“Moses and the Tablets”
Rembrandt, 1659


O dear.  This is what you call a “vexed” topic.  A couple of years back, in my temple’s Saturday Torah Study, we came to verses that spell out what you are and aren’t supposed to eat, if you’re Jewish.

Okay, Christian readers … you can stop reading now, with a hat tip to Paul who (possibly Acts 15 and certainly Galatians 2) won the quarrel with Peter and James about keeping kosher and related matters.  And  Secular readers, you too can slip away, thanking God that He made you so free that you are even free from having-to-be-set-free from observance of divine commandments, whether pertaining to food or to anything else.

Since I’ve been to Atheism and found that it tends to have its own substitute gods, I’m less drawn to that form of freedom than I used to be.  But, hey, whatever.

There are, of course, lots of secular Jews but I don’t happen to be in that number.  It’s their indoor atmosphere: too cozy cozy with the secular gods: psychoanalysis? Darwin? self-congratulation about having the right political preferences, whatever those might happen to be?  It feels to me like an apartment with too much central heating.  Stuffy.

Since my father, fed up with institutional Jewish life as he had known it, took us all out of synagogue membership in my childhood, Jewish observance never became second nature to me.  We had idiosyncratic versions of the practices around the dinner table … at the same time that the values of our home seemed to me intensely, intelligently, intimately spiritual.

In adulthood, I tried on a succession of religious and nonreligious hats before noticing how Jewish I was, in essentials.  But I only joined a temple when I left Manhattan and moved with Jerry to Bucks County.  In New York, Jewish identity is not at risk.  In Bucks County, you have to do something about it.  It was a Reform temple because I figured they were the only ones who would have me.   That said, even in the Reform temple, I don’t know what the other kids know and I don’t observe most of the ritual commandments.  Including keeping kosher. The first time, in weekly Torah Study, the verses were read about what not to eat, and the floor opened for discussion, I said, when it came my turn, that I didn’t observe the do’s and don’ts (kashruth).

         “Why do you want to separate yourself from the Jewish people?”

our then rabbi asked instantly.

I froze, having, of course, no reply at the ready.  We were near the end of the hour and it seemed to me that the other congregants were packing up and quitting the study room hastily without looking my way.

Had I just been excommunicated?  I couldn’t find a temple more liberal than this one.  They don’t come much more liberal.

I met with the then temple president to confer about the incident and whether I had any standing to continue as a member.  He was kindly and his advice was mainly practical.  Rabbis are very busy.  They can’t tailor every word to every need.  And, btw, why did I imagine I had to reveal the whole truth every time it came my turn to speak?

We’re in Deuteronomy now, where all the preceding adventures of Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers are reprised.  So last Saturday, when we came once again to the verses that concern what you should and should not eat, I had the mother wit to pass when it came my turn.

*          *          *

When I was a child, I asked my grandfather the reason for the prohibitions on food.  He cited the main one:

Thou shalt not seethe the kid in its mother’s milk.

“It is cruel,” he explained in his tender and authoritative voice.

“But what about the rest?” I persisted.  “Separate dishes and separate towels for dairy and for meat?”

“Oh that,” he said.  “That was added by” – he used a Yiddish term – “the old wives, the busybodies.” 

On the other hand, without the busybodies, most people would not fall into line.  The lines give a people its distinctive shape.  God had His own reasons for designating this people as His pilot project, where everybody gets to see the human/divine interaction, and how it goes in history.  By the same token, I don’t sense any guidance to blur my own separate contours, which have their reasons for being as they are.  Some situations are without a solution.

One must just leave them there.

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.
This entry was posted in Absurdism, Academe, Action, Alienation, Anthropology, Art of Living, Atheism, Autonomy, beauty, Bible, Biblical God, bureaucracy, Childhood, Christianity, Cities, conformism, Contemplation, Contradictions, Cool, Courage, Cultural Politics, Culture, Desire, dialectic, Erotic Life, Eternity, Ethics, Existentialism, exploitation, Faith, Femininity, Freedom, Friendship, Guilt and Innocence, Health, Hegel, hegemony, Heroes, hidden God, hierarchy, History, history of ideas, Idealism, Ideality, Identity, Ideology, Idolatry, Institutional Power, Jews, Judaism, Law, Legal Responsibility, life and death struggle, Literature, Love, Male Power, Masculinity, Memoir, memory, Mind Control, Modernism, Moral action, Moral evaluation, Moral psychology, Mysticism, Ontology, Oppression, Past and Future, Peace, Phenomenology of Mind, Philosophy, Poetry, Political, politics, politics of ideas, Power, presence, promissory notes, Propaganda, Psychology, public facade, Public Intellectual, Reductionism, relationships, Religion, Roles, scientism, secular, self-deception, social construction, Social Conventions, social ranking, spiritual journey, spiritual not religious, Spirituality, status, status of women, Suffering, The Examined Life, The Problematic of Men, The Problematic of Woman, the profane, the sacred, Theism, Theology, Time, twentieth century, twenty-first century, Work, Writing, Zeitgeist and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply