Now You See It, Now You Don’t

“The Falling Angel”
Marc Chagall, 1923

Now You See It, Now You Don’t

Last night I watched Renique Allen being interviewed on C-Span about her book, It Was All a Dream: A New Generation Confronts the Broken Promises to Black Americans

I was utterly riveted by her self-revelations, which felt to me like mine would be if I were black.

She did not allow her tale of obstacles to disappear into modes of discourse currently formulaic.  Her personal situation was presented fresh, though it had its parallels in the 75 or so millennials she interviewed for her book.

First and last, what struck me was the erotic predicament.  For a black woman looking for a suitable relationship with a man, the pool of educated males is relatively small.  The pool of men who have done time in jail is large.  Incarceration being somewhat chancy for our black fellow citizens (one can be sentenced to a fairly long term for being a bystander), some of those men may be well qualified by character.  But still, what do you tell people?

And if they’ve got through the neck of the racial bottle and emerged with similar credentials, many of the eligibles (men and women) come from single parent homes with no models, no parental couple that lasted and learned to work things out together.

There is also the larger context.  The cities of the North are still quite segregated residentially and in terms of social groupings.  Even white liberals and radicals rarely glide effortlessly across the erotic color line.

Some of these young people are moving south.  The weather’s better, the rents give you more space, and … “what the hell, it’s home.”  It’s the black equivalent of the Mayflower: the place of origins in America.  There can be a frankness, even an ease, that goes with that.  The history may not be the greatest, but it’s shared and it’s in the open.

I thought of another woman I once met, descended from a well-known Lakota chief who figures in the history of the American West.  (That means, we killed some of his and he killed some of ours.)  His descendant, a woman I admired on sight, had married three times, but damned if she could find a man of her people who wasn’t demoralized past the point required for a common life.  She was a princess.  The prince wasn’t on his way.

Out of a vast longing to better understand my people and their strange assignment in history, I’ve been reading Halakhah: The Rabbinic Idea of Law.  Its author, Chaim N. Saiman, is praised unreservedly by people whose endorsement puts the book over the top.  I bought it, aware that I understand Biblical Israel better than I do rabbinic Judaism. What happened in the God/Israel relationship, to turn the one into the other?

Biblical Israel is unique among the world’s religious communities in that its models are (or purport to be) real people in locatable cultural and political situations who try at the same time to stay in contact with a God who is more than the world and its parts.  They’ve agreed to relate their lives to this God.  A consequential, even terrifying agreement.  Their God promises them a Land in which to carry out and record what happens next.  A record the world still reads.

The Bible and the rabbis explain their eventual exile from the Land as the consequence of sin.  Less reverently, I’m inclined to see it as inevitable, built into their strategic vulnerability and size relative to the empires surrounding them.  And built into their covenantal refusal to disappear.

However explained, they could not shuffle off the habits, prescribed conducts and memories that tied them to the literal space-and-time conditions of their origin.  Not and stay Jehudim, a tribe in Israel.

So they took with them as much as they could: an Israel-in-the-head.  Rules designed for Israelite geography and temple architecture were retained and discussed “in the Sanhedrin,” that is, ideally – together with rules adapted to later circumstances.  They traveled sheathed in those prescriptions-in-the-head.  It was the most portable part of their origins.  The narratives might grow more distant with time.  Law is, in a manner of speaking, timeless.

Where is the woman, in this Israel-in-the-head?  I’m not sure.  My recent experience as a beleaguered woman suggests that the male co-religionist will try at the outset to find a precept or a prooftext that will preserve the actual, de facto community.  So the woman will be advised to stay within the communal consensus and to keep her head down.  Compromise is preferred.  Except in three cases:

idolatry, murder and sexual immorality.

As I see it, these three “exceptions” cover all the large-scale defacements of the divine image in humankind. The point is to recognize when these defacements loom and to resist them at that time without compromise.  Absolutely.

I take “sexual immorality” to stand for the defacement of a facet of the divine.  That facet is called “Shekinah,” divine Presence, and it is feminine.

I look at the defense of the feminine by Renique Allen, by the now-departed Lakota princess, and also by me recently, at my local temple.  Yesterday a Jewish woman friend said this:

You were defending the Shekinah. 

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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