Therapy from the Jews

“Study for Rachel from The Mothers of the Bible”

Henry Ossawa Tanner

Therapy from the Jews

Have the Jews anything to offer the world today in their capacity as Jews?  The remarkable plasticity and resilience of anti-semitism doesn’t answer my question about being a Jew: what the hell good is it?

Let’s do a thought experiment.  Imagine our world with “the Jews” magically lifted out of it.  If we like the Bible, let’s suppose we can keep that.  If we like the Talmud (Jewish commentary on the Bible), let’s even keep that, since by now the Oral Law has been written down.   Would the world be worse off if they simply ceased to exist as Jews while blending any of their possible inherited plus factors into the universal stock?  Is it such an advantage for Jews to continue to exist as walking targets?

What’s the use of all this baggage?  I ask the question as someone who has not been acculturated into the practices and habits of the observant Jew though, from my Orthodox students at Brooklyn College, I perceived that I shared a good deal of the mind-set anyway.

I subscribe to The Jewish Review of Books.  Though many of its essays are excellent, I read the latest issue with sudden impatience.  Jew!  Jew!  Jew!  I’m about to suffocate with it!  Let me out of here!  Stand away!  I’m coming up for air!

What’s a Jew?  I’m not asking for answers from social scientists.  I’m asking, what’s the good of it?

Thomas Cahill has a book, The Gift of the Jews, where he spells out the Jewish contribution to the world.   (He has other books, like How the Irish Saved Civilization and so on.)  Cahill’s view, which is seconded by a good many scholars and thinkers, goes like this:

The gift of the Jews

is the relationship they lived out,

remembered and recorded,

between themselves and

a God who is personal

and acts in history.

What’s “history”?  It’s where we really are, in the moving flow of forces – physical, biological and cultural – of human actions for good and evil — and how all that combines into who we become.  So God, the God first encountered by the Israelites, interacts with that.  God’s nature is such as to be capable of relating to whole peoples, and to individuals in their whole nature.  To put it another way:

God takes in

the entire complex picture of ourselves,


The story of those interactions in history, between God and people like us, are what the Bible records.

What’s the “Chosen People”?  That’s the people who signed on to a voluntary agreement with the God of history to do what He (excuse the pronoun) asked of them.

Has that ancient agreement been superseded by now?  The theologies of religions for whom the Biblical record provides basis and precedent have at times included the claim that the ancient agreement is over.  But if the covenant is passé, apparently the Jews never got the message.

So, for the Jews themselves, what’s left of the agreement today?  It’s a puzzlement.  The question of what good are the Jews seems itself like a luxury question, since Jews are trying, as they always have, to survive, and there’s not much margin for asking the further question, why go on doing that — as Jews?  You don’t ask why you run from a fire or flood, and that’s what anti-semitism comes to.  Still, even within the globally endangered situation, Jews still do ask the “why go on with it?” question, and their answers are not always faithful to the original terms of the agreement.

Let me line up some of the less-than-fully-faithful answers to the “why” question. Who am I to do any such thing?  Well, the tradition has it that every Jew living now was present at the foot of Mt. Sinai when the people agreed in a single voice to sign on.  So my qualifications are excellent.  Like John Adams and Ben Franklin,

I’m one of the original signers.

Off the line they signed on are those …

  • whose observance of their corner of tradition is so mechanical, rigid and dogmatic as to shut out input from the still-living God of history;

  • whose yearning to seem “modern” and “scientific” transforms the Biblical record into a metaphoric rendering of the real facts, viz., that the record was scripted by a succession of committees who made up the stories for the purpose of ensuring their own power;

  • whose modernity is so devout that all persons, divine and human, must be drained from the Biblical record, to be replaced by the greatest story-teller the world has ever known, “energy” (e = mc square);

  • whose realistic fear of anti-semitism leads them to latch on to utopian schemes in which all the world’s oppressed converge in imagined unity to build “an unreal city in the future” – while they ignore the disciplines of actual problem-solving;

  • whose meditative practices aim at melting into the Absolute where, of course, nobody can hurt you or even want to, once they see how benevolent you look.  I meditate too, but only to get re-centered for my life in history.

*               *                *

If such are the unfaithful, who, what and where are the faithful?  

  • They live chronologically, connecting their precedent trains of conditions, purposes and actions to the ones that have followed, as the sequences have unfolded in their time.  

  • They hold themselves accountable for what they have believed and attempted, and how that has worked out.  

  • They look up for guidance but take responsibility for their lives as they go along.  

  • Their decisions for the future respond to the time-line they have kept in view.  

  • The Biblical record was preserved because it formed part of that time-line.  It modeled for them the life with God in history, when it went well and when – for various reasons – it didn’t go well.

God sometimes works miracles and sometimes lets the chips fall.  God’s personhood encourages and sustains ours.

The gifts of the Jews,

faithfully understood,

aren’t reserved only for the Jews.

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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