“Believe You Me”

A detail from “Moses with the Ten Commandments”
Rembrandt, 1659

“Believe You Me”

In “Treachery and Transcendence,” last week’s column, I wrote about the disappointing “new treatment” for my walking handicap. Despite all, I decided to continue it for another week or two, just to see if it could be of some benefit even where I no longer trusted the people administering it. By today, seeing that I was no better than when I’d started (only poorer and out two months of precious time), I realized it was time to quit – the experience was demoralizing me — even before the paid-for sessions had run out.

I woke this morning still riven by thoughts of trying again to “explain” to the facility’s administrators why I could no longer trust them and why I was dropping their treatment.

In meditation, Guidance was cutting. The desire to repair the breach, teach the trespasser, is itself a temptation, it said to me. Evil has magnetic force and the desire to “help” keeps one within its gravitational field. Emmanuel Levinas is rightly admired as a philosopher, but he is mistaken when he makes us all morally responsible for the Other. The Other, like the self, is responsible for herself. Otherwise, freedom stops and instead we’re bound together in a skein woven of the chain links of previous conditions going back and back without end. Nobody can ever be reproached or praised. Everybody can only be “understood” in terms of what was driving her.

Last Saturday, in Torah Study, we read Numbers 16, the chapter where there’s a rebellion against the leadership of Moses. Korah and his faction of 250 Levite elders give voice to the uprising. Why should Moses continue in the leadership as the holiest Israelite? Isn’t the whole community holy? Who made him the CEO of holiness?

In fact, Moses has not claimed to be at all “holy,” much less to outrank anyone else in that respect. At first he does a bit of negotiating with Korah, pointing out that the rebel faction has already been singled out for special responsibilities with regard to the implements of holiness. However, the main thing Moses does is turn the situation over to the God who gave him his original assignment. God then opens a chasm in the earth, which swallows the insurrectionists alive.

End of episode, but not of the discussion, which went round our study circle. Some commented on the phenomenon of spiritual envy, others puzzled over the egalitarian claims. Finally, my turn came.

“When one wants to evaluate a moral dispute,” I said, “it’s useful to see who is lying. For example: Korah asserts that Moses led the Israelites out of a ‘land of milk and honey’ – only to arrive at this dry desert place. But Egypt wasn’t a land of milk and honey. It was the site of bondage and hard task-masters.

“Also,” I went on, “the story of Moses’ leadership didn’t begin that morning. There is a track record: the ten plagues of which he accurately warned Pharaoh, the night of passover, the parting of the sea waters permitting the Israelites safe passage to the other side, the mountain that shook, the ten commandments Moses took down from the mountain, the manna provided … .”

Here the Discussion Leader interrupted me. These things took place, he said, “on Moses’ watch. But who is to say they could not have happened just as much on Korah’s watch?”

“Moses,” I replied, “wasn’t just ‘watching.’ He was not a bystander. He was the active mediator between God and the human scene.”

“Yes,” said the Discussion Leader. “But I’m playing devil’s advocate. I’m trying to see how it looked from Korah’s viewpoint.”

“I’m not here to see it from Korah’s viewpoint! That’s psychology! I’m not here to do psychology! With psychology, there is never any beginning. Everything is a reaction, and the chain of antecedent causes extends indefinitely back in time. With moral evaluation, there is freedom.

“With freedom

The action begins now.”

I spoke with heat, provided perhaps by my recent encounter with the treatment facility whose supervisor had not acknowledged her broken promise. Instead, she had given me a new definition of the word “promise.” In her usage, it designated a commitment that can hold for a week and a half, after which it lapses unless the recipient applies to have it renewed. Absent such a request to keep the promise current, there’s no need to inform the recipient that it’s now null and void.

The supervisor had not been redefining “promise.” She was lying.   How do I know this? Because I paid for the treatment by check in three installments.  A check is a cashable promise. If, after a week and a half, my checks had bounced, no administrator in that facility would have accepted a “redefinition” of my check such that it could bounce unless the facility had asked me to reaffirm its value. Not asked in a week and a half. Not asked ever.

What is a promise? It’s a commitment we truthfully affirm.

Who are we,

what is the space between us worth,

if we cannot be believed?

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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2 Responses to “Believe You Me”

  1. Abigail says:

    Funnily enough, my mother used to say that too. Do you think they knew each other? Your Comment, dear Judy, is really helpful. You are a person who has studied a wide array of traditional healing methods from all over the world. You also teach Yoga — another source of insight about what the body can and cannot do. I’m sure other readers will find this relevant in their own lives. Everybody’s got something they need to see mended — & the last thing you want is for the “healer” to make it worse!

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  2. Judy Dornstreich says:

    Firstly, I’m glad you’re not going to that place anymore. Primarily because the treatment isn’t really making a difference that is noticeable to YOU (which is what counts, not the measurements on machines.). If it were working, and all the rest was going on, that would be a problem! Lack of trust in the “healers “is critical. Not only does it impede healing, which I think needs calm trust not tension, let alone a situation that can make one feel scared. Phoebe coming to disconnect you could well produce that, given what came before. Isn’t it amazing how people can justify themselves (supervisor with 3 session deadline for a promise! Ludicrous!!). Or Phoebe’s behavior….she probably told the supervisor you were a hypersensitive crank, and she did nothing insensitive. Well, I hope it’s now all behind you, though it’d be great if the treatments helped and thus you could easily walk through the desert. BTW: My Mother used to say “Believe You Me” for emphasis when making a point. Thanks for bringing that back to me.

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