Moses and Me

“Moses and the Tablets”
Rembrandt, 1659

Moses and Me

I never liked Moses. Or more precisely, I never felt drawn to the Biblical figure. For one thing, he seems to me unromantic. He has no significant woman in his life (unless you count the sister and you don’t romance your sister). In this respect, he’s unlike the three patriarchs in Genesis, each of whom needed the right woman partner to carry through his mission. Moses strikes me as shorn of the female presence – solitary to an excruciating degree – even though he had a wife or two. From them he got sons (who did not inherit the family business) but nothing else that we know of.

I never heard anyone Jewish say that she did not like Moses, though I’m probably not the first to feel it. Since no one else is so exalted in Jewry, I might take a moment to try to figure out the “why” of my feelings.

After all, there are in Scripture other figures without romantic attachments who don’t call up in me the emotion of wanting to flee.

The psychoanalysts, whose charming doctrines of the soul were dominant through much of the 20th century, held that the base-line relation to a father figure would either be incest or parricide. If you want to pour oil on that fire you might want to know that the middle initial in the name of my actual father, Henry M. Rosenthal, was Moses. I never heard my father use the name, though he thought rather well of Moses. For my part, I can’t recall thinking of my father when I thought of the great founder of the Jewish nation. But perhaps there is a love/hate thing going on and I might attempt to lift out the interwoven threads, the better to look at each.

Normally, I can accept without resistance the fact that God has a relationship with human beings as individuals. This although I’m an educated woman and the idea of God as a person is routinely disparaged by educated people. They can affirm a God who is equivalent to “energy” or the “design factor” in nature (minus a Designer) or the state-of-the-art “equations of the physicists.” But sophisticated people want little to do with a God who says “I” and “Me” and means it! To my mind, this skittishness is a mistake.

One of our major tasks in life is to become who we are, not a derivative or borrowed character. To say what we mean and know why we mean it. Failing that, we remain divided, compromised, half-hidden — even from ourselves. To attain this, many different kinds of effort are required, but the chief one is to take oneself seriously. We need to see ourselves as fully important. To do that, we need backing.

If God takes us seriously, knows how it is with us, sees what we risk and what we could be, we have warrant for trying to keep in step with the unfolding of ourselves in real time. The God who is a Person would supply that necessary support in a crucial task. Why and how would God do that?

Because it takes One to know one.

So God’s relation to persons is something I can appreciate. I think many of the characters in Hebrew Scripture illustrate that relation and it is why the whole world names its children after them.

The reason I have trouble with Moses is that his basic task seems to me different. God is not just asking him to bring himself into being. The Lord is asking Moses to bring a people into being!

What’s wrong with that? Well just everything! We would be hated, with a fanatical zeal! We would be misunderstood and therefore envied, as if this people-to-God relationship were a privilege!



That’s why we’ve endured when every other ancient people disappeared under the shifting sands of time. We’re here on assignment. That’s why every bad deed or obfuscating word from a co-religionist rends my intestines – and I’m sure they feel the same about me!

But Moses. more than any other figure in Scripture, took that assignment into himself frontally and full face. He lived the anguish of it, in his body and sex life and every other corner of himself.

This awareness has come to me via a book I’ve been reading titled Moses: A Human Life. It’s by a writer named Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg. She’s a woman who has performed the unlikely feat of identifying with Moses so profoundly that his real place in our consciousness becomes much more evident than it was before.

A woman identifying with this most masculine of figures? Oh well.

With God

all things are possible.

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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