At a Loss


“Pathless” Michael Whelan, 1999
“the sad heart of Ruth, when sick for home/she stood in tears amid the alien corn”

At a Loss

Friends and readers of this column, I am really at a loss.  I don’t know what to say as a woman, and I don’t know what to do as a woman.

Let me at least tell you why.  What I call a good life is one lived chronologically.  It doesn’t try to pole vault out of its time into a projected, perfect future, or slip back into a lost, longed-for past time.  It doesn’t evade the present but faces the day, in its time.

That said, a day-in-time requires a place.  Time as lived is spatial as well as temporal.

Nowadays, all of us feel the loss of the old stabilities of place.  We live partly in virtual spaces — and do whatever we can to find the equivalent of a space that can ground our lived time.

For me, such community as I now have has been furnished by the local temple, scene of many human and even spiritual dramas, highlights of which I’ve sometimes replayed here.  It’s afforded me footing, in combats with local outbreaks of anti-semitism.  It’s been a place to struggle to define and refine my sense of the Jewish assignment in the world.  I devoted much care and effort to it, within an otherwise more-than-busy life.  And my most natural place within the temple has been its weekly Bible study.

When I suffered a knee injury last March, and mentioned that, en passant in an email, one of the temple personalities to whom my email went replied that he had particular gifts as a healer.  He offered me a spiritual healing.  I saw no reason to object.  There is empirical evidence that prayer does heal.

I won’t go into what he actually said to me in the phone call that purported to be the “spiritual healing.”  Jerry, to whom I reported the words right after I’d hung up the phone, commented,

“This sounds like a guy who likes phone sex!”

Since I happen to know what a distance healing is and isn’t, I was not vulnerable – as some women might be – to his claim that this was a perfectly okay example of the genre.  Nor was I open to his suggestion that I allow him to follow up with a house call, with a confederate who was very good at manipulative laying on of hands.  Don’t know where the hands were to be laid, but had they gone anywhere near the injured knee, a stress fracture could have turned into a compound fracture.

The email that I sent the next morning asked him to stop his therapeutic efforts. When he wanted to know why, I merely said I was satisfied with my present medical care.  His reaction was to continue his emails for months thereafter.

He began by pretending that it would take a fair amount of time for his psyche to disconnect from mine (hah!) and then continued to send beams of “love and light” in spite of my having earlier asked him to quit his efforts.

How did it happen that a woman’s clear request to a man not to bother her isn’t simply honored?

I deliberately delayed returning to the Biblical study group till I was less physically vulnerable.  The day I did return, mister telephone healer dogged my footsteps all the way to my car demanding that I tell him why I didn’t want to interact with him.  He had the nerve to claim that I had a religious duty to explain to him what exactly he had done wrong so that he could apologize accurately.

Oh yeah.

Give mister-phone-sex-man more jollies?

I don’t think so.

Back home, I told Jerry that it was looking more difficult than I’d expected to get this fellow out of my space.  I suggested that — liberated woman though I am — Jerry might send an email message to leave me alone to mister-healer.  Jerry gallantly did that.

In the most brazen response I ever heard of, my harasser emailed back a page and a half of single-space counter-accusations (though no one had accused him of anything)!  His email wound up by recommending a particular treatment for traumatic brain injury and severe migraines – attributing to me (on the basis of what?) conditions I did not have.

(As I learned in my professorial years, the good kids feel guilty, even when they’re not.  The bad kids counter-accuse.)

Mister-healer did, however, promise to leave me alone, his promise explicitly including the Jewish Day of Atonement.  And he did say in his note, that he could trace my disaffection to his “spiritual healing,” which some people just don’t know how to take.

I’ll abridge the story at this point, save to say that, near the Day of Atonment, he managed to convince one of the best men in the temple to carry a promise-breaking message to our doorstep, again pleading with me to spell out exactly what he had done.  This, a week or so after Jerry’s heart surgery, when our home should have been a sanctuary for Jerry’s recovery.

When I showed Jerry the note, he said, shaking his head, “Look what one trouble-maker can do!”

The trouble-making part was that the purported healer’s note to me came attached to another note – this one addressed to the note’s deliverer!  That note accused me of preventing his proper Atonement and injuring the spiritual integrity of the class and the synagogue.

Go fight an octopus from dry ground.

