time for dance, soccer, gymnastics, etc. I feel it in our community, where swastikas seem to be appearing in greater numbers, and I find antisemitic occurrences happening much more frequently. I feel it in our nation just by watching any news station or reading the newspaper. I am hopeful for the future, but right now things just seem out of whack from where they should be if people want to preserve all that our ancestors fought for.

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