Self-defense now required me to meet with the innocent note-bearer and lay out the evidence before him.  The main evidence was in the harasser’s own emails.  It was a documentary paper trail.  I expected to have no difficulty showing my respected co-congregant where the truth lay.

To my vast astonishment, my co-religionist heard me out, gathered up the documents, and … pronounced my harasser  … “a good man”!  In the weeks that followed, it became clear that I was the one now regarded as a false accuser and my victimizer as the real victim.

Jerry and I discussed the possibility of the two of us sharing with other opinion-leaders in the temple the evidence I had shown his current defender.  The trouble with doing that is that, when you bring a complaint, you have to suggest some way your hearer could act to satisfy your complaint.  I don’t know what to suggest.

The saddest loss to me is Torah Study.  I’ve been disrespected as a feminine being and a wife.  More serious still, my truthful witness has been discounted.  If I should want to speak any words, in the room where we study verses of the Bible, I have no ground to stand on.

I have no honor in that place.

What is femininity? What does it mean to be abused as a woman?  I have gone through years of professional life, student life before that, and always managed to deflect unwanted advances. This problem is new to me.

For the first time in my life,

I found myself crying uncontrollably.

In Hebrew scripture, I can’t think of a case where men defend women.  It’s usually the other way around.  The women defend the men.  They compensate for their blind spots, and fill the gaps between male projects with their living presence.

Sarah plays along with her husband’s “she’s my sister” caper, so as not to jeopardize Abraham’s life.  Rebecca tricks her husband into safeguarding the covenantal lineage – helping the more appropriate son to get the blessing instead of the uncouth first born.  Rachel asks only to add children to the covenantal lineage — not to retrieve her lost wedding night.

I can only support Jerry, if that’s my Biblical assignment, by doing my best

to make sure he’s got a woman – 

not a silenced, maligned, stunted remnant of a former woman.

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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6 Responses to At a Loss

  1. Anita Hunter says:

    I’m sorry you and Jerry had to deal with this stress during your recuperation. I wonder if other female congregants have felt harassed by this “good man.” He certainly seems pushy! Maybe this difficulty will lead you to a more supportive religious community? Best wishes to you and Jerry.

    • Abigail says:

      Dear Anita, Aren’t you Jerry’s cousin,who lives in the Lubbock area? If so, how wonderful to hear from you across all those miles! Hey, you were right to “wonder,” as it turns out. People hesitate to speak out, but by now it seems the community is finally getting its act together. Anyway, your concern is greatly appreciated. If and when Jerry and I are in your area, I hope we can meet. Warmest good wishes from us both!

  2. Johan Herrenberg says:

    Dear Abigail, it is very clear to me that your fake ‘phone healer’ is a very weak man. His frail ego has been bruised by your request he leave you alone. Hence the stalking and the harassment. He is weak, but obviously has some standing in his community, so that he is able to mobilize support. He shows you neither courtesy nor respect. This man is far beneath you, and it saddens me this low creature should make you cry. Weakness is a force for evil. In men it can lead to historic disasters. Don’t give him any power. I fear the difference between men and women is that men are constitutionally more able to really kill, either literally or symbolically. Woman is life. Be proud you don’t find it in you to kill this man, but that you should shed tears, which he doesn’t deserve at all. Stay strong. The Lord is with you.

    • Abigail says:

      Johan, heartfelt thanks for this profound and illuminating response.
      Several readers have asked who did this.
      For me to name names would open the door to rebuttals, countercharges and insults. That would victimize me further. “Oh, Abigail is too sensitive.” “Oh, Abigail misunderstood our metaphors.” “Oh, continuing unwanted attention was an effort to apologize.” “What is wrong with Abigail?” All this would be said about a woman who was simply minding her own business.

      It is not for me to name names — the people involved know who they are. It is for them to have a change of heart, so they can express real admission and regret and take action consistent with that regret. Barring the intervention of a Hand more powerful than mine, I don’t see that happening.

  3. Jerel Wohl says:

    Dear Abigail,

    This is incredibly unacceptable and I apologize for the behavior of this person on behalf of all respectable men at the synagogue. You should not have to endure this, especially at what is supposed to be our spiritual home. I want to be there for you and address the situation with the appropriate people. Please let me know what you would like me to do to help. Doing nothing is not an acceptable solution so please let me know what I can do.

    • Abigail says:

      Dear Jerel,

      This forthright expression of support from you is so very welcome. It means a lot to me. The remedy is in the hands of the two people referred to in the column. They know who they are.

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